What does it take to Save South Africa’s amphibians? An insight from Jeanne Tarrant, Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT)
South Africa is home to an abundance of frogs and toads (~130 species) and Dr Jeanne Tarrant is taking a lead to be the saviour for these ‘little’ guys. As the manager of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Threatened Amphibian Programme (TAP), she and her team aim to address a growing need for the involvement of the Non-Governmental sector in frog conservation. Currently, it is the only NGO programme operating in South Africa to include frogs as a conservation focus.
Using threatened frog species as flagships for the conservation of important freshwater and terrestrial habitats, the programme implements species and habitat monitoring; initiates habitat protection strategies for important amphibian areas; strives to improve management of important amphibian habitat; use research to support conservation action; and promote social change to galvanise behavioural change towards frogs and recognition of the importance of their habitats in South Africa…and beyond! Jeanne gives us a little bit of an insight on what it takes to save South Africa’s frogs.
What are some of your key tasks as manager of the Threatened Amphibians Programme (TAP)?
One of the great things about my job is that no two days are ever the same. I do quite a bit of administration work – budgets, fundraising, etc. as is necessary in conservation. Some days I am involved with kid’s education; everything from giving talks to school groups to writing children’s books and creating learning material. Education is a big focus of our work and frogs are an exciting topic. On the other end of the scale, I am involved in some legislation work through the development and implementation of the Biodiversity Management Plan for Pickersgill’s Reed Frog – an Endangered species known only from the coast of KwaZulu-Natal. I often joke that the great part of the job is the fact that I can work in the office all day and then do fieldwork at night. “Right now, Pickersgill’s Reed Frog is our main focal species and a film crew is coming through this evening to film our teams on site and promote ecotourism”.
Did you know: There are 7800 species of amphibians in the world including frogs, toads, caecilians, salamanders and newts. Unfortunately, 43% of species globally are experiencing population declines due to habitat destruction, climate change and disease.
How did you end up working in conservation?
As a child I always wanted to work with animals and I thought about becoming a vet. I then went to Rhodes University and got my BSc degree in zoology and microbiology. I had wanted to also do journalism at Rhodes, but did not end up doing that, although now my job involved plenty of media! I took a break overseas after my degree doing all sorts of other jobs, which helped me realise that I really wanted to work in conservation. That led me to do my MSc and PhD on amphibians at North-West University. I joined the Potchefstroom Environmental Science department and met Prof. Louis du Preez, a leading scientist in amphibian research in South Africa. Realising that there was a gap between research and on-the-ground conservation work led me to work with the Endangered Wildlife Trust. To be honest, the fact that frogs have become my career focus is a bit of a nice surprise and it is truly wonderful to be a female in such a niche specific industry. There was certainly a need for women to work with amphibians and still is. When I approached the EWT with the idea of adding frogs to their portfolio they welcomed the idea, as long as I could raise the funds! Six years on, and the programme has gone from strength to strength it has been great to see my vision gradually become a reality.
With every job there are positives and negative, what would you say yours are?
I enjoy being able to work with flexibility and the wide variety of tasks associated with conservation, especially with regard to frogs. I get the opportunity to work with some wonderful, like-minded individuals that are as passionate as I am and it is an amazing atmosphere to work in, with kindred spirits. I would say the low point of the job is probably working in an industry that comes with being on an emotional roller coaster. Conservation can be a pretty depressing topic to work in because we are losing species and habitat at an exceptional rate. It sometimes feels like a losing battle!
Of course, administration tasks can also also get in the way of actual conservation work! But are vital to keep things ticking along However, I find the biggest challenge is to fundraise and get people appreciative of the work we do. We are treated as a charity and we have to prove our worth. We are trying to save everyone’s livelihoods by protecting freshwater environments and people don’t necessarily understand that. Especially when it is “just” frogs we are talking about!
What are your career highlights/proudest moments so far?
Having been given the opportunity by EWT to create TAP and seeing my vision come true has truly been amazing. EWT really gives their employees the freedom to create their own niche, be creative and realise their dream. I also had really great timing for amphibian conservation in Africa because there was a key focus on amphibian conservation globally.
Since I’ve been at EWT, the Pickersgill’s reed frog has been elevated from critically endangered to endangered while we have been working on it. This has been fantastic. We also had the Minister of environmental affairs sign off on the biodiversity management plan for this species, which is the first of its kind in South Africa. It took us five years but we got approval and finally received endorsement from the government. Such plans are in place for big mammals, such as the Black Rhino, but not for frogs so this was great.
We also launched an annual national awareness of frog day, Leap Day for Frogs, on the 28th of February in 2015, to bolster awareness and create social change around SA. When I first started, I would get 2 people at an event and now we get 250-300 people. People even organise their own events to make an impact and an increase awareness. Knowing that you are making a difference makes me feel that much more enthusiastic to work in conservation.
Did you know: The word amphibian is derived from Greek and means ‘two lives’, referring to the fact that most amphibians spend their larval, or tadpole, stage in aquatic environments, while their adult stage is as a terrestrial carnivore. There are extremes to this pattern with some amphibians spending virtually their entire lives in the water like the African Clawed Frog, while others, like the Bush Squeaker spend their entire lives on land: they lay their eggs in moist leaf-litter, bypass the tadpole stage and may never enter a water body.
What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?
Everything in conservation takes five times longer than you would imagine and you have to be patient! It is hard work but if you have passion and a vision then go after it. When you are in school, work towards courses that will lead you in the conservation sector. Although, there are also many options without academics and a degree. I work with many people that are passionate, in spite of qualification, and you will find your niche if you work hard and retain that passion.
Are there any interesting facts you would like to share?
I have been working on the IUCN Red List assessment and since 2004, we’ve had 20 new species described in South Africa. Amphibians have the highest rate of new species discovery in the world, but at the same time are the MOST threatened vertebrate group on the planet, with 33% of species experiencing population declines – mostly caused by habitat destruction.
South Africa’s stats mirror those globally (with about 30% of frog species listed as threatened), and the country has an active amphibian conservation and research community, that I enjoy working with.
Further Reading: Kick-starter online training for Early Career Conservationists