Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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Critically endangered Lake Titicaca water frogs are often poached for a drink called frog juice, which is thought to be an aphrodisiac in Peru.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

How poachers of this rare frog became its protectors

Peruvian women are selling handicrafts inspired by the endangered Lake Titicaca water frog.

In recognition of Earth Day, National Geographic is highlighting the conservation need of several lesser-known species. These, and others, are featured in the National Geographic Photo Ark, a multiyear effort document every species living in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries.

In Peru, there’s a drink that some call frog juice. It’s a traditional preparation, made of raw, skinned frogs blended with ingredients such as maca root and honey. This “tonic” is mostly sold as an aphrodisiac, though it’s also claimed to cure everything from asthma to osteoporosis. (No scientific evidence exists for its efficacy.)

The frog of choice is the Lake Titicaca water frog. Things have become so dire for this once common amphibian (which got the nickname “scrotum frog” from the many folds of its skin) that the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the body that sets the conservation status of species, defines it as critically endangered. Rosa Elena Zegarra Adrianzén, a biologist with Peru’s Forest and Wildlife National Service, estimates that the frogs may now number only about 50,000, but she says figuring out how many there are is difficult because the lake is deep. (The frogs are bottom dwellers.)

The beleaguered frog faces another threat. In 2016, nearly 10,000 were discovered dead in the water near the banks of a river that flows into the lake, likely because of pollution. Garbage—including diapers, syringes, and latex gloves—was visible in the lake near the frogs, and dead fish were floating on the surface.

“Amphibians are a sponge, and anything that gets into the water, they’re going to absorb it,” says Tom Weaver, the assistant curator of reptiles and fish for Denver Zoo, the first facility in the Northern Hemisphere to successfully breed Lake Titicaca water frogs.

Weaver says frog die-offs are quite common, especially during the region’s rainy season, from January to March. The rain likely washes mining and livestock waste into the lake. On top of that, says Roberto Elias, a wildlife veterinarian and manager of Denver Zoo’s Peru conservation program, plastic bottles and bags and other trash foul the beach. Such pollution alters the acidity of the lake and kills plants that oxygenate the water, which harms the frogs because they absorb oxygen through their skin folds.

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Trash litters the shore of Lake Titicaca, altering the water’s acidity and harming the frogs who absorb oxygen through their skin folds.

“You can see people throw in garbage to the lake,” Elias says. “We need a lot of education for the people.”

Artisans to the rescue

Recently, a collective of more than two dozen women—some of whom used to poach the frogs—started coming together a few times each month to make knitted frog toys, green frog beanies with knitted eyeballs and dangling ear flaps, and frog finger puppets made of yarn (their most popular creation). They display the handicrafts on lakeshore stands, and as they make sales, they tell customers about the frogs and how badly they need protecting.

The women got their start in 2015 when a biologist from Denver Zoo gave a PowerPoint presentation about the Lake Titicaca water frog, describing its life cycle and outlining ways to protect it.

Nelida Adela Apaza, the leader of the group, whose efforts are supported by the zoo, says the crafts don’t bring in much money. The hats sell for about eight dollars, and the finger puppets are about 30 cents, and the women have to wait for craft fairs or trips to Puno to sell their goods. Instead, Apaza says, the women participate because they care. “They want to conserve the frog, and they want to at the same time help the environment. They’re worried about this species that is in danger of extinction and is also the attraction of Lake Titicaca.”

Elvira Puma, who’s from the village of Tacasaya, says she used to catch the frogs and sell them live to shop owners and individuals in Puno, a city in southeastern Peru bordering the lake. She says she’d get about 30 cents for five frogs. She explains that her family had always done this—and that she had no idea the water frogs were endangered until she learned about their plight from researchers with Denver Zoo.

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More than two dozen Peruvian women, some of whom used to be poachers, knit and sell crafts inspired by the frogs to supplement their income.

“It was a surprise,” she says. Puma says that even though she made more money selling frogs than she does selling the crafts, she wouldn’t catch them again. “It’s prohibited,” she says. And the frogs are “in danger of extinction.”

“We are losing frogs”

Lucas Dourojeanni, communications director for Peru’s Forest and Wildlife National Service, says no “recent surveys or estimates on the number of remaining Lake Titicaca frogs” have been done and that “the number of 50,000 frogs seems to be a rather conservative estimate from several years back.”

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Roberto Elias says that although no accurate, current frog census exists, what we do know is that “we are losing frogs.”

According to Zegarra Adrianzén, more than 4,000 frogs were confiscated from public buses traveling from southern Peru to Lima, the capital city, during the last few months of 2018. And since September 2018, hundreds more have been seized, alive and dead, from Peruvian markets.

Elias says Bolivian and Peruvian politicians have joined in proposing measures to protect the lake, which is an important water source for both countries. In 2016, they signed an agreement pledging $500 million to clean up the lake, which included funds to construct 10 water treatment facilities in Peru. And later this year, Elias says, the government will put an illustration of the frog on one of Peru’s coins to raise awareness about the animal.

“This frog is like a symbol of the lake,” he says. “If they are going to work with the lake, they need to work with the wildlife inside the lake, and one of the most important for the people is the frog.”

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Lake Titicaca water frogs are a symbol of the lake and a source of pride for Peruvians, which is why politicians from Peru and Bolivia have come together in recent years in an effort to clean up the lake.

That’s part of the reason why the women were so enthusiastic about joining the handicraft collective—the frog is a source of pride for Peruvians.

James Garcia, an outreach specialist for Denver Zoo, says it was important for the zoo to help the women supplement their income, even if it’s just a small amount, instead of simply scolding them about poaching. “If these women can’t feed their families,” he says, “how are they going to conserve a frog?”

Apaza, who provides yarn and teaches new knitting techniques for the handicrafts, says the women are happy to be a part of the solution. “We’re just a small grain of sand, but it’s helping to conserve a species.”

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 Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to
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