The Endangered Wildlife Trust is the only non-governmental organisation operating in South Africa to include frogs as a conservation focus.
South Africa – “Conservation Biologist aka Frog Lady and wannabe marathon runner” reads the bio of Jeanne Tarrant (née Berkeljon) on social media. Those working in conservation, however, will tell you there’s a lot more to this self-effacing mom of two boys, age six and nine, than first meets the eye.
Dr Jeanne Tarrant (Pr.Sci.Nat.) is the manager of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Threatened Amphibian Programme (EWT/TAP).
“While working with frogs might seem strange to many people, it actually fulfils many of my childhood career aspirations!” she laughs.
Growing up in Underberg in the Southern Drakensberg, she always knew she would end up working with animals in one way or another. She first considered becoming a vet, then harboured a dream of making wildlife documentaries – very much inspired by David Attenborough. After finishing school, she went on to obtain a BSc (Zoology and Microbiology) degree from Rhodes University. On her return to South Africa following a five-year stint in the United Kingdom, she obtained MSc (Environmental Sciences) and PhD (Zoology) degrees from North-West University. She then joined EWT, where she has spent the past seven years.
Threatened Amphibian Programme
In 2012, Dr Tarrant initiated TAP.
“EWT is actually the only non-governmental organisation operating in South Africa to include frogs as a conservation focus,” she says.
“Accelerated loss of biodiversity in the 20th and 21st centuries has brought extinction from evolutionary time within the dimensions of ecological time, which provides us with an opportunity to study the causes of extinction in recent, not ancient, populations.”
The principle drivers of extinction in frog populations globally are habitat loss, pollution, disease and, believe it or not, harvesting for human consumption. Contrary to popular belief, frogs’ legs are not just a French delicacy, reserved for restaurants with gastronomic pretensions. In many developing countries, especially in Asia and South America, they are part of a staple diet. And because commercial frog-farming on an industrial scale is a risky and uneconomic business, the vast majority of frogs destined for this massive global trade are harvested from the wild.
Since the 1980s, the decline of modern amphibian populations has exceeded that of any animal class over the last few millennia. Currently, almost half of all known amphibian species worldwide are experiencing population crashes. And this trend is mirrored in South Africa.
“Frogs not only play an important role in most food chains, in all stages of their lifecycle, either as predators or prey. But they are also really good ‘ecological indicators’, which proves very valuable to those of us working in conservation,” says Dr Tarrant.
“Because they have permeable skins, they are very vulnerable and susceptible to even slight changes in the environment, such as pollution, land-use changes, resource exploitation, and invasive species. By monitoring frogs in both their aquatic and associated terrestrial habitats, and seeing their responses to changes in the environment, we are able to assess potential threats to the ecosystem, mobilise interventions and implement on-the-ground conservation action, and then drive long-term social change, to promote more responsible behaviour by humans.”
Dr Tarrant currently oversees a team of five, in Durban and Cape Town, and is responsible for project inception and co-ordination, specialist input, partner and donor relations, fundraising and project management.
“My day is typically very varied and can involve anything from children’s education to legislation,” she says.
Sadly, I do spend a lot of time in front of my laptop, writing proposals and managing budgets! But I am also very blessed that my work takes me to beautiful places all over South Africa and beyond, and that I get to work with an amazing group of like-minded, passionate people.”
“Fieldwork is very seasonal,” she continues.
“During winter, most of my time is spent in the office. During the summer, I spend more time outdoors. And because frogs are nocturnal, most of my fieldwork happens at night. I’ve actually had a few occasions when police or security have wanted to arrest me because I am wondering around wetlands in the dark! It probably does look a bit dodgy!” she laughs.
Pickersgill’s Reed Frog Biodiversity Management Plan
Pickersgill’s Reed Frog is a priority species for TAP. Named after the herpetologist, Martin Pickersgill, who discovered the species in Mount Edgecombe, Durban in 1978, Pickersgill’s Reed Frog is listed as Endangered on the Red List of Threatened Species, primarily due to habitat loss, both in terms of area and quality.
The Pickersgill’s Reed Frog Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP), led by Dr Tarrant and gazetted in June 2017, was the first of its kind for a threatened frog in South Africa to be formally recognised by the government. The aim of the BMP includes the conservation, research, protection, and rehabilitation of the species and its habitat in the wild.
Pickersgill’s Reed Frog was also the first threatened frog species in South Africa to be used in an ex-situ captive breeding programme, to create genetically diverse and sustainable ‘insurance’ populations, which can be introduced or reintroduced back into their natural habitat, whenever a need arises. Along with TAP, other stakeholders in this Pickersgill’s Reed Frog breeding programme include the Department of Environmental Affairs, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, and Johannesburg Zoo.
As part of the implementation of the BMP, TAP are working towards declaring over 500 hectares of coastal wetland on the KZN South Coast a formally protected habitat for Pickersgill’s Reed Frog, to secure the long-term future of this species, and offset the impacts of mining and development on its habitat. They are also working with landowners and several municipalities to include Pickersgill’s Reed Frog sites in their environmental planning and management systems.
Ford Wildlife Foundation
“The sponsorship of a Ford Ranger double cab from the Ford Wildlife Foundation (FWF) has made a huge difference to our project,” says Dr Tarrant.
“It is our first sponsored vehicle since the project began, and enables our team to do their work more efficiently and reach more sites. Community outreach and environmental education are really important aspects of our work – so far we have engaged over 600 children in the Durban area with our ‘Frogs in the Classroom’ learning modules – and having a branded vehicle, including our frog decals, is certainly a conversation starter, which helps build trust in the communities where we operate.”
“Ford has been actively involved in conservation efforts in Southern Africa for 30 years now,” says Lynda du Plessis, manager of FWF.
“The FWF itself was established in 2014, and we are privileged to be able to assist projects like the EWT’s Threatened Amphibian Programme through the use of our vehicles. Dr Tarrant epitomises what it takes to belong to a very inspiring tribe of ladies affiliated to the FWF, whom we have fondly dubbed Ford’s #WomenWithDrive. And we would like to take this opportunity to thank Dr Tarrant and the rest of her team, for all their hard work and tireless efforts to make the world a better place – not just for this generation, but generations to come.”