Corruption, gold mining threaten a new see-through glass frog

The Manduriacu glass frog’s tiny habitat lies within a mining concession—and it needs urgent protection to survive, conservationists say.Monday, April 8, 2019

By Douglas Main
<p>The Manduriacu glass frog (<i>Nymphargus manduriacu</i>) lives in a reserve in northern Ecuador and is threatened by mining. <br> </p>

Alongside a pristine stream in the foothills of the Ecuadorian Andes, a team of researchers has found a graceful glass frog that's new to science.

Unlike its close relatives, this amphibian has abundant yellow spots on its back, and unique webless fingers. As with other glass frogs, this species has somewhat translucent skin, lives most of its life in trees, and descends to the water to breed.

The researchers have dubbed it the Manduriacu glass frog (Nymphargus manduriacu), named after its home, the Río Manduriacu Reserve. It’s found only within a small patch of a single river valley, at an elevation of about 4,000 feet. Males of the species emit high-pitched chirps to find mates.

Even though the animal lives within a private reserve, the area is part of a mining concession. Exploration for gold and copper already threatens its continued survival, according to the study, published recently in the journal PeerJ.

The creation of mining concessions has “increased at an alarming rate” in the country, says study lead author Juan Manuel Guayasamin Ernest, a researcher at Universidad San Francisco de Quito. This frog is one of many species that could be imperiled by this activity, much of which is taking place in the Andes, home to many endemic and as-yet unrecorded species.

Undermining conservation

In Ecuador, companies can obtain rights from the government to underground resources like gold, even on land they do not own. They are, however, legally required to consult with the landowners—in this case, a conservation group called Fundacion EcoMinga—and the local community.

That didn’t happen in this case. The government sold the concession to Cerro Quebrado, a subsidiary of the world’s largest mining company, Australia-based BHP. (BHP didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

That could open up the company to a lawsuit, says Esteban Falconi, an environmental and human rights attorney in Ecuador. But the court system is influenced by the executive branch, which has pushed mining in recent years after oil development failed to prop up the economy as hoped, explains Roo Vandegrift, an ecologist at the University of Oregon who has worked in the country.

Like all glass frogs, the newfound creature has somewhat translucent skin and lives in trees.

Corruption has been a problem in Ecuador, and large companies exert influence in the country, which has to date been spared the large-scale mining projects seen in neighboring Colombia and Peru. Ecuador’s former vice president, Jorge Glas, was sentenced in December 2017 to six years in prison for corruption. In that case, Glas was convicted of accepting $13.5 million in bribes from a Brazilian construction company.

The new push for mining alarms conservationists, as this type of extraction has had “devastating impacts” in other countries within the Amazon Basin, Vandergrift says. It also goes against Ecuador’s constitution, which, unlike any other, grants certain unalienable rights to nature.

The ability of companies to obtain concessions without the written permission of the owners or within protected areas “is a terrible flaw that opens up the doors to corruption and generates scenarios that are very difficult to successfully manage, such a national park with a mining or oiling company inside of it,” Guayasamin says.

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A loud voice for saving frogs

The researchers recommend that the newly discovered glass frog be listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

For conservationists involved, it’s emblematic of the larger threat facing Ecuador’s rare animals from mining.

There are nearly 600 known amphibian species in the country, and perhaps 20 percent or more remain undescribed, says Luis Coloma, director of the Jambatu Center for Research and Conservation of Amphibians in Ecuador, who wasn’t part of the team that wrote the paper.

The study serves as “a loud outcry to protect this new species and other critically endangered amphibians… especially from mining activities,” Coloma says.