Costa Rica—which received a 2019 Champions of the Earth award, the United Nations’s highest environmental honor, for its role in protecting nature and combating climate change—hosts plenty of ecotours that offer zip-lining, mountain biking, kayaking, and birding.
But the nation is now discovering the value of a much smaller—and more threatened—natural asset. Lodges are building frog-friendly ponds; parks are leading frog-finding tours. Even the busy urban San José airport has a new frog-patterned carpet.
As the world gets hotter and drier, frogs’ future is in peril. Amphibians have survived the past four great extinctions, from ice ages to a meteor collision. But something is happening today that is causing amphibians to disappear at alarming rates.
An estimated 200 frog species have already gone extinct, and hundreds more may be on their way out. They’re experiencing death by a thousand cuts, succumbing to a lethal cocktail of factors that include pollution, climate change, and habitat loss and degradation. All of these factors can weaken the immune system of amphibians, and now a fungus is dealing the final blow.
Costa Rica has already lost its fabled golden toad—and experts fear for other species. Once frogs that eat insects are gone, an ecosystem loses its delicate balance.
It is not enough to lament their loss, says Kerry Kriger, founder of the nonprofit organization Save the Frogs. Frog-focused travel, he reasons, could strengthen the amphibian-human connection and spur advocacy to conserve some of the world’s most beautiful and charismatic creatures.
Where to find frogs
In a world that is rapidly losing amphibians, we set out to find them. Our tour group, which included a psychiatrist, a pediatrician, and a Lockheed Martin F-35 instructor pilot, was organized by Save the Frogs, an effort to support the growing number of parks and ecolodges that protect the vital habitats for these vulnerable creatures. “These are our goals: Find frogs. Go to places that have lots of frogs. Give these places money, so they keep saving habitat and keep having frogs,” said naturalist Michael Starkey.
We found ourselves deep in the middle of a Costa Rican jungle. Rain dripped down my face and muddy water swirled around my boots. I stabbed my flashlight into the darkness. This is where we’d find our frogs.
They beckoned us with a weird nocturnal orchestra: bass notes and piccolos, barks and whistles, croaks and hiccups. We had traveled thousands of miles for a glimpse, and they now surrounded us. Yet, maddeningly, they were impossible to see. Then, through the vine-draped trees, I heard excited voices and saw a scramble of flashlight beams.
“Right here. Under this leaf,” whispered Starkey. We crouched around a small shrub, squinting for a view. A tiny glass frog stared back at us.
Translucent and gemlike, this frog was soon joined by scores of other species sighted in the soggy days that followed: strawberry poison dart frogs, smoky jungle frogs, masked tree frogs, hourglass tree frogs, red-eyed tree frogs, snouted tree frogs, and others.
It is an addictive game, chasing eyes that glow like jewels in the dark. We have lists, like birders. We have our own jargon. We keep odd hours, swat mosquitoes, and wear closed-toed shoes to prevent snakebites.
Frog-spotting, like bird-watching, takes patience and perseverance. It’s an intimate view of nature, full of disappointment as well as discovery.
Your chances are best when conditions are worst. We picked July, the middle of the rainy season, when clouds swallow mountains whole. After several days, suitcases take on an aroma dubbed “jungle funk.”
It’s not essential to have a guide, but recommended, especially if your frog-finding skills are rusty. Starkey, a Sacramento native with a giant salamander tattooed on his arm, has lifelong expertise in scanning leaves, stems, and the edges of ponds.
Our trip had started on the outskirts of San José at Hotel Bougainvillea. Several small ponds in its 10-acre gardens were built specifically as breeding habitat for endangered species such as Forrer’s leopard frog and the brilliant forest frog.
Then we prowled the leaf litter in forests around La Quinta Sarapiquí Lodge, two hours north of San José, finding smoky jungle frogs. Built on the site of a cattle farm, this family-owned lodge is creating wild gardens as a habitat to attract frogs, butterflies, small mammals, and birds.
Along the slow and muddy Sarapiquí River, we boated past crocodiles that looked irritable as they watched us, only their eyes and nostrils above the surface. Iguanas gazed down from their treetop perches.
The week became a game of wildlife bingo. At the Arenal Oasis Eco Lodge, in the mountain town of La Fortuna, our night tour yielded 13 different frog species. Guides, like those on the grand safaris of the Serengeti, communicate by phone; when they find an interesting creature, everyone rushes for a glimpse.
Rainmaker, a reserve closer to the Pacific coast, is cherished for its role in the rediscovery of a presumed extinct species of harlequin frog. Once owned by a local rice farmer, the land was in danger of being clear-cut. Now it’s a private sanctuary at the end of a long and bumpy dirt road, hosting small groups for tours in search of early birds and late night frogs. But we loved it most for its incongruous microbrewery, Perro Vida, which crafts beer from mountain spring water.
In the dark, we hiked across the preserve’s suspension bridges and up steep trails built with old tires, stopping to peer into small holes, where we spied strange, secretive yellow-spotted tropical night lizards.
Each morning, we awoke with the birds and watched brilliantly colored tanagers gobble down melons at nearby feeders. Three species of kingfisher plied local waters. Assemblages of swallows crisscrossed the sky looking for prey. There were trogons and toucans, curassows and woodpeckers. Hummingbirds hovered around flowers, like tiny emerald and vermilion fighter planes.
During the long, steamy afternoons we tramped through pristine forests, marveling at the processions of leafcutter ants. Butterflies—huge Disneyesque creatures, with iridescent wings—fluttered about. We spotted alligator lizards and a Cope’s racer snake.
Every evening, as other tourists sipped after-dinner drinks, we donned ponchos and boots and equipped ourselves with flashlights and cameras wrapped in plastic bags.
Once we made the chilling discovery of a poisonous pit viper—bright yellow, like a toxic banana—up in the branches, suspended over our trail. Returning to safety, we celebrated the sighting with a toast.
Then came unexpected news: Guide Carlos Chavarria heard reports of a resplendent quetzal—the most iconic bird of the rainforest—at a nearby ridge. We rushed to join a sunrise pilgrimage. The wait on the steep ledge felt interminable, with only breeze-ruffled branches to break the tense silence. Then the big bird suddenly arrived on a nearby avocado tree, greeted by gasps and the clatter of camera shutters.
One evening, scanning a pond as dusk descended and the frogs’ chorus reached a crescendo, we saw something glare back at our flashlights’ beam. It was a pair of eyes. There are 149 frog species in Costa Rica; so far, we’d seen 22. Was this another?
Yes. It was a Vaillant’s frog, strong and sturdy. Starkey picked it up, and we gathered around in admiration. Then he loosened his gentle grip, and it leaped to freedom. Silently I bade it good luck and prayed that many future generations would follow.
Lisa M. Krieger is the science writer for the San Jose Mercury News. Follow her on Twitter.
A version of this story appeared in the January 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.