Israel’s Lake Hula is one of the oldest documented lakes, providing fertile hunting and fishing grounds for humans for tens of thousands of years. But in the early 1950s, the lake and surrounding marshes were drained.
Though initially celebrated as a great national achievement for tackling malaria, in time it became increasingly evident that the benefits of draining the swamps were limited, but the costs were high. Exposed soil blew away and dried peat ignited, causing underground fires that proved hard to control. A nearby lake became polluted with chemical fertilizers, raising water quality concerns. The draining also led to the near extinction of an entire ecosystem and the unique endemic fauna of the lake, including the Hula painted frog. Ironically, species such as the painted frog feed on mosquitoes that carry malaria.
Concern over the draining of Hula grew among the people of Israel, leading to the formation of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and a movement for the reflooding of the Hula Valley. It took 40 years for the protesters’ voices to be heard, but in the mid 1990s, parts of the Hula Valley were reflooded.
While much of the ecosystem was restored, not all species re-appeared and it was believed to be too late for the Hula painted frog; the species was declared extinct in 1996 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The frog became a poignant symbol for extinction in Israel.
Only three adult Hula painted frogs had ever been found. Two of these were collected into captivity in the 1940s, but the larger one ate the smaller one, leaving just one specimen to remember the species by.
The enigmatic frog was selected as one of the “top ten” species during the Search for Lost Frogs last year, highlighting the global importance of this species. It was lost but not forgotten.
But the story has just had a surprising twist. Earlier this week, Nature and Parks Authority warden Yoram Malka was conducting his routine patrol of the Hula Nature Reserve when something jumped from under him. He lunged after it and caught it: he was holding in his hand the first Hula painted frog seen since the year Elvis Presley first appeared on television.
This rediscovery is the icing on the cake of what is a major victory for conservation in Israel: the restoration of a rare and valuable ecosystem. Because Israel has given the Hula Valley a second chance to thrive, the Hula frog has gone from being a symbol of extinction to a symbol of resilience.
It’s stories like this that bring hope to any conservation effort: if we give nature a chance, she may just surprise us.
Robin Moore is CI’s amphibian conservation officer and the leader of our Search for Lost Frogs campaign.