16 Mar 2018 Story Ecosystems

Clinging to life at the edge of the world

Any visitor to southern Chile’s ancient Valdivian rainforest could be excused for missing the tiny and unassuming Barrio’s frog, one of the world’s rarest amphibians.

Blending into the riverbanks and streambeds of its forest home, the frog’s stippled, rust-brown back makes it all but invisible to the untrained eye. Its resonant, drawn-out creaking call is often the only sign of this species on the edge.

Barrio’s frog (Insuetophrynus acarpicus) is listed as critically endangered. Once common, the species now persists only in one 10-square-kilometre patch of forest, outside of protected areas and under threat from the clearcutting, farming and commercial timber planting that is fast fragmenting South America’s sole remaining temperate rainforest.

But, along with its endangered cousin, Miguel’s ground frog (Eupsophus migueli), Barrio’s frog is moving from shadow to spotlight as local communities embrace and work to conserve this threatened species.

“It is not a charismatic species like the African lion or the hippo,” local rancher Don Rigoberto says, “but we have a very special species of our own.”

Secretary of the Fucha Pitren indigenous Mapuche community, Rigoberto is one of many local leaders who have thrown their weight behind the Global Environment Facility-backed Alliance for Zero Extinction: Conserving Earth’s Most Irreplaceable Sites for Endangered Biodiversity project and its efforts to ensure the survival of the region’s endemic species.

Chile
Close encounters with local endangered species are turning Chile’s students into the environmental champions of the future. (Montserrat Lara)

With a history stretching over 120 million years, the Valdivian forests of Chile and Argentina are a living link to the planet’s past, home to a unique range of species dating back to the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana. A biogeographical island, divided from other forest ecosystems in the Tertiary Period, the Valdivian now hosts more than 70 per cent of Chile’s woody plant species, as well as animal life from one of the world’s smallest deer to South America’s largest woodpecker.

But it is also under threat, with only 40 per cent of the original forest cover remaining. What forest is left is also increasingly fragmented, broken up by industry and development, with much of it in the hands of either small-scale farmers or commercial forestry enterprises. And it is this fragmentation and changing land use that are pushing species like Miguel’s ground frog and Barrio’s frog dangerously close to the brink of extinction.

With few protected areas and much of the forest in private hands, the Alliance for Zero Extinction project team realized that the only way to ensure the preservation of the region’s fauna would be to raise awareness of these species, encouraging local communities to take on an active role as caretakers of their unique environment.

Bringing together local and indigenous community organizations to develop a conservation plan for the area was one of the first, and most important, steps according to Mike Parr, president of project partner American Bird Conservancy.

"This project demonstrates the importance of close collaboration between local communities and conservation practitioners in achieving Alliance for Zero Extinction species protection," Parr says.

Taking a holistic approach to attitudes around the land and its use, the team brought together community representatives like Rigoberto to discuss their livelihoods, the type of education and capacity-building needed to improve their agricultural and forest management practices, and the role local communities could play in protecting their land and its biodiversity.

The result is a conservation plan, focusing on strategies covering public-private collaboration, education and livelihoods – each with its own actions designed to directly benefit both local communities and species under threat. 

“The project strengthens the work that Villa Nahuel and other indigenous communities have been developing for a long time,” leader of the Villa Nahuel indigenous community Javier Nahuelpan says.

“It is giving value to the natural resources, native forests and biodiversity of our sea and land Lafkenche [one of the six indigenous Mapuche peoples] territory.”

“For us this has been very important….we hope the project’s results are known by the local people and that our land is valued because it is a unique place in the world.”

Chile
Rancher and indigenous community leader Don Rigoberto has become a staunch advocate for balancing business and conservation. (Montserrat Lara)

Looking to the future, the Alliance for Zero Extinction project is also focusing on the youngest members of the community in an effort to turn them into the environmental champions of tomorrow. Working directly with teachers and students in six small rural schools, many of which have one or both frog species literally in their backyard, the team has developed an environmental education programme, building awareness of the endangered amphibians and pride in the community’s role as their custodians.

It’s a role the students are embracing as they discover and start to understand their own special place in the area’s conservation. “I’ve had fun and learned a lot about the frogs,” one student, José Miguel says. “I want to take care of them and let everyone know about these frogs at home so I am not the only one that cares for them.”

José Colimillia, a teacher at the 24-student We Liwen School, says that it is this excitement that the students take home with them that has the potential to change attitudes in their communities from the ground up. 

“We are learning to protect and take care of our streams by not littering them,” he says. “We are transmitting this to the whole school community – to the moms and dads so they also take care of the environment.”

Meanwhile, local landowners like Rigoberto are taking their own steps to preserve the frog’s habitat through changing practices like open grazing. With support from the project and the Chilean government’s Agriculture Development Agency, he has now set up a fence to keep his and his neighbours’ livestock out of the forest – stopping them from compacting the soil and polluting the water of the streams that the frogs rely on for their existence.  

As a next step, he is now developing a management plan for his land – enabling him to complement conservation of the frogs’ habitat with productive activities – including an educational forest trail to teach local children and tourists about the area’s special biodiversity.

It’s an achievement that both Rigoberto and the Chilean authorities are justifiably proud of. 

Two endemic Chilean frogs have an opportunity for recovery with the Alliance for Zero Extinction project,” former chief of the Chilean Ministry of Environment Biodiversity and Natural Resources Division Alejandra Figueroa says. “The cooperation between the local communities, the GEF-Alliance for Zero Extinction team and the Ministry of Environment of Chile, which leads the project, shows how important this alliance is to achieving the conservation objectives of these two emblematic species for Chile and the world.”

Alongside its efforts in Chile, the Alliance for Zero Extinction project team is also working in Brazil and Madagascar. Across all three countries, the project aims to improve the management of Alliance for Zero Extinction sites, as well as working with key financial institutions to integrate conservation of threatened species into their environmental safeguard policies – creating what UN Environment biodiversity expert Ersin Esen calls “a safety net for the environment”.

“Besides the conservation benefits – preventing the extinction of endangered species – the recognition of Alliance for Zero Extinction sites as ‘key biodiversity areas’ brings a wide range of benefits to local communities,” Esen says.

“From protecting water sources, to preserving local biodiversity, mitigating climate change effects and providing cultural and other ecosystem services, these sites have the potential not just to save species, but to improve lives.”

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The Alliance for Zero Extinction: Conserving Earth’s Most Irreplaceable Sites for Endangered Biodiversity project is a $6.7 million Global Environment Facility-backed partnership between UN Environment, BirdLife InternationalAmerican Bird ConservancyIUCN, and the Governments of Brazil, Chile, and Madagascar to halt global extinctions and safeguard the habitats in which endangered species live.

The Alliance for Zero Extinction is a joint initiative of biodiversity conservation organizations from around the world, which aims to prevent extinctions by identifying and safeguarding key sites, each one of which is the last remaining refuge of one or more Endangered or Critically Endangered species. 

The Alliance is first focusing on species that face extinction either because their last remaining habitat is being degraded at a local level, or because their tiny global ranges make them especially vulnerable to external threats. Outside the scope of the Alliance, many AZE members are also working to protect highly endangered species that are more wide-ranging and require different conservation measures.

Learn more at http://www.zeroextinction.org/

Reporting for this story by Montserrat Lara and Juan Parra.