CHURA – Conserving Hyperendemic Udzungwa Restricted Amphibians


CHURA means frog in Swahili (Tanzania’s official language) but it also stands for ‘Conserving Hyper-endemic Udzungwa Restricted Amphibians’.

With 41% of all species threatened, no other major group has a greater proportion of species at risk of extinction than the world’s amphibians. Forest amphibians are especially sensitive to habitat degradation and those species with very narrow distributions are even more likely than others to disappear from our planet if their environments vanish.

Human impact on the forest edge.

The project focuses on the Udzungwa Scarp Nature Reserve (207 km2) at the south-western end of the oldest mountain range in East Africa, the Eastern Arc Mountains (EAM). This mainly closed-canopy forest is part of the Eastern Afromontane biodiversity hotspot, an area with an extremely high concentration of different species of both animals and plants. In terms of amphibians, the Udzungwa Scarp is even ‘hotter’ than the rest of the hotspot as it is known to host a staggering 37 different species from ten families; almost half of these are unfortunately already threatened by extinction according to the IUCN. However, what makes this forest absolutely exceptional is the presence of the so called ‘hyper-endemics’, three frog species only known from tiny portions (<1 km2) within this forest and found nowhere else in the world. Two of these (Nectophrynoides poyntoni and N. wendyae) are classified as Critically Endangered and Nectophrynoides asperginis is currently being reintroduced in the wild. Additionally, molecular data has shown there to be several putative species under the same taxonomic name, resulting in misleading distribution ranges and related conservation status. Although the area has recently been gazetted as Nature Reserve, it lacks strict protection and agricultural encroachment, firewood collection, logging and poaching are impacting habitats, and populations of several larger animal species are known to be in decline.

The Udzungwa Scarp is an exciting but demanding study area, with very steep, muddy paths connecting the Kilombero valley (about 200 m a.s.l.) to the villages on the plateau at the top (about 2100 m a.s.l.). In many areas there are no paths at all, making movement slow and difficult. Preliminary surveys in 2013-2014 have found at least one distinctive toad species new to science, as well as new sites on the scarp for the EndangeredHyperolius kihangensis, but have failed to detect Nectophrynoides poyntoni. Indeed, this latter species has not been recorded for more than ten years and has recently been flagged as Possibly Extinct. Many ecological and genetic data are lacking, and large portions of the area remain unexplored, with the potential of some species still unknown to science. This is the first study of the site’s full range of amphibian species and their ecological requirements, and indeed one of only a handful of ecological studies of amphibians anywhere in Africa.

The Udzungwa Scarp ‘hyper-endemic’ toad Nectophrynoides wendyae (magnified in the bottom right corner), only known from its type locality about 1500 m asl, and Hyperolius kihangensis.

My main objectives are to provide a complete check-list of all amphibian species in the Udzungwa Scarp, assess the full extent of occurrence of the threatened species, identify their habitat needs in order to determine their tolerance to habitat change, and enable more accurate assessment of their conservation status. I also aim to determine whether Poynton’s forest toad remains extant by means of passive sound recording methods and to use skin swabbing to test for presence of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), a fungal pathogen which has been responsible for local amphibian extinctions worldwide. My overall goal is to develop an action plan for the long-term management of the site’s amphibian diversity.

Setup of a night transect.

Genetic samples are crucial for reliable species identification and there is a growing need for rapid and non-invasive genetic sampling methods to monitor status and range, especially in remote areas. I aim to test the efficacy of skin swabbing of different body parts as a non-invasive DNA collection method to use for the rapid identification of a broad range of species, and to develop a protocol for the use of this technique in tropical environments.

As a key component of the CHURA project is capacity building, I will work alongside John V. Lyakurwa, a promising Tanzanian herpetologist with a keen interest in wildlife management.

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High-altitude wetland within the Udzungwa Scarp forest.

Project Description
This project will determine the conservation status of Tanzanian narrow endemic amphibians and identify species-specific areas and habitats for conservation, within the Udzungwa Scarp Nature Reserve, with the overall goal to develop an action plan for the long-term management of the site’s amphibian diversity.

Target Species
Main focus on the ‘hyperendemic’ Poyntoni forest toad N. poyntoni (CR), Wendy forest toad N. wendyae(CR) and Kihanga reed frog Hyperolius kihangensis(EN). These species are endemic to the Udzungwa Scarp forest and the first two are known to have extremely narrow distribution ranges (< 1 km2) within this area. The first species has not been found since it was described in 2003 and is currently flagged as Possibly Extinct. However, since I aim to produce a complete inventory of the area, all amphibian species encountered will be recorded along with their distribution and environmental preferences.

Nectophrynoides poyntoni

One of the last records of Poynton’s Forest Toad,Nectophrynoides poyntoni, at its type locality in Udzungwa Scarp. The species has not been seen nor heard in over a decade and is currently flagged as Possibly Extinct.

Hyperolius kihangensis_among target species

Hyperolius kihangensis, endemic to the Udzungwa Scarp forest.

Team Members
Elena Tonelli
John Valentine Lyakurwa

John checking one of the pitfall traps

John checking one of the pitfall traps.

Partner Organizations
Manchester Metropolitan University
Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust
MUSE – Science Museum of Trento

Signs of illegal activities

A well kept poachers’ banda (left) and a snare used to hunt giant rats and small antelopes (bottom right). Signs of logging and timber manufacturing stations (top right) are unfortunately quite common, especially at lower altitudes.

Funding Needs
If you would like to further support this project or invest in the Amphibian Survival Alliance’s Seed Grant program please contact Candace M. Hansen-Hendrikx, Director of Communications & Partnerships.

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