2008 to mark 'The Year of the Frog'

Up to half of the world's 6,000 amphibian species are so threatened by disease, pollution and climate change that the globe's zoos and aquariums plan this week to declare 2008 "The Year of the Frog" to rally international support.

Up to half of the world's 6,000 amphibian species are so threatened by disease, pollution and climate change that the globe's zoos and aquariums plan this week to declare 2008 "The Year of the Frog" to rally international support.

The effort casts light on the plight of frogs, toads, salamanders, newts and worm-like caecilians, an amphibian order found mostly in the tropics.

"Between one-third and one-half of those 6,000 species will go extinct in the wild in our lifetime," says Jeffrey Bonner, chairman of Amphibian Ark, a U.S.-based effort to raise $50 million for the rescue of species from extinction. "Each time you lose a species it's like popping a rivet on an airplane. Who cares? If you lose too many rivets, the wing falls off."

Amphibian Ark seeks to establish 500 rescue facilities, especially in Latin America and Africa, where most of the threatened species live. Cooperating zoos, many of them in the USA, would harbor them in their own facilities or new ones from Ecuador to Tanzania.

Among the strategies is to convert commercial shipping containers into mobile, "bio-secure" labs and habitats. Bonner says this "lifeboat approach" would rescue amphibians until conditions in the wild improve or science solves the mystery of a fungus called chytrid, which kills up to 80% of amphibians it encounters within months.

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums is quite likely to endorse the project at its meeting this week in Budapest, Hungary.

And what would a worldwide effort to save amphibians be without its most famous personality?

Three international conservation groups "are in conversation with Kermit the Frog," says Bonner, president and CEO of the St. Louis Zoo. "We would hope to see him in Times Square when the ball drops on New Year's to kick this thing off."

Already on board: TV naturalist Sir David Attenborough of Life on Earth and The Living Planet fame. As 2008 is a leap year, the initiative also intends to mark the calendar's extra day, Feb. 29, as "frog leap day" to further the campaign.

Bonner says 60% of America's 89 amphibians are vulnerable or endangered. The USA's federal list of threatened and endangered species includes 23 of them — six frogs, four toads and 12 salamanders. Among them is the Wyoming toad, the only amphibian alive in the world that is classified extinct in the wild, says Amphibian Ark program officer Kevin Zippel.

Extinction could eliminate potential keys to medical breakthroughs.

Scientists are studying four species that secrete a skin substance that "completely inhibited the transmissions of AIDS — they stopped AIDS cold," Bonner says. "We've yet to unlock those mysteries. But if we have no more frogs to work with or lose the one species that holds the key, we will have lost something of immeasurable value."

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