Bus2Antarctica: Frogs and Boats are Friends

Upon passing through Panama, Andrew Evans pauses to contemplate the fate of the country’s amphibian population.

As I traveled through the engineering wonder that is the Panama Canal, I saw thousands upon thousands of corrugated steel shipping containers all stacked like colored Legos–sometimes five or six stories high. The passing cargo ships (filled to the brim with these containers) often took me by surprise and dwarfed our own sizable expedition boat. One minute I would be standing on the tropical banks of Panama’s Barro Colorado Island (BCI) enjoying the tranquil other world of the rain forest–the next, a colossal double-hulled vessel would slide by and eclipse my view completely.

As weird as it sounds, intermodal containers fascinate me. They might seem so humdrum and everyday, but they also travel constantly, shifting from one boat to another and skipping from China to Cape Town to Copenhagen and then back to Charleston. Despite all the chaos of life, travel, and transportation, humans still rely on this system of stuffing these standardized boxes and sending them around the world. Indeed, shipping containers are the building blocks of globalization.

Another thing that’s truly global is disease. National Geographic magazine’s April 2009 issue contained an important article by Jennifer Holland entitled “The Vanishing.” The story highlights the global spread of chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) and its devastating effect on the world’s amphibian population–over 200 frog species have already been afflicted by the disease, and the rate of extinction is rising.

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The glorious and bright Panamanian golden frog is among those affected.

Now extinct in the wild, Panama’s national symbol was saved from total annihilation by quick-thinking locals and biologists who understood what was happening and “rescued” the frogs from their tiny natural habitat in western Panama. Out of this was built the international effort known as Amphibian Ark, where endangered frogs are rescued from chytrid-infected areas and bred in captivity until the day that they can be safely released back into the wild. For now, if you want to see Panamanian golden frogs close to their original habitat, you must visit the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC) in El Valle, Panama. Otherwise, you can visit the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where the frogs are bred in captivity while scientists work on finding a cure to save them.

Conservationists once hoped that the Panama Canal would act as a barrier and prevent chytrid from spreading any further south. Alas, scientists now have proof that the water-borne fungus has jumped the canal and now threatens the rich biodiversity of Panama’s Darién region. As an emergency response, the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project

has started rescue missions into the Darién forests, collecting infected amphibians and setting up bio-secure “rescue pods” where these rare and endangered frog species can be healed and later breed. The goal is to keep each frog species alive until we have a cure for chytrid.

And just what are these Panamanian rescue pods made of? Shipping containers–the same kind that I saw passing through the Panama Canal. Just last month, the well-known shipping line Maersk donated six shipping containers (worth an estimated $75,000) to be refitted into “rescue pods” at the Houston Zoo. In February 2010, Maersk will ship the refitted containers back to Panama where they will be set up on the shores of the Panama Canal at the Summit Zoo and house Panama’s most-endangered frog species.

According to the Internet, there are over 17 million shipping containers in use around the world. Six of these will become home to the last of Panama’s frogs–indeed, these few shipping containers are the building blocks of conservation.

Andrew is currently back on the bus, and is traveling through Colombia. Follow Andrew’s Twitter feed here @Bus2Antarctica, bookmark all of his blog posts here, see videos here, and get the full story on the project here. Photos by Brian Gratwicke.