Megapixels for Frogs

Donated cameras and GPS units aid biodiversity research in Ecuador


Purging junk from our lives is instinctual at the dawn of a new year. To move forward and embrace change, we naturally let go of items we don’t need and pass them along to others—especially things that might bring joy to those who have less than we do. But this year there is a fantastically greater payoff to purging certain excess stuff in our lives—namely, cameras (even separate parts such as bodies and lenses) and GPS systems. Our donations of working cameras and GPS units could literally help save lives in developing countries, improve air and water quality, provide eco-employment, advance biological science, document “new” species and add to the much-needed data supporting herpetological biodiversity.

Reptile and Amphibian Ecology International (RAEI) is a nonprofit conservation group collecting donations of household cameras and GPS devices (and a few nonhousehold items, such as snake equipment) that will be put to use in remote areas of Ecuador, Mexico and Cameroon by scientists and trained laypersons doing field work.

“This gear is important, because we document biodiversity with cameras,” says Paul Hamilton, director of RAEI. “We are a small organization, but a lot of what we do is capacity-building, giving people the tools to work on their own.”

All biodiversity field work is urgent in these times. But because the frog is an indicator species—an equivalent to the canary in the coal mine, whose ability to stay alive indicated the likelihood of survival for the workers—information about frogs and their brethren is particularly critical. Not only can it suggest how long we may survive, but it is the kind of data that can be used by, for and against governments deciding whether or not a natural resource is saved or plundered. Collecting this data is a real challenge, because time is so short, the stakes are so high and funding is so poor. This is where our old technological stuff can really help—if we send it off to RAIE.

Cameras are used to provide the proof of a species’ existence and to document the conditions of their ecosystem, which is the region wherein a species can survive in complex, interconnected relationships. When these areas get simplified by human interference, life-sustaining systems collapse. When rainforests are cleared, for example, entire populations can be wiped out, as can all the species whose existence depended on the forest for survival.

The genius of this new donation program is that armed with our old cameras and GPS units, professional and trained field workers will be able to cover far more ground than ever before; they will have the tools they need out in remote areas to get many more ecosystems mapped, measured and documented. An example offered by RAIE is the work done by 37-year-old Carlos Robles, who works as an eco-guide in Ecuador on a preserve where 14 new species of frog have been discovered in the last few years.

This preserve, Cerro Pata de Pajaro, is threatened by deforestation by the cattle adjacent to it. The cattle ranchers are “encroaching and cutting down forests on the reserve boundaries” and grazing cattle within the boundaries of the park, Robles says, where the herd are literally eating away the forest. So far, proving these claims has been impossible, as it’s his word against the ranchers’—unless he can document the damage scientifically using GPS and a camera.

What is ingeniously sustainable about RAIE’s donation program is not only the redistribution of American material wealth and the opportunity to inexpensively and rapidly advance biodiversity field work in Ecuador, Mexico and Cameroon, but the engagement of many more nonspecialists in hands-on preservation work. Average people will be empowered and engaged in sustainability work. Quoted by RAIE, Jerry Toth, director of Ecuador’s tropical Jama Coaque Reserve, says, “One of the most important and untapped resources in this region are the human resources. Training and equipping the people of this region to be field guides and specialists in ecology is not just a nice gesture—it’s a long-term conservation strategy.”

Cameras and GPS devices can be sent to RAIE, 3901 W. Calle Don Miguel, Tuscon, Ariz., 85746.

Sonoma County Library