February 04, 2016
By R. Eric Miller, DVM
Senior Vice President, Zoological Operations
For more than two decades, the Saint Louis Zoo has been fighting to save wildlife and work to help communities in Madagascar. The Zoo was a founding member of an international consortium of 20 institutions: the Madagascar Fauna and Flora Group (MFG). As a veterinarian and conservation scientist, I have been the chair of the MFG for nearly 10 years and visited Madagascar often.
Why is the Saint Louis Zoo so invested in saving animals in a nation off the coast of Africa 9,500 miles away? We're there because Madagascar is one of the world's biodiversity hotspots and home to unique and globally important species.
This island nation now faces a potentially catastrophic menace—a plague of invasive toxic Asian toads. From directly poisoning wildlife to affecting international trade, these amphibian invaders have the potential to wreak havoc among Madagascar's people and beloved animals.
The Zoo's WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in Madagascar is supporting early efforts to eradicate these toads before it's too late. The threat came to light this month when international experts released an extensive report detailing the threat of the invasive Asian toad (Duttaphrynus melanostictus). Scientists think the deadly toad arrived in Eastern Madagascar between 2007 and 2010.
Toad-eating animals ranging from fossas to mouse lemurs can die directly from eating these poisonous invaders. But the impact ranges across the food chain as Asian toads outcompete other animals for resources. On the economic side, countries that have identified the Asian toad as an invasive risk could put constraints on imports from places, like Madagascar, that lack biosecurity protections.
Given the consequences, the need to rapidly field test eradication methods is urgent.
Last year, MFG agreed to function as the lead in doing that. Since then, researchers, students and communities have been testing capture and trapping techniques, and possible chemical control methods. Although initial reports are promising, the window for eradicating this invasive species is closing fast.
MFG is racing extinction here—bringing critical skills to play in the area where the frogs have been found. We also have a staff and contact network at the local and national levels, plus excellent links to the international conservation community.
However, success will require immediate technical and financial support, as well as the development of in-country eradication capacity.
From its iconic lemurs to lifesaving medicines, Madagascar is a treasure of biodiversity with more than 8 out of 10 of Madagascar's plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet.
I am not exaggerating—this threat could mean extinction for a number of iconic animals species. Extraordinary wildlife from gorilla-sized lemurs and 10-foot-tall elephant birds have died out in the last thousand years on this island nation. By acting now, future generations may not need to mourn the extinction of some of today's well-known animals including several species of lemurs.