When herpetologist Andrés Charrier journeyed with some colleagues to a stream outside the city of Calama in northern Chile about six weeks ago, he was hoping to find the creek bustling with hopping inhabitants. The snaking waterway in the heart of the Atacama Desert is the world’s only known refuge for Loa water frogs (Telmatobius dankoi), a critically endangered species that Charrier and long-time collaborator Gabriel Lobos have been studying since 2013. But when the team arrived, they found the creek almost completely dry.

Charrier was hoping to show his colleagues a critically endangered Loa water frog (like the one pictured). Instead they were met with the site of an almost-dry creek. © National Zoo of Chile

“It was like a bomb went off in front of my eyes,” Charrier told Global Wildlife Conservation. “The grasses were dry and brown and we didn’t even find the carcasses of frogs, which means that it had been dry for a very, very long time … I have been working in conservation for the last 10 years with frogs and I never expected to see something like this. Never. Never.”

Charrier returned to the stream three days later with a small team on a mission to figure out what happened to the frogs and their watery abode. They had no expectations of finding live amphibians, but just 100 metres from where Charrier and his colleagues had turned back a few days before, they found a muddy pool: the last waning stretch of hope for the species. A dozen or so malnourished Loa water frogs were clinging to life in the murky water.

The remaining Loa frogs huddled in a shallow pool. Image © Gabriel Lobos

Their discovery triggered a rapid rescue mission. The National Zoo of Chile offered to house and nurse the frogs while Amphibian Survival Alliance and Amphibian Ark provided financial support. A short while later, Charrier and Lobos returned to the the field along with Claudio Soto Azat, co-chair of the IUCN SSC Amphibian Specialist Group, in search of survivors. They brought back 14 frogs which were weighed, sexed and examined for lesions before being placed in pairs and housed in tanks with visual barriers to reduce stress.

Andrés Charrier and Claudio Soto Azat search for amphibian survivors near the city of Calama. Image © The Ministry of Housing and Urbanism of Chile
A healthy Loa water frog in 2015 (left), compared to a malnourished one (right) rescued this month from its dried-up habitat in Chile. (Left photo by Claudio Soto Azat. Right photo by the Ministry of Housing and Urbanism of Chile)

“I have been deeply impressed by the skill and resolve of the team in Chile acting to prevent the extinction of this species,” said Helen Meredith, executive director of the Amphibian Survival Alliance, in a press release. “So many critically endangered amphibian species risk slipping away unnoticed because they do not have an active group of people committed to their survival. This gives me great hope for the Loa water frogs – they face an uncertain future but have a group of champions committed to their survival.”

The rescued frogs are given limited visibility to help reduce stress as they adjust to their new home. Image © National Zoo of Chile

The task of saving the species is far from over, however. While the National Zoo of Chile has housed and bred a number of frog species over the years, this is the first time they have dealt with Loa water frogs. “I have experience with many species of amphibians, but this is the most difficult case I’ve ever had,” Osvaldo Cabeza, supervisor of herpetology at the National Zoo of Chile told Global Wildlife Conservation. “But every day that passes, I feel that this species is telling us its secrets and how we can contribute to their wellbeing. Seeing the frogs’ slow recovery is really exciting – it fills my heart to see how they’re gaining weight and that their health is improving.”

Nursing the frogs back to health is only one step in the process. Water is a scarce resource in the desert town of Calama, but that hasn’t stopped mining operations, farmers and real estate developers from exploiting it. Conservationists are calling on the Chilean government to prohibit illegal water extraction and to restore the frogs’ habitat and declare it a formally protected sanctuary.

“Although this is a critically important rescue, it is the first part in a multi-pronged process,” explains Ariadne Angulo, co-chair of the IUCN SSC Amphibian Specialist Group. “To achieve our shared vision of ‘amphibians thriving in nature,’ there must be nature to return amphibians to, and the Loa water frog is no exception.”

The Andean highlands in South America are home to at least 63 species of water frogs in the Telmatobius genus. Many, like the recently rescued amphibians, live in just one place and, as such, require that their habitat be carefully regulated and protected. Loa water frogs are very sensitive to changes in their environment – zoo staff tasked with looking after the recent survivors can attest to the trickiness of maintaining the water at the optimal pH level to keep the frogs happy and healthy. Habitat destruction, pollution and invasive species can be deadly to the hyper sensitive frogs.

“When people tell me that I’m a hero because I save frogs, I tell them ‘no, the frogs are the heroes for holding on,’” Charrier says. “My actions are my message to the world: these species are dying and we can and we must do something about it.”

Header image: The Ministry of Housing and Urbanism of Chile