Europe’s demand for frog legs has long threatened the animals—first at home and now in other regions around the world, according to new research.
Frogs were taken from the wild in Europe in such quantities by the 1980s that they were disappearing locally, leading the European Union to ban most species from trade. Suppliers satisfied Europeans’ continuing taste for frog legs by importing them, legally, from other countries.
Little has been known about the nature of this trade or its impact on global frog populations, but a study published last month in Nature Conservation fills in some of the gaps.
Millions of wild frogs are killed each year for their legs, the authors found. This poses a threat of extinction, locally or globally, for multiple species and the ecosystems where they play important roles, such as eating insects, providing prey for other species, aerating the soil with their burrows, and, as tadpoles, filtering water.
“Amphibians are highly susceptible to pollution, the climate crisis, and deadly chytrid fungus,” says Sandra Altherr, one of the authors and the co-founder of Pro Wildlife, a German conservation organization. “On top of this, the EU’s huge and ongoing hunger for frogs’ legs is decimating wild frog populations in an increasing number of countries.”
The EU, Altherr and her colleagues note, is the world’s largest importer of frog legs but has taken no apparent steps to ensure that the trade is sustainable.
Jorge Rodríguez Romero, head of the Unit for Global Environmental Cooperation and Multilateralism, the branch of the European Commission that deals with wildlife trade issues, did not reply to a request for comment.
Delving into the frog leg trade, the team discovered that “nothing is transparent,” says co-author Mark Auliya, a herpetologist at the Leibniz Institute for the Analysis of Biodiversity Change, in Bonn, Germany. The EU, for example, doesn’t require reporting on the species or quantities of frogs imported by member states—only the weight of generic “frog legs.”
Using this information, the researchers inferred that between 2011 and 2020, the EU imported about 89.7 million pounds of frog legs, equating to an estimated 814 million to two billion frogs. Belgium and France accounted for most.
To learn more, the team tapped disparate sources, including databases kept by various countries and organizations, scientific studies, news stories, and assessments of species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the conservation status of wild animals, plants, and fungi.
Globally, at least 190 frog species were traded—almost certainly an underestimate because the animals are easily misidentified. In one 2017 study, for example, scientists bought frog legs from grocery stores in France and, using DNA analysis, showed that 206 out of 209 specimens labeled as Javan giant frogs were other species.
Of the frogs identified in the study, the IUCN lists 58 as threatened with extinction and 10 as critically endangered. But these numbers too are likely underestimates, says co-author Alice Hughes, a conservation biologist at the University of Hong Kong. That’s because the status of some traded frogs hasn’t been assessed, and many existing assessments don’t provide comprehensive information about threats to overall populations of each species.
The frog leg trade has been harmful. In Indonesia, for example, large-legged species such as Blyth’s giant frog and the Malesian frog have declined so much that the country switched to exporting smaller, more common crab-eating frogs. In Albania, overexploitation is contributing to the disappearance of the Albanian water frog, a threatened species. And exports of Anatolian water frogs to Europe from southern Turkey caused population declines of 20 percent a year, with extinction of the species likely by 2032 if the trade isn’t controlled, according to scientific findings.
People conflate legal trade with sustainable trade, “but in reality, the two are completely divorced,” Hughes says. “Without legislation from buying countries, we’re not going to see sustainability.”
In addition to population declines caused by the trade, the researchers found that frogs captured for their legs typically are dismembered while still alive and left to die. “Everyone who wants to have this little snack should be aware of the extreme cruelty behind it,” Altherr says.
‘Europe should take responsibility’
Only two frogs traded for their legs are listed under CITES, the global treaty to ensure that the wildlife trade doesn’t threaten the survival of species. In 1985, CITES gave trade protections to Euphlyctis hexadactylus and Hoplobatrachus tigerinus in response to population declines in India and Bangladesh driven by exports of their legs to Europe.
“Nothing’s been done since then to regulate trade in the remaining species,” Auliya says.
This absence of protection for frogs “can cause a false sense of security and a lack of adequate conservation attention,” says Jonathan Kolby, a herpetologist who was not involved in the research. “If anything, the trade is even greater than what the authors were able to describe, due to the absence of standardized reporting and data.”
The Nature Conservation study suggests several solutions to the lack of transparency and sustainability for the frog leg trade.
The EU could supervise and centralize the gathering of reliable information about population sizes of species and threats they face, apply science-based decisions to the regulation of trade volumes, and track imports. It could formulate and oversee industry standards for humane treatment of frogs and start testing for pesticide contamination in frog meat to ensure consumer safety. The authors also call for monitoring the number of frogs that die during transport and processing before their legs are exported. None of these measures are now in place, they say.
It’s also important for the EU to take the lead on initiating CITES listings for all imported species, Hughes says. “We have to start putting responsibility on those driving demand. It must be looked upon as irresponsible to be importing many thousands of animals from the wild with no data to assess the impact of that trade on wild populations.”
Without EU involvement, things aren’t likely to change, says Annemarie Ohler, a frog specialist at the National Museum of Natural History, in Paris, who was not involved in the research. “European countries are transferring the responsibility to the source countries that consider frog trade as a financial resource,” she says. “Clearly, Europe should take responsibility.”