How one man is working to save one of the world's most poisonous animals

The illegal trade in poison frogs for pets has pushed some to the brink of extinction.

Photograph by Gena Steffens
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Barely bigger than an inch, a wild endangered golden poison frog packs enough poison to kill 10 adult men. In captivity, it loses its toxicity.
Photograph by Gena Steffens

Ivan Lozano recalls the night the phone rang. It was the Colombian police one Sunday in 1998, and they had some strange news. Two suspicious boxes had been discovered at El Dorado International Airport, in Bogotá, on their way to Europe. Inside, the police found nearly 800 poison dart frogs, crammed into tiny containers.

Lozano, who was then the director of Bogotá’s wildlife rescue center, rushed to the office. But by the time he arrived, many of the frogs had died.

“When I saw that shipment of frogs, I was left speechless,” Lozano says. These weren’t just any frogs. The majority were Lehmann’s poison frogs—a critically endangered species with bright red, yellow, orange, and black bands and found only in a small patch of tropical rain forest in western Colombia.

Lozano and his colleagues at the rescue center were accustomed to receiving animals like parrots, turtles, and monkeys—common victims of domestic trafficking—but they’d never encountered such a large single shipment of individual animals, much less of poison dart frogs.

“We didn’t have food, terrariums, or anything,” he says. “We had to basically live there for the first several days trying to save the remaining animals, which for us were like precious jewels.”

When one of the small frogs leaped from its enclosure, Lozano panicked and scooped it up with his bare hands, poisoning himself with the frog’s secretions. Luckily, the brief contact with the Lehmann’s frog caused only intense pain and swelling. He didn’t care. “The important thing was to save the frogs—that was our job.”

Poison dart frogs are known as some of the most toxic animals on Earth. The most toxic of all—Phyllobates terribilis, the golden poison frog—carries enough batrachotoxin, a potent neurotoxin, to kill 10 grown men. Scientists believe these frogs acquire their toxicity, which is used as a defense mechanism to deter predators, by assimilating plant poisons ingested by the insects that make up their diet in the wild.

Lozano didn’t know it at the time, but he would later look back on that moment and realize he’d stumbled into the heart of the international illegal wildlife trade, which by some estimates rakes in $10 to $20 billion a year. The frogs left at the airport were to be sold as exotic and colorful pets to a growing international base of collectors.

In the wild, these frogs are found in tiny populations, limited to ranges of just a few square miles of forest that are constantly being diminished and fragmented by agriculture and logging. The illegal wildlife trade is just one more card in a tall deck stacked against them.

“The capture of dozens or hundreds of animals in the same area diminishes the genetic variety,” Lozano says. This type of human-induced “genetic bottleneck” could easily weaken wild populations to the point of collapse and extinction.

As he helplessly watched the majority of the remaining confiscated frogs die from the stress of their capture during the days following their discovery, something began gnawing at Lozano’s stomach. If the illegal harvest of these frogs continued—especially at the scale he was witnessing—they’d likely disappear from the wild forever.

LOZANO’S LIFELONG DREAM

From a young age, Lozano, an expert in endangered species management and zootechny, or the art of handling, breeding, and keeping captive animals, says his dream was to work toward saving a species.

Looking at the startlingly colored frogs, whose bright, contrasting hues and patterns have evolved as warnings to signal their toxicity to potential predators, he spotted his chance. He figured he could put a stop to the illegal plunder of these endangered animals by breeding them in captivity and offering them legally at lower prices than their wild-caught counterparts.

Lozano’s plan to undermine an illegal market saturated by organized criminal networks by breeding some of the world’s most toxic creatures in captivity was nothing if not ambitious.

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Ivan Lozano started Tesoros de Colombia as a conservation program aimed at protecting critically endangered frog species such as Lehmann’s poison frog from extinction through captive breeding and sustainable biocommerce. The breeding center is capable of producing up to 1,500 frogs a year.

Breeding the frogs—which lose their toxicity in captivity—would be the easier part. But to make them available to the international pet market, he’d also need a license that would allow him to work in accordance with regulations on the commerce of endangered species. In Colombia, no protocols were in place for a small-scale animal husbandry project geared toward conservation, and authorities—baffled by the idea of breeding poisonous frogs in captivity—slammed the door in his face repeatedly.

Eventually, Lozano’s business partners lost patience and withdrew their support, leaving him with 2,000 poisonous frogs (obtained with special permits from Colombian zoos and environmental authorities), no license, and $1.2 billion Colombian pesos (nearly $400,000) in debt.

After nearly a decade of waiting, thousands of dollars in fees, a “buffet of lawyers,” and a nearly ruined marriage, Lozano obtained the license that would allow him to operate legally, and Tesoros de Colombia (Treasures of Colombia) was born. The first of its kind in the country, Tesoros is a private company aimed at conserving endemic Colombian species through sustainable bio-commerce.

A RARE CONSERVATION SUCCESS

Today, as the only commercial breeding operation in Colombia, led by one of the world’s most vociferous frog conservationists, Tesoros de Colombia is a household name among poison dart frog hobbyists. Lozano specifically focuses on species that are frequently smuggled, many of which are considered endangered, or critically endangered, such as the golden poison frog and Lehmann’s poison frog. Because of its rarity, Lozano calls the Lehmann’s—which is critically endangered and notoriously difficult to breed in captivity—“the Ferrari of poison dart frogs.”

Sometimes, projects that seek to protect endangered animals through captive breeding efforts can backfire. Instead of lowering prices and reducing demand for illegally collected animals, they spur demand overall, both for captive-bred and wild-caught animals.

That is what happened with China’s captive tiger breeding facilities—when more bred tigers became available, it erased the stigma of owning tiger products, according to experts, leading to more demand overall. And it boosted the price for tigers caught in the jungle because people placed higher value on the “real” wild ones.

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LED lights provide illumination without increasing temperatures for the delicate frogs, many of which are found in patches of jungle just a few square miles in size.

Furthermore, some large-scale exotic pet breeders continue to place more value on wild-caught animals because they help diversify gene pools. This can drive up prices for wild-caught specimens, providing greater incentive to extract them from their habitats.

But with Tesoros de Colombia’s injection of colorful, healthy, captive-bred frogs into the market, prices have started to fall, just as Lozano hoped. A few years ago, Tesoros sold its first specimens of the highly trafficked golden poison frog for a hundred dollars each to distributors in the U.S. and Europe, which sold them on to collectors for about $150 apiece. Gradually, as healthy captive-breeding pairs originating from Tesoros began to circulate, prices fell. Today, the same species can be obtained legally for less than $35, hardly worth the risk for traffickers. According to U.S.-based frog breeders and collectors, the market for wild-caught poison dart frogs from Colombia seems to have diminished significantly.

Lozano, meanwhile, has been parading his frogs around herpetological hobby circuits, encouraging those who buy the frogs to align themselves with conservation.

“Before, these were people who didn’t have any interest in conservation—they just wanted their frogs, and that’s it,” Lozano says. But today, a growing number of frog collectors are actively involved in preventing the creatures they love from going extinct in the wild by complying with complicated CITES regulations on the commerce of at-risk species, supporting initiatives such as Tesoros, and making collectors aware of the need to protect the animals. “Many hobbyists go so far as to publicly shame those who try to market illegally caught frogs,” says Lozano—something that would have been unheard of even a few years ago.

These Tiny Frogs Are Some of the Most Toxic Animals in the World Scientists believe poison dart frogs assimilate plant poisons which are carried by their prey. Poison dart frogs raised in captivity and isolated from insects in their native habitat never develop poison.

According to U.S.-based poison dart frog breeder Alex Menke, Tesoros de Colombia aids in species conservation by educating hobbyists and providing rare, sought-after species like Lehmann’s poison frogs in an ethical, sustainable manner—and hobbyists want them.

This education and outreach seems to be one of the reasons captive breeding to undermine illegal trade has actually worked in Lozano’s case. Unlike with captive tigers, where consumers haven’t shown any interest in the survival of the species, poison frog collectors do want to protect the animals in the wild.

IS THE ILLEGAL TRADE STILL A PROBLEM?

In the three years since breeder Kevin Hoff, also based in the U.S., received a pair of Lehmann’s poison frogs from Tesoros, he’s been able to produce about 40 healthy offspring. These were passed along to other experienced hobbyists who now have their own breeding groups. Hoff estimates that the total number of frogs descended from his original breeding pair is close to 80.

“The real impact is not directly from the Tesoros de Colombia imports themselves but from the downstream growth of the species as they become established from the Tesoros lineage,” Hoff says. This is reflected in the numbers: prices for offspring of Tesoros’s Lehmann’s poison frogs—one of the most sought-after species—have fallen by a third since the company began exporting them.

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Poison frogs’ eye-popping colorations, such as that of this harlequin poison frog, serve as warning signs to potential predators that they’re toxic.

The project has had a ripple effect, allowing hobbyists like Menke, based thousands of miles away from the frogs’ jungle habitats, to play a part in conservation efforts. “People like me intentionally saturate the market, depreciating the value of the frogs to discourage smuggling,” he says. While the approach seems counterintuitive from a business perspective, conservation-minded frog breeders like Menke and Lozano insist they don’t do it for the money—it’s their contribution toward protecting these species.

From the perspective of Taron Langhover, a U.S.-based exotic animal breeder who’s been working with dart frogs for more than 25 years, the illegal exploitation of frogs no longer poses a threat because of the sheer number that are bred in captivity.

Langhover has watched the dart frog hobby expand tremendously over the years, and he estimates that there are more than 15,000 people involved as breeders and keepers. “It just isn’t worthwhile to invest in a wild-caught frog when captive bred ones are so much more healthy, easily available, and inexpensive,” he says.

Captive-bred frogs don’t carry the same health risks as wild ones, which often arrive with parasites and bacterial or fungal infections. Certain species, like the Lehmann’s poison frog, are difficult to breed in captivity because tadpoles feed exclusively on unfertilized eggs, which must be supplied by hand. But most other species of poison dart frogs require very little effort or expertise to breed and can produce hundreds of offspring a year, making it an economically feasible venture even for small-scale hobbyists.

Nevertheless, many organizations that monitor the illegal wildlife trade, such as Traffic, continue to view the illegal trade of frogs as a major threat to endangered species.

Despite the increasing availability of captive-bred frogs, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature—which manages the world’s most comprehensive inventory of species’ conservation statuses—notes that captive breeding capacities are limited. The IUCN’s Amphibian Specialist Group, dedicated to advancing practical amphibian conservation strategies, says there just aren’t enough conservation breeding programs around the world for species that are in trouble, especially in countries like Colombia that have the highest amphibian diversity and greatest proportion of threatened species.

“Demand in rare amphibians appears to be on the rise, especially in countries where there’s a culture of keeping exotic reptiles and amphibians,” says Chris Shepherd, former senior program officer with Traffic Southeast Asia. He recently started an organization called Monitor to investigate the effects of the illegal wildlife trade on species such as poison dart frogs that don’t get a lot of attention from the conservation community.

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Keeping poison dart frogs is a hobby that’s grown exponentially in recent years. But trafficking for the pet trade—along with habitat fragmentation and loss—have pushed many species of poison dart frogs close to extinction.

“Unfortunately, these species are quite low in profile and not on the radar of most conservation organizations and efforts—they’re not elephants or rhinos—and as such there is little known of the trade, the impact the trade is having on wild populations, or of the legality of the trade,” he says.

The illegal trade in reptiles and amphibians continues to lure the more unscrupulous collectors and traders, because small animals are easy to conceal and smuggle across borders, Shepherd says. The risk of getting caught is very low—as, often, are the penalties for wildlife trafficking—but the profit margins can be quite high, especially for rare species like the valuable Lehmann’s poison frog.

Shepherd notes that bogus captive breeding, in which wild-caught animals are falsely claimed to be captive bred to get around trading restrictions, is an increasingly common method used to traffic animals. That’s because authorities rarely take the time to investigate claims of whether species are truly captive bred.

One strategy Lozano uses to discourage smuggling is to offer unique “morphs” of frogs with signature colorations produced exclusively through captive breeding. Because these color patterns aren’t found in nature, this provides further incentive to steer customers away from wild frogs. His most famous one is the “Tesoro Blackfoot”—a morph of the golden poison frog bred to have pitch-black feet that contrast with the otherwise brilliant yellow body.

Although the creation of new color morphs through captive breeding programs might, over time, create a narrowed gene pool, these frogs would never be intended for introduction to the wild—one might compare the practice to that of domestic dog breeding. But if they were to find their way into native habitats, it’s unlikely they would do any sort of harm to existing populations. One of the biggest challenges in reintroduction efforts is convincing wild and captive-bred animals to mate with one another.

THE FUTURE OF FROGS

Blake Klocke, a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University and member of the IUCN’s Amphibian Specialist Group, says Lozano has already made great strides toward helping prevent the extinction of several endangered Colombian frog species. But Lozano says his work has just begun. His ultimate goal has always been to breed frogs specifically for reintroduction to their natural habitats, a step that will likely require arduous negotiations with Colombian authorities, not to mention careful genetic studies to ensure that reintroduced frogs integrate successfully with existing populations.

Growing evidence demonstrates that captive-bred frogs can do well when released into the wild—in Madagascar, reintroduction trials of the critically endangered golden mantella frog have produced promising results, Today, Taron Langhover is less worried about the threat to wild frogs posed by trafficking than about deforestation, climate change, and diseases such as the chytrid fungus, which has caused the extinction or near-extinction of over 200 amphibian species and is considered “the worst pathogen in the history of the world” in terms of its impacts on biodiversity.

“Breeding and reintroduction need to occur,” he says. “The bigger issue is where do you release them once the environment is gone?”

In Colombia, this is an increasingly vexed question. The 2016 peace accords between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government ended more than half a century of civil war, but since then, the rate of deforestation in areas previously controlled by the leftist guerrilla group—many encompassing the habitats of poison dart frogs—has skyrocketed.

For now, though, thanks to Lozano’s captive breeding and his effectiveness in enlightening frog hobbyists, the future of species such as the Lehmann’s poison frog seems secure. “The idea is that more hobbyists get on board,” he says. “That’s how we’ll put an end to trafficking.”

Gena Steffens is a writer and photographer based in Colombia. She is currently working on a National Geographic Society storytelling grant. Follow her on Instagram.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.