El Valle Amphibian Conservation Centre
To breed and reintroduce amphibians into their former range in Panama
Since the rapid decline and subsequent extinction of the golden toad, Bufo periglenes, at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve in Costa Rica in 1989, researchers have been monitoring remaining amphibian populations throughout Central America, where declines and disappearances are progressing from north to south at a rate of 30-40 km/year. The primary cause of these declines appears to be a pathogenic fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, which is known as chytrid ( Global Amphibian Assessment, IUCN 2005).
In 1999, the international effort "Project Golden Frog" was launched to address declining populations of the Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki) caused by chytrid and collection for the illegal pet trade. As a result, a robust ex situ population has been established by US zoos and aquariums, with the ultimate goal being to return these animals and/or their progeny to Panama. At a recent IUCN/SSC Amphibian Crisis Task Force Workshop, the need for emergency centres at or near wild sites was listed among the highest priorities to prevent the extinction of critically endangered species
The Houston Zoo has begun the construction of an ex situ facility in the golden frog’s natural range at a site known as El Níspero in the Panama’s El Valle de Anton region. The El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center will house Atelopus zeteki and several other native species and serve as a repository and conservation breeding centre, a treatment facility, and a nature education centre for Panamanians and foreign tourists.
The Conservation Center will allow for the isolation of treated specimens from potentially infected populations in the surrounding forests, as well as for the segregation of animals under treatment from those in breeding enclosures and in public exhibit. Houston Zoo staff will be involved in all stages of the project – facility design, construction, training, reintroduction, and conservation education – but the ultimate goal is to turn management over to Panamanians.
In April 2005, Houston Zoo staff conducted a thorough site inspection at the El Níspero Zoo, determining the location to be well suited to this project. The Director of the El Níspero Zoo was then invited to Houston in July 2005 for an informal training program that involved visits to several other Texas zoos and aquariums that maintain significant amphibian collections. In addition, construction plans for the new facility were finalized. In August 2005, ground was broken for the new El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center. The construction team included staff from the El Níspero, Summit Natural Park-Panama, and Houston Zoos. The facility is scheduled to be completed by the end of April 2006.
WAZA Conservation Project 06005 is operated by the Houston Zoo, in collaboration with the El Nispero Zoo at El Valle de Antón (Panamá), which has provided the site and will maintain the facility once it is completed. The partner institutions involved in this project are numerous, including representatives of Project Golden Frog and the Amphibian Recovery and Conservation Coalition. Key institutions involved in the planning process were the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, Zoo Atlanta, Denver Zoo, and the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore all of which hold amphibians that are destined for return to Panama once the Center is operational. The Conservation International's Neotropical Critically Endangered Species Fund, San Antonio Zoo, Zoological Society of San Diego, Moody Gardens (all USA) , Banco Continental - Panamá, Ripard Holding Corp. - Panamá, and Continental Airlines provided financial support. The Summit Natural Park at Panama City provides construction expertise, manpower, and equipment.
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