In September, Service wildlife inspectors carefully placed a container of splash-backed poison frogs on a plane home to Brazil, a very happy ending to their amazing journey around the world, complete with a stay at Disney World.
Returning wildlife to their country of origin is uncommon because numerous factors must be met. For example, the animals must be well-cared-for in the United States and disease-free. Most importantly, the home country must be able to accept them back. It also involves much coordination and diplomacy between countries and partners, not to mention international legalities.
The incredible story of this rare blue morph coloration of splash-backed poison frogs (Adelphobates galactonotus) of the family Dendrobatidae started back in 2012 when their population was discovered by scientists in an isolated remote area of Brazil.
Splash-backed poison frogs are important to the health of the Amazon rainforest, modern medicine and Brazil’s indigenous peoples. These frogs are bioindicators, which means scientists use them to measure the health of the environment both on land and in water. In support of modern medicine, scientists have found more than 200 beneficial alkaloids in the skin of amphibians that may be used as a morphine replacement, antibiotics and as post-surgery healing treatments. These frogs can also excrete poisons in order to protect themselves in the wild. Some of Brazil’s indigenous peoples use these toxins to coat their darts and arrowheads to support their subsistence hunting.
To protect these rare frogs, Brazil made it illegal to remove the Adelphobates species from their native habitat, sell them commercially or even possess them in captivity without express permissions from the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the environmental authority in Brazil and the counterpart to the Service’s Division of Management Authority.
“Brazil is one of the world’s five megadiverse countries. This type of initiative shows the importance of adopting measures to protect animals and of bilateral cooperation to carry out operations such as this one,” says IBAMA’s President Eduardo Bim. “We are committed to the relentless fight against international wildlife trafficking.”
Typically, IBAMA grants export permission of this frog species only to scientific institutions — even the scientific specimens exported were not live — and it as never allowed export of this rare blue morph for any reason. Therefore, the origin of any live Adelphobates species found outside of Brazil must be unlawful. They are also protected internationally under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), an international treaty to prevent species from becoming endangered or extinct because of international trade.
These colorful and unique frogs are highly sought after in the pet trade and face global pressure from wildlife traffickers who illegally obtain and trade them via the web and social media. Until this recent discovery, most of the splash-backed poison frogs in the pet trade had red, orange or yellow coloration. News about the discovery of these rare blue morphs traveled quickly and they became extremely sought after by collectors, who refer to these blue frogs as “blue galacts.” In fact, within only a few months after the publication of the scientific paper announcing their discovery, numerous individual blue frogs were available for sale in many European countries.
In late 2017, a commercial import of live splash-backed poison frogs arrived from Europe at the Miami International Airport. Service wildlife inspectors examined the frogs and the associated documents, which included CITES permits from the European country of export. In this specific shipment, 22 frogs had the blue coloration — the others were orange and red.
Wildlife inspectors are our nation’s front-line defense in the fight against wildlife trafficking. These highly trained professionals facilitate the legal wildlife trade, while keeping a vigilant eye out for illegal wildlife being smuggled into and out of the United States. They enforce U.S. federal laws that protect wildlife and plants, and are able to identify animal species.
Knowing Brazil never allows export of these blue morphs, wildlife inspectors held the shipment and worked closely with IBAMA to determine the frogs’ legality. It was discovered that the frogs had been illegally collected from the wild in Brazil, trafficked to Europe, and then imported into the United States using false paperwork in an attempt to evade law enforcement.
Ultimately, Miami wildlife inspectors seized the frogs under CITES and the U.S. Lacey Act, a powerful law that among other protections, prohibits the trafficking of wildlife taken, possessed, or transported in violation of tribal, state, federal, and international laws.
Once the Service seizes live wildlife, it needs to find places to care, and often rehabilitate, the wildlife while an investigation is conducted. Animals are placed into temporary holding facilities either with the Service or one of our partners such as a zoo, aquarium or a nonprofit wildlife rescue center. Once the investigation finishes, the Service works to find permanent homes.
Since splash-backed poison frogs can be highly toxic, the Service needed to find a specialized partner to care for them and Disney’s Animal Kingdom accepted this challenge.
“At Disney, we are committed to protecting wildlife around the world,” says Dr. Mark Penning, vice president of Animals, Science and Environment for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. “When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reached out to us, we were compelled to jump in and help since we knew we could provide the best possible care for these frogs until they could eventually make their journey back home.”
Who wouldn’t want an almost three-year vacation at Walt Disney World? The day after the Service had seized the frogs, they had a new home at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Disney professionals provided veterinary care, specific lighting, proper humidity and a nutritious diet for almost three years. A generous host, Disney ensured the frogs would thrive in captivity and provided a private quarantine room.
The Service has stationed senior special agent attachés throughout the world in geographic locations where wildlife trafficking is highly active. These attachés have built trusted partnerships with counterparts in their host countries, facilitated complex international investigations, participated in training programs and supported Service special agents on U.S. wildlife crime investigations with international connections. In addition, they work closely with U.S. embassy staff in support of each agency’s mission. The assignment for this case: to return rare and imperiled wildlife to its lawful country.
The Service had considered it important to return these frogs home to Brazil ever since they were seized in 2017. Working with officials from the Brazilian government, IBAMA, Sao Paulo Zoo, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the U.S. Department of State and the Service, wildlife inspectors, and the attaché in Brasilia, made this return happen.
“I’m really glad this operation was successful. Many people don’t know it, but the wildlife trafficking market is huge. The U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Brazil have been actively engaging on this issue,” says U.S. Consul-general in Sao Paulo, Adam Shub.
“I am very proud of the Service’s role in returning home these incredibly rare and protected blue morph species of the splash-backed poison frog,” says Edward Grace, Assistant Director of the Service Office of Law Enforcement. “This remarkable journey was due to the diligence of our wildlife inspectors and our Brazil attaché working closely with our federal, international and private partners. Thanks to their work, these frogs were rescued from the illegal pet trade, cared for by Disney and then returned home to Brazil where they belong.”
In Brazil, 19 blue and two orange frogs will have a permanent home at the São Paulo Zoo, one of Brazil’s premier institutions. Zoo scientists are experts in the care of amphibians and the zoo is known as a pioneer in conservation programs for the public. These frogs are an exciting addition to the zoo because most people are not able to see them in the wild. After they clear a 60-day quarantine, the frogs will be transferred to an educational room named, “The Frog Leap.” The public will be able to view them once the coronavirus pandemic restrictions have been removed.
“In the last decade, the São Paulo Zoo Park Foundation has been concentrating its efforts on the protection of amphibians. In addition to environmental education and scientific research, the institution develops conservation activities targeted at endangered species,” says São Paulo Zoo Park Foundation CEO Paulo Magalhaes. “We have expertise in working with amphibians and when we received the offer to care for the 21 frogs, we accepted right away, participating since the beginning, in the operation to return the frogs to their true home, Brazil.”
In the process of trafficking these animals to fulfill demand in the illegal pet trade, some died. Removing wildlife from its native habitat is dangerous to the animal or plant. It also not only affects the adult count of the wild population but wipes out the countless offspring that could have been born if the adults had been left in the wild.
The frogs’ journey highlights the importance of private-public partnerships and international collaboration to combat global wildlife trafficking to protect and conserve critically endangered species.
By Senior Special Agent Bryan Landry, Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Brazil; Alberto J. Gonzalez, Supervisory Wildlife Inspector; and Amy Jonach, Writer-editor, Office of Law Enforcement