Bringing colour to the montane rainforests they inhabit each breeding season, harlequin toads (Atelopus) are a beautifully varied and special genus of just under 100 closely related amphibians that are naturally found across the neotropics, from Costa Rica to Bolivia – and they’re in need of help.

Atelopus species are small (the smallest species is 2.5cm long and the largest is just over 6cm), primarily brightly coloured, and diurnal - which means they’re most active during the day, like us humans. Sadly, these toads are the most threatened group of amphibians in the world and 80% of the 96 harlequin toad species that have been formally described (there may be more that are currently unknown to scientists, waiting to be discovered) are classed as endangered or critically endangered, with two species now extinct.

Since 2008 Fundacion Atelopus – a foundation dedicated to the protection of amphibians and reptiles in Colombia - has been leading conservation research and awareness for two high altitude Atelopus species (A. nahumae and A. laetissimus) that live within Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range (SNSM). Through the Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund’s Small Grants Programme we were able to provide vital funding towards their most recent conservation project, helping experts and the local community to better understand and protect harlequin toads in the region.

So, how do you conserve a species very little is known about? Fundacion Atelopus created a three-pronged approach to address the needs of the species as well as the needs of the community, which are as follows: to evaluate and monitor the population dynamics of the two identified species in SNSM National Park, La Cuchilla de San Lorenzo and Serrania Cebolletas, an awareness campaign that encompasses the local community, growers and producers in the area and developing ex-situ breeding programmes within experienced zoos to assist with species recovery efforts.

To assist in the first goal of the project, to evaluate population dynamics of Atelopus laetissimus and Atelopus nahumae, 661 toads of both species were assessed. This involved safely capturing, tagging and recapturing the toads, so that conservationists could determine the sex, weight, size and temperature of each frog as well as photograph them and give them a unique ID number. Working closely with Parque Explora (an interactive science museum in Colombia that houses South America's largest freshwater aquarium), the next steps are to develop a captive programme to better understand the species and potentially breed frogs for release in future.

The SNSM is the tallest coastal mountain range on earth, making it a key biodiversity area and an irreplaceable stronghold for threatened plant and animal species. Roughly 25% of the SNSM is protected but the majority of the species in the region remain both unprotected and understudied – meaning little is known about their behaviours or importance within the ecosystem. Harlequin toads in Colombia are threatened for a myriad of complex reasons – disease transmission by chytrid fungus (an infectious disease that affects amphibians worldwide and can lead to death), human-induced habitat loss and degradation from tourism and agriculture, and the effects of climate change on the ecosystem, which has led to small pockets of frogs within severely restricted areas.

Coffee production, cattle ranching, and development for tourism over the years has degraded and polluted the freshwater that animals and plants need to survive. Harlequin toads have been found inhabiting streams inside private land, coffee farms and places which have become tourist hot spots, putting them in jeopardy.

To assess the awareness of harlequin toads and their conservation within the local community, project partners the National Coffee Federation helped to host a series of focus groups and interviews with community stakeholders – coffee growers, tourism industries, and indigenous groups. One of the key findings from these focus groups was that over 70% of the participants were unaware that their current land use practises had an impact on local water health. They also had no idea that there were endemic and endangered amphibians living within their properties.

This initial meeting kick-started key partnerships with these stakeholders to jointly develop their sustainability practises and produce alternative economic activities for the community. Examples of this were: promoting the trade of biodegradable and organic produce to minimise plastic and solid waste in water sources; support from government agencies helped implement small scale water filtration systems in 10 coffee farms to reduce organic waste in watersheds; and development of a recycling programme that reduced plastic waste whilst also representing a source of income to the local community. Lastly, research into native plants that can be used to reforest the sector is ongoing.

Species specific research, and awareness are two key ingredients in protecting endangered species, but the final ingredient that looks sure to result in success, was instilling a sense of community pride in the harlequin toad. Making it a flagship amphibian species for the local area, and recognising the SNSM as sanctuary for amphibians, has changed mindsets and created a collective goal that everyone can be proud of. The local community was so invested that they volunteered their own time to help install roadside banners.

We are very excited to have been able to assist this conservation project, amongst many other small grants that you have helped us to support with zoo visits and donations. Since 2008 Auckland Zoo has contributed over 4 million dollars globally to fund conservation work in New Zealand and abroad, supporting a wide variety of projects around the world. You can learn more about the Small Grants Programmes we support here.