One year ago, a powerful earthquake devastated Haiti,causing catastrophic loss of life and infrastructural collapse in the already poverty-stricken country. Today, the damage is still widespread — in Port-au-Prince, most streets still look like disaster zones, and the tent cities erected as temporary shelters remain home to 1 million people.

With the world’s collective eyes on Haiti, and international relief efforts underway, Conservation International’s (CI) Amphibian Conservation Officer Dr. Robin Moore set out to examine the status of some of the country’s stressed ecosystems. In October, Moore embarked on an expedition to find amphibian species not seen in more than a decade in Haiti’s fragmented forests. This search had surprising results — the rediscovery of several species not seen in almost 20 years.

Amidst the suffering that continues to plague Haiti, the presence and discovery of these frog species is a sign, however small, of hope. These species, bellwethers of ecosystem health, offer encouragement that while much of Haiti’s human landscape still lies in ruins, at least some of its natural landscape is in better health — and the valuable services it offers can be a key to not only the nation’s recovery, but also to a more prosperous future.

Haiti’s Amphibians: A Global Conservation Priority

Even before the earthquake, Haiti was on the brink of ecological collapse. Deforestation has been rampant over the past few decades; only 1 percent or so of the country’s original forest cover remains. These days the main threat is the charcoal industry, a major economic activity for Haitians — and often the most profitable product they can sell.

Moore’s journey to Haiti was part of the ASG’s Search for the Lost Frogs, an ongoing global search for amphibian species not seen in at least a decade. Moore co-led the expedition with Dr. Blair Hedges from Pennsylvania State University — an expert in Caribbean herpetology who was the last person to see many of these species. The main object of their search was the La Selle grass frog (Eleutherodactylus glanduliferoides), a species not seen since 1985.

In the southwestern part of the country, the scientists divided their field work between two forested areas designated as priority conservation areas by the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE), a global partnership of conservation organizations. The biggest site, called Massif de la Hotte, was designated the third-highest priority site in the world by AZE. Home to at least 15 Endangered and Critically Endangered amphibian species found nowhere else, this mountainous region is “the only site left in the country with good forest cover,” said Moore. 

Unexpected Rediscoveries

Although they didn’t find the “lost” frog in question, the week-long expedition did unearth 23 of Haiti’s 49 known native frog species — six of which hadn’t been seen in 19 years. Among the rediscoveries: the ventriloquial landfrog (Eleutherodactylus dolomedes), which was previously only known from a few specimens. As its name implies, this species can project its voice to sound as if it’s coming from somewhere else, making it extremely difficult to locate. Moore and the other researchers spent hours trying to home in on one individual.

During the survey, individuals from 10 Critically Endangered species were collected for a captive breeding program at the Philadelphia Zoo. This captive population will preserve the species (and allow for possible reintroduction) if the wild populations are wiped out — an assured outcome if deforestation is allowed to continue.

“The biodiversity of Haiti, including its frogs, is approaching a mass extinction event caused by massive and nearly complete deforestation,” said Dr. Blair Hedges. “Unless the global community comes up with a solution soon, we will lose many unique species forever.”

FEATURE: Searching for Lost Frogs

From Frogs to Communities

But why should we worry about saving Haiti’s frogs when there appear to be much larger issues at hand in the country? As fragmented as the forests are, the frogs’ presence is an indication that all is not lost for Haiti’s strained ecosystems which Haiti’s population of nearly 10 million people depend on for their livelihoods and health.

“The biodiversity of Haiti, including its frogs, is approaching a mass extinction event caused by massive and nearly complete deforestation. Unless the global community comes up with a solution soon, we will lose many unique species forever.”

– Dr. Blair Hedges
Pennsylvania State University

Although the majority of Haitians may be unaware that these frogs exist in their backyards, they are aware that deforestation in the country is a serious problem. “Local people understand the connection between deforestation and environmental degradation,” said Moore. “They talk about floods, about droughts. They get it, but right now there’s nothing they can do about it because they’ve got to live … with no incentives, it’s impossible to leave the remaining forest standing.”

Despite the proliferation of aid organizations working in Haiti, there are few groups working directly on conservation issues. Next month, CI will begin capacity-building efforts in the country, working with the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and a local consortium of conservation NGOs to establish a system that will directly compensate people for conserving forests in Massif de la Hotte.

“One of the biggest challenges will be taking on the charcoal industry,” said Moore. “In order to reduce this pressure on forests, we need to find alternative sources of fuel.” The coffee industry is another source of potential income — the expansion of shade-grown coffee and other tree crops will promote protection and growth of essential forest cover while providing valuable income sources for people who need it most.

The survival of these globally unique species — despite massive pressures — can offer the people of Haiti a source of pride, as well as a beacon of hope. There is no question that Haiti is facing unprecedented challenges; assessing the health of natural resources and ecosystems must be central to the country’s rebuilding efforts as it designs a path forward.

Frogs of Haiti Re-DiscoveredAmong the team’s amphibian rediscoveries are the following six species, which are all listed as Critically Endangered:

Hispaniolan Ventriloquial Frog
(Eleutherodactylus dolomedes)This frog is named after its call, which it projects like the ventriloquist which inspired its name. Its unusual call consists of a rapid, seven-note series of chirps, with the initial four notes rising slowly in pitch before plateauing; the call is released in widely-spaced intervals, often minutes apart. Prior to this expedition, the species was only known from a few individuals. Last seen in 1991.
Mozart’s Frog
(E. amadeus)Called Mozart’s frog because when Blair Hedges, who discovered the species, made an audiospectrogram of the call, it coincidentally resembled musical notes. Its call is a four-note muffled whistle at night; usually given as a shorter, two-note call at dawn and dusk. Last seen in 1991.
La Hotte Glanded Frog
(E. glandulifer)This frog’s most distinctive feature is its striking blue sapphire-colored eyes – a highly unusual trait among amphibians. Last seen in 1991.
Macaya Breast-spot frog
(E. thorectes)Approximately the size of a green grape, this is one of the smallest frogs in the world. In Haiti, this species has a very restricted range, occurring only on the peaks of Formon and Macaya at high elevations on the Massif de la Hotte. Last seen in 1991.
Hispaniolan Crowned Frog
(E. corona)This species was named after a subtle row of protuberances that resemble a crown on the back of its head. Prior to this expedition, the species was known from less than 10 individuals, and is likely to be extremely rare. It is an arboreal species, occurring in high-elevation cloud forest. Males call from bromeliads or orchids, which they appear to require for reproduction. Last seen in 1991.
Macaya Burrowing Frog
(E. parapelates)A surprise find: This is the first record of this species from this area (previously only known from two localities on the Massif de la Hotte). This is now the only place where two burrowing frogs are known to share the same habitat.This species is quite spectacular, with big jet black eyes and bright orange flashes on the legs. Males call from shallow, underground chambers and eggs are also laid underground, where they hatch directly into froglets. Last seen in 1996.