Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo’s Efforts to Save the Pickersgill’s Reed Frogs

Posted: 6 May 2021
By: Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo Amphibian Research Programme Team

Pickersgill’s reed frog (Hyperolius pickergilli). Credit Johannesburg Zoo

The Amphibian Research Project of the Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo (JCPZ-ARP) was initiated in 2006 with the main objective of assisting with the conservation of endangered amphibian species after the outbreak of the fatal Chytrid fungus in South America in the late 1980s.

This project concentrates mainly on South African species to create and establish sustainable insurance populations within the Johannesburg Zoo. As part of the start-up, several non-endangered species were introduced into the programme as pioneers to assist with designing operating systems, protocols, and husbandry manuals before any endangered species could be introduced into the programme.

In 2017, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the JCPZ and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZN), a provincial conservation department to join forces in the conservation of amphibians. A Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP) was also approved and gazetted by the Department of Environmental Affairs of South Africa in the same year. This BMP is species-specific to the Pickersgill’s reed frog (Hyperolius pickergilli), a small endemic species that occurs only in the coastal line of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. The reed frog is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Frogs, including the Pickersgill’s reed frogs, are essential indicator species known as natural warning systems. They play a vital role in helping us monitor the environment while also assisting with the stable control of insects that can cause harm/illness to humans and highlight devastating effects on the agricultural and economic environment. A habitat that has abundant frogs is a good indication that the environment is healthy and naturally balanced. Their demise does not only have a negative impact on the amphibians but on all living creatures, including humans.

Johannesburg Zoo team on a Pickersgill's reed frog collection expedition in 2017. Credit Johannesburg Zoo

In 2017, the ARP team, with the support of EZKN, collected 20 breeding specimens from one of only 12 known localities where this species could be found at that time. These breeders were brought to the Johannesburg Zoo and housed in a specially designed vivarium. They were the first official breeders for this endangered species as part of the ARP-JCPZ. In 2018, only one year later, the ARP team had successfully bred 200 frogs. The Pickersgill’s reed frogs were reintroduced into their natural habitat in Mount Moreland, where the original 20 breeders were collected as part of a reinforcement to ensure the natural sustainability of the population in that area. The project continued to grow in leaps and bounds, and numerous releases took place in different sites.

In 2020, JCPZ embarked on its biggest release yet, 400 specimens of frogs were successfully released back into the wild in KwaZulu-Natal. To date, approximately 800 captive bred specimens have been released to ensure the survival of the species.

The partnership also grew with the Endangered Wildlife Trust, South Africa Biodiversity Institute, Amphibian Ark and the University of KwaZulu-Natal joining the conservation project. Various husbandry methods, protocols, in situ risk assessments and biosecurity protocols were drafted and implemented to improve the quality of the project and potential to succeed, as well as to introduce more species if and when required.

The Zoo is a fundamental conservation tool that assists with further research to ensure the knowledge of all life stages, environmental preferences and requirements as studied and then mimicked into the projects with suitable naturalisation techniques to improve the potential of survival once introduced back into their natural habitat.

Joint conservation effected between credible ex situ and in situ entities has proven to be the best way forward to conserve biodiversity on a global level.

The zoo conservation team ready to release frogs back into the wild. Credit Johannesburg Zoo

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