The internet was abuzz this week with news of the rediscovery of the Bornean Rainbow Toad (pictured right) in Indonesia. Before it was found recently by a Conservation International field team as part of their “Search for the Lost Frogs” initiative, the toad (also known as the Sambas Stream Toad) had not beenseensince the 1920s. The team, led by ecologist Dr. Indraneil Das, also took the first known photographs of the brightly colored creature–previous searchers relied on black and white drawings based on specimens collected in the 1920s. Conservation International’s Dr. Robin Moore, an amphibian specialist, commented in a press release: “to see the first pictures of a species that has been lost for almost 90 years defies belief…It is good to know that nature can surprise us when we are close to giving up hope, especially amidst our planet’s escalating extinction crisis.”
Amphibians are known to be extremely sensitive to environmental change, and discussions about the current extinction crisis frequently reference the decline in amphibian populations around the world. As Dr. Moore pointed out, this discovery is astonishing, and the rapid spread of the news through the internet demonstrates the hunger for good news about biodiversity.
The rediscovery also brings up important questions regarding strategies for conserving biodiversity in the face of major threats around the world. Although conserving biodiversity is an important goal, efforts to do so are subject to the same constraints as most conservation projects: limited funding, competing priorities, and the need for public support and buy-in. Large or enigmatic species, like the rainbow toad, can often capture the imagination of many, lending support to conservation efforts. Such species–think the Giant Panda, the Polar Bear, or the Mountain Gorilla–are wildly popular among the general public, and it is often hoped the efforts to conserve these species will also serve to protect less charismatic species.
My own experience in this realm occurred when working with Cornell University and The Nature Conservancy in rural Arkansas on the search for the presumed-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker in 2005. At the time, the much-hyped rediscovery of the bird, which had not been documented since the 1940s (when the species was already incredibly rare), resulted in a promise of over $10 million in federal conservation funding for the “Big Woods” area–one of the last remaining large tracts of bottomland hardwood forest in existence, and recognized by the international Ramsar Convention as a “Wetland of International Importance” in 1989. The lower portion of the Arkansas River, included in the Big Woods, is the single remaining stretch of undisturbed large river in the state. This region, so rich in natural habitat, has benefited considerably from the increased amount of attention and funding it has received in light of published Ivory-bill sightings.
My hope, and I am sure the hope for many involved in the search for the Rainbow Toad, is that the animal’s amazing rediscovery highlights the need for continued conservation of crucial habitat, in this case the mountain forests in Indonesia’s Western Sarawak. As with the Ivory-bill, though, many questions remain. What happens if the “flagship” species only has a few individuals left? After the news of the discovery fades, will popular support for conservation in the region continue? Is such attention on potentially “functionally extinct” organisms–species who no longer are able to fulfill their ecosystem function–warranted, or does it take away from other systems and organisms in need? Time will tell for both cases, but these are questions that researchers, land managers, and funding agencies must often wrestle with when determining policies for biodiversity conservation, and ones that I am sure will continue to be debated for a long time to come.