For the Love of Frogs

A red and black frog on a branch in a Colombian forest. These frogs are threatened by the illegal wildlife trade.

Ivan Lozano’s red pickup sped through the tangled dark green forests of the Andes as we descended from Bogotá, Colombia to a slightly warmer elevation where poison dart frogs thrive. Ivan, a zoologist, internationally renowned frog expert, and pioneer in innovative conservation strategies, was driving. Ivan with his athletic build, chiseled jaw, and dark black hair wore a black leather jacket and radiated positive energy. When I first met him, I quickly noticed the merriment in his smiling eyes and saw a glimpse of his sharp wit, which I would learn was key to his resilience. He is also an accomplished race car driver, so we were making good time. The conservation projects he works on here in Colombia can be incredibly stressful. Racing was his therapy, he said, grinning. His deft maneuvers around the switchbacks had me clutching my seat, but I seemed to be in good hands as we headed to his frog breeding center, Tesoros de Colombia, or Treasures of Colombia. 

The Threat of the Illegal Wildlife Trade

A glistening white poison dart frog sits on black surface that reveals its reflection.
A poison dart frog (Dendrobates-terriblis). Photo by Craig Erickson for Save The Frogs.

Colombian dart frogs are like living jewels. Their small bodies of bright lemony yellow, tomato red, royal blue, or chartreuse with dark spots are arrestingly beautiful. They are also deadly. A drop of the venom from the skin of some poison dart frogs is enough to kill a human being. The venom from others is used in shamanic ceremonies to induce hallucinogenic journeys. Some people willingly pay hundreds of dollars for these tiny animals.  

Many frogs––and amphibians more broadly––are disappearing with astonishing speed and facing extinction. Recent assessments find that close to half of all amphibians are at risk of extinction, and 2.5 percent are recently extinct. The alarming decrease in their numbers is due to a wide range of factors including habitat reduction, a depletion of insect food sources, a deadly fungus called chytrid, climate change, and waters poisoned with pesticides. In Colombia, which is home to the second-largest number of frog species in the world, they face another issue: the illegal wildlife trade. 

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the illegal wildlife trade is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Colombian poison dart frogs are among the species highly valued in this trade, and their numbers are dwindling in the wild.

Ivan Lozano has dedicated his life to changing this trend by breeding endangered poison dart frogs both to restore the native populations and to undermine the illegal market for these frogs by selling them legally to pet stores. The illegal wildlife trade is the nemesis that kept him going despite the dangers I would learn he faced. Global wildlife trafficking can lead to violence, the spread of disease, and extinctions. Governments struggle to curtail the sophisticated crime networks. Ivan was fighting a huge problem.

After a couple of hours on the main road, Ivan slowed the pickup and drove onto another small dirt road through a tunnel of trees. This time, the truck crept over the potholes and loose gravel, and I realized that beyond the edge of the road was a drop-off into a 200-foot ravine. A wave of dizziness passed through me. Ivan had built the breeding center in this remote area with strong security fences to attempt to keep the frogs safe from wildlife traffickers.

Focusing on Wild Animal Welfare

During our drive, Ivan told me about his life growing up in Colombia. He first fell in love with animals when he was just four years old. He voraciously read encyclopedias, as “there was no internet at that time!” he joked, and memorized the scientific names of and facts about all types of animals. In college, he studied zoology but quickly discovered that the program was entirely focused on dairy and meat production. Ivan passionately wanted to learn about undomesticated animals and how to protect them. He was aware of the accelerating rates of extinction due to deforestation, ranching, development, and mining, and he could see that no one was thinking about the welfare of wild animals. He went to the dean and explained his budding concept of conservation. Because it was before sustainability and wild animal protection had come into the global conversation, the dean scoffed at the proposal. Ivan glanced at me with twinkly eyes and laughed heartily. He had clearly not taken “no” for an answer.

Undaunted and fueled by his love of animals, Ivan moved from Colombia to the UK in 1999 to obtain a special degree in endangered species management and then furthered his education in animal behavior in Austria. When he returned to Colombia, he became a lecturer at the very university that had questioned his interests and began to serve as a conservation consultant.

“The mindset of seeing animals only as livestock was hard to change,” Ivan recalled. “The old belief,” he said, “was to destroy everything and create something man-made.” This struck me as a rather common symptom of human hubris, the fallacy that dominion over earth was a noble goal, which has guided western cultures for centuries. At an animal welfare conference in 2004, he made a passionate plea to the attendees. “There are economic benefits to not destroying everything,” he proclaimed. “Conservation in Colombia is crucial, in fact. For human survival in the tropics, you need healthy soil, healthy water, healthy animals, healthy insects, healthy trees.”  Changes needed to be made on so many levels. 

A Suitcase of Frogs

A bright yellow poison dart frog sits in a terrarium.
A poison dart frog in a terrarium. Photo by Kerry Kriger for Save The Frogs, 2013.

Eventually, in the late 1990s, Ivan took a position in Bogotá with the Bogotá District Secretary for the Environment, where he was in charge of a department dedicated to wildlife rescue. The animals Ivan rescued were primarily wild animal victims of the black market “exotic pet” trade. Animal trafficking is a huge problem in Colombia. Countless turtles, capybaras, ocelots, peccaries, snakes, monkeys, and parrots of all kinds were frequently rescued at the airport as they were being shipped out in poorly ventilated crates and suitcases. Others were found after they escaped confinement. The animals often suffered from grotesque injuries or malnourishment. Most of them could not be returned to the wild. Ivan and his crew aimed to keep them alive. His team was well-trained to help birds and mammals survive. Ivan thought he had seen everything.

One Sunday evening in 1998, however, Ivan received a call to come out to examine some cargo. When he arrived at the airport, he opened up a suitcase that was packed with hundreds of poison dart frogs. As he told the story, Ivan shook his head, his brow furrowing, mouth turned down in a combination of sadness and disgust. “They were dying so quickly.” He momentarily took his hands off the wheel, palms upturned and fingers wide. He spoke as he stared into them, “I was losing them so fast, like sand through my fingers. And at that time, we had no idea how to rehabilitate amphibians. There was no way to save them.”

Colombian poison dart frogs are among the species highly valued in this trade, and their numbers are dwindling in the wild.

The suitcase full of frogs marked a turning point for Ivan. In addition to the terrible number of animals being stolen from their habitats as part of the illegal wildlife trade, there was another issue. Those very habitats around Colombia, which were home to these animals, were being destroyed, and if people didn’t begin caring, there would be no end to this trend. Extinction numbers had only grown more alarming. Ivan dreamt of two solutions, which he would begin to build simultaneously: a sanctuary for rescued animals that would educate children and a breeding center for poison dart frogs. These were big dreams. 

Visiting the Colombian Frog Breeding Center

When I first climbed into Ivan’s red pickup truck, I took an intentional long deep breath. I noticed my own anxiety rising. Colombia had long been known as one of the most dangerous places in the world due to the 50-year civil war and drug trafficking. In 2016, a peace accord was signed, and overall the country has seen a huge reduction of violence. But I also knew that despite the peace accord, hundreds of activists—environmentalists and those working for social justice—have disappeared or been killed. Ivan himself had received threats from traffickers. His warm laugh brought me back quickly to the magic of the moment. I felt very lucky to have a chance to see how his dreams had become realities.

Panorama of a Colombian landscape with hills and trees at sunset.
Forested hills in the Colombian countryside. Photo by Niels van Altena, 2020.

After the hours-long drive, we came to a driveway closed off by a huge metal gate. Ivan jumped out and unlocked it. These precious little beings did require serious security. The truck climbed up an even steeper, bumpier road. The mountainside in the late angle of light was a snarl of trees and plants, and the word “wilderness” came into my head. We have much debate these days about whether or not wilderness can exist in a world so dominated by humans, a time we are calling the Anthropocene. But this place did feel “wild,” despite the road. “Home to 150 vertebrates and countless insects,” Ivan announced. “Six hectares, designated for preservation.” We stepped out of the truck and were engulfed by the sounds of insects, birds, and an occasional monkey calling. I bathed in the sound, the sonorous song of a place where so many creatures were still thriving.

Rows of terrariums for the captive breeding of Colombian frogs.
Rows of terrariums for the captive breeding of poison dart frogs at Tesoros de Colombia. Photo by Heather Swan.

Ivan led me down a footpath to a couple of small buildings. Before entering the actual breeding center, we sanitized our shoes, and I was told not to touch anything. We were not to bring any unwanted disease or bacteria into the room of baby frogs. 

Inside the small building stood wall-to-wall aisles of illuminated plexiglass containers. Each held a collection of leaves and stones, small water features, and a multitude of beautiful frogs. “Ranas de muchos colores!” The many colors and designs represented different morphs, black ones with yellow spots, royal blue ones that looked like they had been splattered with gray paint, bright red frogs with black eyes, gold frogs. These could kill us, I thought.

As it turns out, these frogs could not kill us. The toxicity of poison dart frogs is entirely dependent on their diets. Poison dart frogs evolved to be able to consume wildly toxic insects, like certain ants that dwell in tropical forests. Without this component in their diet, they did not create the same toxins in their skin. Ivan opened a door and a sound like a thousand untuned violins came forth, vibrating in the air around us. The room held at least ten thousand crickets, the basis of these frogs’ diet. 

A cluster of Colombian frog eggs with visible embryos is on a large leaf.
Frog eggs in a leaf. Photo by Maria Camilo Basto for Save The Frogs.

These frogs all fell into the category of oophagus, a genus of poison dart frogs. The breeding of these frogs in the wild is a complicated affair. The female lays her eggs in the leaves of bromeliads and waits for a male to come and fertilize them. She then carries the eggs farther up into the trees and places them in several different tiny pools of water collected in other cup-shaped leaves. Each day she returns to a different cache of eggs and feeds the tadpoles an unfertilized egg. “This goes on for three months!” Ivan exclaimed. Deforestation has devastated frog populations. Stealing one female from her habitat destroys dozens of future frogs. Ivan and his team have mastered breeding in captivity and, after years of applying for the appropriate licenses to sell and return them to the wild, the government finally said yes.

“Seems odd that it would be so hard to get a license to do something so good for Colombia,” I said, curious.

“Don’t get me started about all the red tape!” Ivan laughed. “That could be an entire book! A real comedy!” He said that before they had a license to return the frogs to their habitats, they would joke about dressing up in camouflage to sneak into the forest, not to steal anything but to put the frogs back. He was gut-laughing now. “It’s been quite a journey. It’s the reason I race cars!”

New Approaches to Conservation

Ivan Lozano standing outside with visitors at a reserve in Colombia.
Ivan Lozano watching a program with visitors at Bioparque La Riserva. Photo by Heather Swan.

Today, Ivan sells his frogs and butterflies, legally, to pet stores around the world in order to undercut the illegal market and also to replenish populations in the wild. The profits of Tesoros de Colombia are used, in part, to hire local people living in deforested regions that had been frog habitats to plant new trees and native plants. “We need to protect our forests. Some of them are in danger now that there is peace, ironically,” he muttered, “because before it was too dangerous to take trees out. So the people need to be motivated to protect their land. They have to know what is at stake.” This is where the second part of his dream came in, the Bioparque La Reserva, a haven for misfit animals, for those who have been damaged by humans.

Growing out of Ivan’s work with exotic wildlife rescue, the Bioparque currently receives about 35,000 visitors a year. It houses the animals rescued from the airports that could not be returned to the wild. Instead of being kept in small cages, they now live in larger, natural spaces on land Ivan has obtained. The sanctuary is dedicated to educating Colombian children about the beauty and mystery of the nonhuman life around them. He hopes to instill in all Colombians a desire to care about their environment. I was astonished at the range of animals. A friendly macaw pulled at my shoelaces. “How do you know how to care for all of them?” I asked.

He stared at me, puzzled at why I would ask such a silly question. “You have to listen to the animals. They will tell you what they need. Humans need to listen.” 

Darkness descended on the mountain. We all huddled in the meager porchlight outside the breeding center basking in the music of the night. So many voices singing, a rare and beautiful music I hoped would continue for years to come.

Featured image: A frog in a Colombian forest. Photo by Fabiana Rizzi, 2020.

Heather Swan is a senior lecturer in the Department of English and the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of a collection of poems called A Kinship with Ash (Terrapin Books, 2020) and of the nonfiction book Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field (Penn State University Press, 2017). She was recently interviewed on Ecocast, the podcast from ASLE. Her last contribution to Edge Effects was “Millions of Insects and a Curator at Work” (March 2018). Website. TwitterContact.