Panama Hotel Is Imperiled Frogs' Lifeboat

Specimens of Panama's beloved golden frog are being quarantined to protect them from a fatal fungus.
Specimens of Panama's beloved golden frog are being quarantined to protect them from a fatal fungus. (By Manuel Roig-franzia -- The Washington Post)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 26, 2006

EL VALLE DE ANTON, Panama -- The guests in Rooms 28 and 29 at the Hotel Campestre here in this lush volcano-crater town get the full spa treatment.

Daily cleansing rinses. Exotic lunches. Even 24-hour room service.

It would all be so lovely, a real dream, if they could only go outside every once in a while. But they can't. Not ever. One step outside, or in their case one hop, and they'd be goners.

Thus is the lot of Panama's -- and perhaps the world's -- most unusual hotel VIPs, the darling little Panamanian golden frogs of El Valle de Anton. The frogs, considered so lucky in Panama that their images appear on lottery tickets, are in big trouble. They're on the run from a vicious fungus that has already wiped out as many as 120 species of amphibians in Central America.

The Hotel Campestre might be their last hope. If the golden frogs make it, this crumbling backpackers' hangout could very well provide a revolutionary new model for handling one of the world's most endangered species.

More than 300 frogs ended up at the Campestre, which sits in the shadow of steep mountains at the edge of a dormant volcano's crater about 50 miles southwest of Panama City, because of an audacious and quickly confected plan.

In March, a Panamanian biologist named Edgardo Griffith spotted a dead frog in a stream near El Valle. Its limbs were splayed out, and its skin was peeling.

He scooped it up, went home and cried. Griffith, a sleepy-eyed 28-year-old who wears surfer's sunglasses, said he suspected a deadly fungus called chytrid, and his fears were confirmed by a laboratory in the United States.

"There's nothing you can do," Griffith remembered telling his girlfriend.

Biologists had been watching the fungus brutally work its way down Central America for a decade, but Griffith's discovery proved that it had arrived in the ecological wonderland of Panama -- which means "place of abundant fish and butterflies" in the indigenous language here -- far faster than anyone expected. The naturally occurring fungus invades the skin of amphibians, which breathe through their skin, and effectively suffocates them.

In a panic, Griffith started talking, talking to everyone he could find. Soon, an international network of biologists, zookeepers and environmentalists was buzzing. A plan evolved: Create a Noah's Ark for frogs in a Panama hotel.

Biologists, environmentalists and employees from more than 20 U.S. zoos started hopping on planes bound for Panama. They pored through streams in the misty nighttime rain forests of El Valle, collecting specimens of 40 threatened species of frogs and toads. The frogs, besides being beautiful and prized as national symbols, are also considered critical consumers of mosquitoes and many crop-destroying pests.

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