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Panama Hotel Is Imperiled Frogs' Lifeboat

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.

Each night, the collectors came back to the quarantine zone of the Campestre, where a "stud book" is kept to track breeding. The hotel had become the frogs' own Hotel California, a place where they could check in but could never check out. The volunteers found glass frogs with skin so translucent that their organs are always on full display. They picked up frogs that look like rocks and eat freshwater crabs, aggressive tree frogs and shy, nocturnal toads.

But the golden frogs are the stars. Panamanians have loved them for centuries. Ancient, indigenous peoples are said to have come each year to El Valle to collect the frogs, which were considered symbols of prosperity and virility.

Indeed, the golden frogs, especially the males, are known for their taste for the good life, perhaps making their transition to VIP status at the Campestre predictable. The males happily hop on the backs of the much larger females, who carry them around for as long as 80 days searching for just the right spot to breed. All the while, the males gently set the mood by pressing the females' chests with callus-like "nuptial pads" on their thumbs.

The biologists who collected the frogs were an inspired group dedicated to what they saw as a desperate mission. But that's not what the locals thought. The locals thought they were poachers and that their fungus was a hoax. A newspaper even ran an editorial cartoon that showed a man fleeing the country with a suitcase that had frog legs sticking out the ends.

"People in El Valle were telling me, 'You have to leave,' " Griffith said.

Adrian Benedetti, the charismatic young director of the Summit Zoo outside Panama City and a supporter of the frog rescue project, stepped in for damage control.

"Zoos know how to talk to the public. Sometimes biologists don't," Benedetti said.

With the public quelled, the frog rescue project turned to its next phase: building a state-of-the-art center at a private zoo in El Valle to house the delicate frogs. The nearly completed center will be the ecological equivalent of a nuclear fallout shelter, a refuge from a toxic environment and an uncertain future.

The center, its organizers hope, could be a template for other threatened species that might need to be temporarily or permanently removed from the wild to be saved. Scientists are now calculating exactly how many frogs of each species will be needed to prevent genetic mutations. They're also developing techniques for managing in-house breeding.

But even such a well-planned endeavor isn't without vexing questions.

"There's this moral dilemma," Benedetti said. "Is this evolution? Should we let it run its course? If we do this for frogs, then do we do it some other time for the snakes?"

The trickiest question, perhaps, is about the future. Biologists know that chytrid fungus kills all amphibians it touches, but they aren't sure how long it sticks around.

"We're all kind of scratching our heads for the answer about what is going to happen next," said Pete Riger of the Houston Zoo, which is the driving force behind the El Valle conservation center project.

Could it be, Riger and others have wondered, that the frogs they are saving in Panama might be the last of their kind? And might those frogs -- those jumping, squirmy delights -- never see the outside world again?

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