Of frogs and finances

SO NEARLY five million people around the world have viewed the YouTube clip of the Desert Rain Frog (Breviceps macrops).

The squee is too much, hey? OK, well, maybe not – not as much as your average cat video. I hear Mark Zuckerberg or someone has predicted that by 2015, 90% of the content online will be cat videos (joking).

That’s one of the Desert Rain Frog’s problems – weird enough to set off a viral whirlwind, he’s not adorable enough to trigger a campaign in his favour. But he needs it, perhaps as much as the rhino, currently raking in  muchos bucks, billboards and horn merchandise..

Classified as Vulnerable, the frog lives in a tiny area – basically, a small stretch of coast alongside Port Nolloth, which happens to be just where alluvial diamond mining takes place.

We’ve disturbed 65% of the habitat in our quest for sparkly gems, but “The diamond gravels are about worked out, and in the next decade or so the area may become more tourist-orientated, with the very real threat of strip development of housing and vacation units along the coast, in the prime habitat of this frog,” writes Professor Alan Channing of the University of the Western Cape (Threatened amphibians in the Succulent Karoo Hotspot: An integrated approach to their conservation, 2010.).

The consequence is that the frogs number in the low thousands now.

These little frogs – and when I say little, I mean it: the males are only about four centimetres long – have carved out a life in an environment you’d think was utterly hostile to frogs, creatures which most of us associate with ponds and rivers and muddy patches.

They survive by burrowing down into the sand just beyond the highwater mark by day, resting in the layer which is moistened by the sea fog.

Professor Channing’s prediction is likely to come true: already, a residential development is under way near Port Nolloth, 150 stands along the coast in prime Desert Rain Frog terrain. (This development seems to have stalled a bit – probably due to the slowed-down property market.)

Even worse, the poor frog is in one of the parts of our country most threatened by climate change, with predictions of warm to roasting in the foreseeable future.

But you don’t see anyone selling frog-call ringtones to raise funds to Save the Frog, do you? Why is the rhino more sexy than beasts like these?

Yolan Friedmann, CEO of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, thinks it’s partly because the rhino gives us a clearcut Us-Them, good-guy-bad-guy scenario – we’re fighting them, the Asian masterminds behind the poaching.

It’s harder to be as comfortable about battling threats to the frog – they don’t come from some foreigner, they come from us.

And taking a stand against the loss of habitat and other threats that many endangered species face may mean facing our own complicity in their plight, even changing our habits (eek! no!): it’s our demand for holiday homes and diamonds that drives the destruction, after all.

Then the rhino is one of the "charismatic megafauna" that we tend to turn into conservation icons, like the elephant, tiger, panda and whale.

They have the beauty, elegance, cuteness or awesomeness that makes us want to have them around for years to come. Less in-your-face species like the Seychelles Sheath-tailed Bat (100 adults left) and Mpumalanga’s Wild Yam (about 200 remaining plants) just don’t have the "wow" to be icons.

But little guys like them and the the Desert Rain Frog... chances are we’ll really miss them when they’ve gone. Because each small species performs a critical role in creating the planetary services we rely on for water, arable soil and healthy air.

Take mussels, for instance: many of the hundreds of mussel species are threatened. But apart from being a tasty source of protein, they are filter feeders who clean up water and support other species in the food chain, right up to the big fish we like to eat.

Like all the other uncharismatic little species that make oxygen for us or recycle faeces or slow the rush of floodwater or clean up our pollution, they are part of what we call "natural capital", which we simply cannot replace once lost.

Without them, humans and their business ventures would be doomed.

So how do we get corporates and high-net-worth individuals to understand this and champion the little guys as well as the big?

Perhaps one way would be to talk about a bill for the ecoservices they take for granted. The services that enable the land to regenerate where it’s been exploited, and fill our life-and-death needs – how long would the average business last if its staff couldn’t get enough air, I wonder?

That bill would be a monster – I’m not sure even Carlos Slim (estimated value: $75.5bn) would be able to meet it.

A couple of years back, two scientists estimated the annual value of just four services provided by insects in the USA alone —dung burial, pest control, pollination, and wildlife nutrition— at a whopping $57bn plus (Bioscience.56(4): 311-323).

In 1997 Nature magazine put the annual global value of ecological services at about twice global production – back then it was $33 trillion.

Putting a value on nature isn’t nice, but maybe it’ll make it worth getting as excited about the frog and his friends as the rhino?

- Fin24

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.

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