MADAGASCAR is one of the only places in the world where a killer fungus that has wiped out populations of amphibians does not exist.
However, experts fear that if the deadly chytrid fungus ever did strike, then up to 500 species endemic only to those shores would be gone for good.
That’s why a trio from Chester Zoo and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust have helped create an action plan to try and protect all of Madagascar’s frogs.
Chester Zoo’s curator of invertebrates and lower vertebrates Dr Gerardo Garcia and head vet Javier Lopez, and Durrell’s head of conservation Jamie Copsey, are travelling to Madagascar to implement a new strategy to protect its frogs from a killer fungus, which has devastated amphibian populations around the world.
They are leading a course designed to equip local conservationists with the skills needed to establish safety-net populations of amphibian in captivity, out of the reach of the deadly chytrid fungus should it ever arrive there.
Amphibians all over the world are being affected by the fungal disease, which thickens their skin and prevents the movement of fluids, causing heart failure.
Dr Garcia said: “Amphibians already face lots of threats, most notably from habitat destruction and alteration, however the chytrid fungus could be the last nail in the coffin. It threatens most of the wild amphibian species around the globe with extinction and it’s probably the first time ever that a disease has threatened to wipe out an entire class of animals.
“There’s a very real chance of a new epidemic here and that’s why it’s vitally important that careful, professional ex situ (captive) programmes are in place to protect against chytrid – it’s that big of a threat.
“On top of that, there are lots of unanswered questions about frogs in Madagascar full stop. Working with them in an ex-situ setting could reveal some vital information and help us understand how we can protect them in their own environment and how to restore wild populations, should it ever become necessary.”
Although 290 species of amphibian have been described in Madagascar, many more have been discovered and are yet to be named. More than 90% of these are endemic to the country. An introduction of chytrid fungus could therefore have a “devastating effect”.
Head of Durrell Conservation Academy, Jamie Copsey, said: “We already know that a number of the amphibians unique to Madagascar are sensitive to the fungal disease and so should chytrid fungus ever arrive, it could have a devastating effect.
“By working with local conservation organisations Durrell and Chester Zoo hope to exchange skills and increase the number of institutions within Madagascar with the capacity to establish captive populations that are most at risk from the disease.”
Dr Garcia added: “We are determining how we can use locally-available materials, such as plastic bottles and sponges, to make cheap but effective alternatives to equipment we have at home.
“The aim is to establish locally-run and effective captive breeding programmes that will make a significant contribution to the conservation of Madagascar’s unique and diverse amphibian fauna.”
The Chester Zoo Act for Wildlife and Durrell team will be joined by amphibian experts from the ICUN Amphibian Specialist Group and Turin Museum. The course will be based at the Mitsinjo Amphibian Centre in a national park in central Madagascar – renown for being one of the world’s most bio-diverse areas.
Dr Franco Andreone, co-chair of the Amphibian Specialist Group for Madagascar, concluded: “A great deal of ingenuity and imagination is being injected into conservation efforts in Madagascar by local organisations, in particular Mitsinjo who are a local community-based conservation group. This additional support from the likes of Durrell and Chester Zoo will now really help us to push these efforts on.”
EAZA (European Association of Zoo’s and Aquaria) have provided much of the funding.