CLP Award Winners: Protecting Mustache Toads in China + Vietnam

The Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) recently announced this year’s award-winning projects. Through these awards, 30 teams of conservationists in 19 countries around the world will receive CLP funding for projects as diverse as wild yak conservation on the Tibetan Plateau and ecosystem threat assessments in Mexico’s tropical rainforests. In this guest blog, Ben Han of China’s Southwest Forestry University discusses his team’s work to foster scientific collaboration on amphibian research in China and Vietnam.

One of two species of mustache toads assessed by a CLP-funded team of scientists in 2007. (Photo: © Yueqiang Liu)

Imagine you’re in China’s Guizhou Province in late November. As an icy wind blows past, a group of young people head into the mountains with flashlights, nets and waterproof rubber boots to look for frogs. You might consider them a bunch of crazy fools.

In 2007, a Future Conservationist Award from the CLP enabled our team to do just that, with the goal of assessing the status of two endangered amphibian species (Leptobrachium boringii and Leptobrachium leishanense) in Guizhou. Before our research, we would never have known that some tadpoles must survive in cold streams for three years until metamorphosis — a major contributing factor to the rarity of the species. We also wouldn’t have known that some toads begin their breeding season in the early winter. During this time, the forelimbs of the male individuals grow stronger and make it look like these toads regularly work out at the gym. To add to their macho look, a number of black keratinized spines spring out from their lips, earning them the nickname “mustache toads.”

Stream habitat in the Ailao Mountain Range. (Photo: © Lianxian Han)

To conduct a frog survey in the winter is definitely a tough assignment; I’ll never forget the cold wind blowing from the north when we set out in November. Still, our field observation added greatly to our body of knowledge about these amazing creatures and their relatives.

By educating local communities we also laid a foundation that will reduce the pressure of human harvesting on these frogs as food; the Miao people, a local minority group, often supplement their food supply with mustache toads during the early winter. Through the education program, we helped children in local schools get involved in the community behavior change campaign and we successfully publicized the rarity of the species.

A year after the conclusion of the project, Dr. Jodi Rowley, our collaborator from the Australian Museum, discussed her amphibian research expedition in Vietnam with me. She sent me links to several IUCN Red List species maps; staring at these colorful prints, I noticed that the distribution range of these species stops at the border of China’s Yunnan Province. It almost looks as if repellent was sprinkled along the border to stop the frogs from entering neighboring Vietnam. Recognizing that this range is unlikely to occur in nature, Jodi and I thought this pattern might be caused by a lack of data. Transboundary issues complicate biodiversity conservation efforts, and it is a well-known fact that China and Vietnam don’t work together much. Further collaborative research and data integration is needed to fix this problem.

This observation led us to develop our new project: conducting rapid assessments in the transboundary Ailao Mountain Range, a sock-shaped mountain range encompassing important protected areas in China and Vietnam. Many amphibian species in this mountain range are considered Threatened or Data Deficient by the IUCN Red List and require more research in order to prioritize conservation actions. In the past four years, two new frog species have been discovered in the mountains, and there remain plenty of areas in these intact tropical rainforests for us to explore.

Mustache toads are so named for the keratinized spines on their lips. (Photo: © Ben Han)

The Conservation Leadership Programme has created a platform that connects researchers around the world. By attending the Society of Conservation Biology Annual Meeting with an alumni travel grant, I met many talented conservationists and was able to recruit new team members for our project.

Mostly made up of young conservationists from China’s Southwest Forestry University and the University of Hong Kong, our team is collaborating with the Australian Museum and other partners. We aim to integrate our data with research from the Vietnamese side of the mountain range in order to provide a more holistic view of amphibian diversity throughout the region. We will also engage with local communities to raise awareness and help them get more involved in conservation efforts.

We are extremely excited to work with these threatened amphibians in the tropical zone, as our activities will help fill the knowledge gap and reveal more linkages between people and species, as well as foster conservation and collaboration across borders.

The Conservation Leadership Programme is a partnership of CI, BirdLife International, Fauna & Flora International and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Read more guest blogs from CLP award winners.

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