Bolivian lake island aims to become sanctuary for giant frogs


A man holds a Titicaca water frog, a critically dangered amphibian, on April 9, 2019, at Isla de la Luna, an island on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. EPA-EFE/Martin Alipaz

ISLA DE LUNA, BOLIVIA.- The 25 families who live on this island on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca are looking to make their home a sanctuary for critically endangered giant frogs.

The Telmatobius culeus, commonly known as the Titicaca water frog, is considered a sacred animal by the 85 residents of this island, which also is known as Isla de Coati and is accessible by boat from the town of Copacabana, located roughly 150 kilometers (90 miles) from La Paz.

«We want to protect the frogs. That’s why we want this place to be declared a sanctuary so they’re protected and aren’t hunted,» Porfirio Mamani, the island’s indigenous authority, or Sullka Mallku, told EFE.

He said that for his community and many others on the shores of Lake Titicaca, which has a surface elevation of 3,812 meters (12,507 feet) and is the world’s highest navigable lake, these frogs are important because «they attract the rain» that is vital for their bean, potato and corn crops.

Indeed, when the region is short of water local residents conduct a ritual with native music and dances so that the frogs «sing» and bring rain to the island with their sounds.

In addition, when these amphibians are found near the shores of the lake they signal the presence of large quantities of ispi, a small fish that is widely consumed by the local population and a fundamental part of the community’s economy.

«For all of these reasons, the frogs are sacred to us and we respect them,» Mamani said, adding that when they are «caught in the nets cast for the ispi we carefully free them.»

For his part, Arturo Muñoz, a biologist with the Bolivian Amphibian Initiative, a foundation that supports Isla de la Luna’s sanctuary project, said that island «is one of the best sites for this species» because of the conditions of the habitat, its numbers and health and the commitment of the local inhabitants.

The Titicaca water frog, which is exclusively found in Lake Titicaca and has a round head, a large body and prominent folds of baggy skin that allow it to absorb the oxygen it needs, has been listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

The frogs once grew to as long as 20 centimeters, although now the length of the specimens seen in the lake are between 10-12 cm.

These amphibians are threatened by pollution in Lake Titicaca and also are hunted and sold as a delicacy in restaurants or as an ingredient in aphrodisiac juices that are mainly consumed in Peru, biologist Patricia Mendoza, coordinator of the Bolivian Amphibian Initiative, told EFE.

Efforts to conserve the Titicaca water frog go hand-in-hand with a vision of promoting sustainable ecotourism and boosting the income of the island’s residents, who depend mainly on fishing and the sale of handicrafts for their livelihoods.

Lake Titicaca has a surface area of more than 8,500 square kilometers (3,280 square miles), serves as a natural border between Bolivia and Peru and is a tourist attraction for both countries.
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