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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Kihansi Spray Toads

Air Date: Week of

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TOOMEY: The Kihansi spray toad is found in only one place on earth. The tiny amphibian lives in the mist around a single remote Tanzanian waterfall. And unfortunately for the toad, this is now the site of a hydroelectric dam, designed to provide a quarter of that African nation's electricity. Later on we'll hear about a captive breeding program for the toad at the Bronx Zoo. But first, we talk to Interpress Service reporter, Danielle Knight, who recently traveled to the Kihansi River Gorge. She learned about the conflicting attempts to preserve the endangered toad's habitat while trying to meet the power needs of the Tanzanian people. Danielle, thanks for joining us.

KNIGHT: Hi. Thank you.

TOOMEY: First off, what do these toads look like?

KNIGHT: Well, it's very small. It's about the size of a fingernail, and it's a yellowish-green, or lime green color, and lives in this one specific area where the spray from the waterfall that's created when the Kihansi river goes over and through the gorge. And it's a small gorge. I mean, I hiked down it in about three hours. It's nothing like the Grand Canyon or anything like that.

TOOMEY: Now since this toad wasn't even known about until after the hydroelectric dam project was well under way, talk to me about how carefully officials considered the environmental impacts of the dam in the gorge area. Were they looking hard enough?

KNIGHT: Well, in the early 1990s, the World Bank commissioned some environmental impact studies. But these studies only seemed to look at the impact the reservoir created by the dam would have on the area and on the surrounding eco-system. But they didn't look at the downstream impacts of cutting off the water supply from the gorge so that it could go through the turbines. When I was in Tanzania I spoke with Francis Nyange, who's the coordinator of the Journalists' Environmental Association of Tanzania, which is an environmental advocacy group. Here's what he had to say about his concerns about the environmental impact assessments.

NYANGE: We're not against the dam. We like electricity and we really appreciate the initiative taken by the government and donors to support this important Kihansi dam, because it was aimed at alleviating poverty and improving standard of living. But our concern is the way the question of environmental assessment was treated. I think it was not given sufficient attention.

KNIGHT: This is a concern that you hear a lot also from environmentalists in the United States, with Friends of the Earth, and also with Norwegian environmental activists, that the World Bank should have done more thorough environmental assessments so that this toad could have been discovered before the construction was underway. Because by the time the toad was discovered in 1996, tens of millions of dollars had already been spent on the construction of the dam so there was no turning back at that point.

TOOMEY: How important is this dam for meeting Tanzania's energy needs?

KNIGHT: Well the dam, when it runs at full capacity, is about 180 megawatts, which by U.S. standards is a pretty small dam. But Tanzania's a developing country, and so their electricity needs are not as great. But the dam would provide about one-fourth of Tanzania's energy needs.

TOOMEY: So the Tanzania Electric Supply Company, known as TANESCO, is now trying to do something to preserve the toad's habitat. Correct?

KNIGHT: Right. In order to protect the toad, there have been a number of mitigation efforts underway. And one of them is diverting part of the Kihansi River away from the power project and through a pipe to go to a sprinkler system for the toad that keeps the gorge moist and keeps the toad's habitat intact. When I was in Tanzania I spoke with Decklan Mhaiki, who's the plant manager at Kihansi. And he stressed the need for balancing the environment and Tanzania's energy needs. And this is what he had to say:

MHAIKI: During construction, there was a bypass pipe which was constructed, and it was releasing two cubic meters per second. And we've been doing that throughout the plant operation period. That has impacted our energy needs, definitely. We are losing about 25 percent of what we could generate, particularly in the dry period.

TOOMEY: So the toads don't get their habitat the way it was, and the Tanzanian people don't get all the electricity they expected?

KNIGHT: Right. So this is what TANESCO means by a balance between environment and development of Tanzania's electricity.

TOOMEY: What do the local people, on the ground in Tanzania, have to say about all this?

KNIGHT: Most people that I spoke with, especially in the larger cities, really saw the issue as the toad versus Tanzania's development. And they saw the western scientists and western donors and the western environmentalists telling Tanzania what to do. You know, telling them how they should develop. So there's some resentment. But also if you talk with local people, some local people say the gorge is sacred. And it is a very special place. I mean, it's very beautiful, and there's a waterfall, and it's very lush. Some local people think that if the toads are tampered with, something bad will happen.

TOOMEY: So what's the ultimate fate of the Kihansi spray toad?

KNIGHT: Well, some scientists are trying to find out if some water from nearby streams can be diverted so that the water for the sprinkler system isn't coming from the Kihansi River, so that the power plant could run at full capacity. But, you know, this could impact that and other ecosystems. So scientists are still trying to figure out what the best long-term solution would be. Also they're looking to see if the toad can live in other areas, in other gorges nearby. But so far they haven't had any success. One of the other things that scientists are looking at is captive breeding programs. About 500 toads were brought to the United States to the Bronx Zoo and the Detroit Zoo so that scientists could study the toads in captivity to find out, you know, what kind of food they need and what they need to survive, and also to try and make sure that the toads survive. If they don't survive in the Kihansi Gorge, at least there's a captive bunch of toads that they hopefully can keep protected.

TOOMEY: Danielle Knight is the Environment Correspondent with Interpress Service, based in Washington, D.C. Thanks for joining us today.

KNIGHT: Thank you.

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EDDINGS: This is Amy Eddings at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. This is the zoo's popular sea lion exhibit. This species, along with others like lions, tigers, elephants and bears, are considered charismatic megafauna by zoologists. By contrast, the fingernail-sized Kihansi spray toad lives in plastic cages, in a quarantined room that's off limits to throngs of cheering children. An unassuming microfauna.

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SEARLE: Today at the Bronx we have 82 adults. So we've lost about 190 adults. And we have 258 offspring.

EDDINGS: Zoologist Jason Searle heads up the Bronx Zoo's efforts to save the Kihansi spray toad from extinction. After a year of negotiations with the Tanzanian government Searle visited the Kihansi Gorge last November and collected 500 toads. Some went to the Detroit Zoo. The rest stayed in the Bronx. John Behler is the curator of herpetology at the New York Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the Bronx Zoo.

BEHLER: Our basic goal is to develop a captive population that will be self-sustaining, and from which we can draw genetic material for restocking areas in Tanzania.

EDDINGS: The Wildlife Conservation Society's most famous effort was saving the American bison from extinction at the turn of the 20th century. But conservationists were familiar with that species. The Kihansi spray toad was unknown to the world until 1996. Conservationists are learning about them through trial and error.

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SEARLE: You can see this is a fairly fine mist. This misting system replicates the mist that forms when the water going over the waterfall hits the rocks and water below.

EDDINGS: Jason Searle is trying to make the toad feel at home and ready to mate. Then there's the matter of food. Most toads lay eggs. But the Kihansi spray toad gives birth to incredibly tiny live young, so tiny they couldn't eat fruit flies or even minuscule pinhead crickets.

SEARLE: There's another small toad called Mantellas, which are from Madagascar. And the young of that species will eat springtails. So we took a page out of that book and tried it as one of these last - let's just give it a shot. And they ate them, and it was like joy. Thank goodness.

EDDINGS: The toads also brought with them a parasitic and fatal lung worm that Searle and his small team are trying to understand and eradicate before they kill off the toads. No one knows anything about how these rare toads breed, how often they give birth, or how long they live. Curator John Behler says the zoo's effort is open-ended and that it may be a long time before these questions are successfully answered.

BEHLER: Our biggest concern concerning the timeline is that we may become a babysitter for this species and its conservation for many, many years. And so we are voicing this concern to all those that will listen.

EDDINGS: Other zoos in Oklahoma City, Toledo, and Baltimore are joining the effort to breed the toad in captivity, using young toads from the Detroit and Bronx zoos. The zoos are financing these efforts themselves. At the Bronx Zoo, the Toad Conservation Project takes up most of Jason Searle's time and costs about $50,000 annually. The World Bank, which helped finance the Tanzanian hydroelectric dam, is considering loaning Tanzania $6,000,000 to help it start its own breeding program.

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EDDINGS: Back in the Bronx, Jason Searle thinks the effort to preserve the toad's Tanzanian home and native population may be too late. He realizes the number of Kihansi spray toads in the gorge has dropped nearly 90 percent since the dam opened last year.

SEARLE: This is why we're here. We're here for these little, nondescript, who-knows-anything-about toads. For the most part, people in the world, they'll sit there and they'll think that I'm a wacko and they think, you know, "What are you doing? It's only a toad. Bit deal," you know. "What's all the fuss about?" But these guys have just as much right to be where they are as you and I do to be standing here.

EDDINGS: For Living on Earth, I'm Amy Eddings at the Bronx Zoo in New York City.

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