A tiny frog that secretes potent neurotoxin from its skin might not seem like an ideal pet, but poison arrow frogs native to Colombia and neighboring countries can fetch outrageous prices abroad in exotic animal markets.
Of course, the high cost is mostly due to the fact that international law prohibits their trade. But that hasn’t stopped unscrupulous “collectors” from paying rural Colombian villagers to hunt down poison arrow frogs, according to ProAves, a non-governmental organization dedicated to protecting Colombia’s bird species and other biodiversity.
The organization announced on Wednesday that it had received complaints from community members in Colombia’s Nariño department that foreigners of unknown nationality are paying fees to villagers who catch and deliver poison arrow frogs.
As many as 200 frogs, several of which are endemic to the region, are estimated to have been illegally captured so far.
“Animal trafficking is a delicate issue not just in Colombia, but in other countries with significant biodiversity,” said ProAves Director of Conservation Luis Felipe Barrera.
“But in the last decade, more and more ‘collectors’ have been seducing communities for the price of just a few pesos.”
Barrera explained that the difficult economic situation in Colombia’s most remote municipalities can make animal trafficking particularly attractive.
And considering that even the legitimate economy in many such areas is based on extraction of other things like wood, oil and other natural resources, harvesting animals isn’t much of a stretch.
“It’s easier to catch a frog than it is to chop down a tree,” he said. “And it pays more.”
According to the community members who alerted ProAves to the situation in Nariño, foreign traders are offering around $20,000 pesos per frog captured. But those frogs can sell for as much as $2,000 USD in Europe, Asia and the United States, the principal markets for exotic animals.
That’s a nearly 30,000 percent markup.
It’s not the first time that illegal trade in poison arrow frogs native to Colombia and neighboring countries has drawn international attention.
In 2010, the Oxford Wildlife Trade Research Group published an investigation that found significant discrepancies in the number of frogs reported as imported compared to the number exported in several countries around the world.
“The popularity of poison arrow frogs as pets has led to some species being over-harvested in the wild, putting them at risk,” said the report’s author, Vincent Nijman.
The investigation found that more than 60,000 poison frogs were traded worldwide between 2004 and 2008, including Colombian species that are considered at risk for extinction.
Colombia has strict legislation against animal trafficking, but the isolation of rural communities can make those laws difficult to enforce.
“There are strong policies, but they aren’t very well known in remote regions,” said Barrera. “There is also often very little state presence.”
But Barrera hopes that alerting more people to the situation will change that.
According to a ProAves spokesperson, police and public prosecutor’s office representatives are already on the case. Ministry of the Environment officials have also been alerted to the situation.
The organization is reaching out on social media in search of other whistleblowers in rural communities.