With 802 species of amphibians, Colombia is second only to Brazil as the most diverse nation on earth for these spectacular creatures. Sadly 46% of these species (368) are Threatened with extinction and with many new species being discovered restricted to the last fragments of natural habitat it is likely that number will rise.

In 2016, a peace treaty was signed with the FARC guerrilla that ended the world’s longest-running civil war. Colombia has emerged into a new era of stability and prosperity, but how has the prior conflict and current peace impact this sensitive and highly threatened group?

The ProAves Foundation was born in 1998 with the dream of a group of people to save the Yellow-eared Parrot from extinction, and was legally established in 2001 in Jardín, Antioquia. Early conservation successes with the parrot spurred the group to broaden its approach to study and conserve other IUCN globally threatened species, especially birds and amphibians across Colombia.

However, the team of passionate and dedicated biologists faced challenges. During the late 90’s and early 2000’s Colombia was in turmoil with a major nationwide conflict between guerrilla groups, paramilitary brigades, drug traffickers, and the national military Financed by the so-called “Plan Colombia”.  The situation was complex and dangerous with the FARC and ELN guerrilla controlling many rural areas in the country.

At a time when many said it was impossible to study or even conserve threatened biodiversity in Colombia, the ProAves team was undeterred and grew to over 60 biologists working across some of the most hostile areas of the country to locate the rarest species and assess how they could be saved. This came at considerable cost, with many harrowing experiences. Team members were kidnapped and one member of the team was mistakenly shot by Rocket-propelled weapons from a helicopter. Fortunately, none of the incidents that occurred during all these years had consequences to regret for the ProAves team.

Overall, the team’s persistence and dedication to conservation resulted in exceptional achievements that laid a foundation to protect many of the rarest species in the country that would be much more challenging now.

Despite the risks and sacrifices made, senior persons in the broader community in Colombia offered little to no support for these efforts and often in fact alienated and criticised ProAves. What we know today is that the establishment of a strategic network of 28 nature reserves in 13 departments of Colombia, totaling over 60.000 acres strictly protected for the most threatened species prior to 2016 – would now be virtually impossible.

Ironically, the peace process has brought a tsunami of investment and development largely focused on exploiting Colombia’s tremendous natural wealth – its forests, rivers, minerals, and fertile soils. Today Colombia has one of the highest deforestation rates and conservation is simply overwhelmed.  Even protected areas are under immense pressure with National Park impacted by illegal deforestation and colonization.

We are grateful for the foresight of many foundations and donors in Europe and U.S. to support ProAves working to identify the most important and unprotected forests for threatened species and then funding their protection, whether land purchase, ecological easements or government declarations, during these uncertain times.

ProAves efforts to protect amphibians were greatly encouraged by Dr. Don Church and Dr. Simon Stuart who mentored our efforts. Thanks to their support (such as via the TV producer and writer Matt Groening) in 2005 we established the world famous “El Dorado ProAves Reserve” in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta – an Alliance for Zero Extinction site – for 14 threatened amphibians, including Atelopus nahumae and Atelopus laetissimus. This 3,600 acre sanctuary is one of the most important private protected areas for endemic flora and fauna.

El Pangán ProAves Reserve in the Choco rainforest region SW Colombia is home to over 21 species of amphibians including the spectacular sky-blue morph of Oophaga sylvatica, locally known as Kiki. We have been working to protect this from illegal collectors as it occasionally appears for sale in Europe.

One of our most important achievements was saving two CR frogs – Ranitomeya doriswainsonae and Ranitomeya tolimense – through land purchase (thanks to IUCN Netherlands and Dendrobatidae Nederland) of the last forest fragments to create the Ranita Dorada ProAves Amphibian Reserve. This was the world’s first “Amphibian Reserve” and in a prime coffee growing area that was being cleared for coffee.  The Reserve is located just above the city of Amero that was the site of the 1985 tragedy when a pyroclastic flow engulfed the city and killed over 23,000 people.

In 2012, a second amphibian reserve was created for the world’s most poisonous vertebrate and Endangered Phyllobates terribilis -the Rana Terribilis ProAves Amphibian Reserve. Located beside the town of Timbiquí, in the department of Cauca, this was the first protected area for the Golden Poison Frog that is the largest Poison Frog and depends on primary forests in an excellent state of conservation and its range of distribution is irregular and restricted. This species is heavily trafficked and at grave risk. Each individual contains enough alkaloid toxin to kill two bull elephants, yet in captivity the species loses its batrachotoxins that is thought to originate from a tiny Melyrid beetle (Choresine) the frog consumes. While abundant in captivity, it is important to sustain the wild population as the potential for medicinal  benefits are tremendous.

In recent years, funding for ProAves conservation program has decreased and the organization has had administrative difficulties. In early 2020, ProAves founding Executive Director – Sara Lara – was appointed by the Board to again take the helm and again focusing the organization on research and direct conservation action for the most threatened species.

“While best known for its richness in birds, Colombia is actually more important for amphibians” noted Sara Lara, “as there are hundreds of endemic frogs and salamanders that are found nowhere else and at grave risk of extinction. For Fundación ProAves, it is a great satisfaction to be able to return as a member of the Amphibian Survival Alliance again. We will continue to work hard to prevent the extinction of amphibian species and to protect their habitat”.

Currently, ProAves is seeking funds to reinvigorate its research program to promote and assist the study of threatened amphibians and establish collaborative agreements with Universities to encourage and facilitate students to study in our reserves. We also look forward to being an active member of the Amphibian Survival Alliance.

By Fundación ProAves de Colombia
Photo © Fundación ProAves de Colombia