RAS AL KHAIMAH // It is not only cuddly creatures like pandas that need protection, wildlife experts say – at times, it is the slimy toads that need it most.
UAE researchers recently concluded the Middle East’s largest disease survey of amphibians, because toads worldwide face the danger of being wiped out by an infectious fungal disease.
The worry was that chytridiomycosis, an infectious disease caused by a fungus and spreading across the Americas, had reached the UAE’s reclusive amphibian population tucked away in the valleys of Ras Al Khaimah’s mountains.
“We took hundreds of samples from toads in the UAE to get tested, and they all came back negative, which is actually very good news because there are few regions in the world where the disease is not present,” said Dr Anne-Lise Chaber, head of the Wildlife Project supported by RAK Bank.
The disease has been devastating in regions where the pandemic is rampant, namely the Americas.
“Chytrids actually wipe out entire species of amphibians around the world, so it’s a huge concern,” Dr Chaber said.
About one third of the world’s 6,187 amphibian species are threatened by extinction, according to the Global Amphibian Assessment. That figure is more striking when compared with the 12 per cent of bird species and 23 per cent of mammals that face extinction.
Of the 435 amphibian species whose numbers rapidly declined from 1980 to 2004, 54 per cent of the declines were caused by overexploitation or habitat loss.
The remaining declines were declared enigmatic, because they occurred primarily in areas where suitable habitats were available and no obvious causes were seen, said Simon Stuart, chairman of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission.
New evidence shows that many declines are attributed to the disease, but in the UAE, the two main toad species – the Arabian toad and the Dhofar toad – are among the few whose populations are increasing.
This means either that the disease has not come to the UAE yet, or that it cannot exist in harsh environments, Dr Chaber said.
Dr Chaber’s study could support evidence from research published in the Diseases of Aquatic Organisms journal that found amphibians exposed to temperatures of more than 25°C were cured of the disease.
The survey is part of a three-year project started in December 2014 by animal conservationists and students to categorise and protect RAK wildlife, through field studies lasting up to four days and conducted deep in the emirate’s mountainous areas.
The inspiration behind the initiative is RAK’s unique and pristine nature, said Dr Chaber.
Outside scientific pursuit, a main goal of the surveys is to raise public awareness through fact sheets about the animals and to allow the public to volunteer as members of the conservation community.
Hussain Darwish, a 31-year-old marketing executive in Dubai, was among those who accompanied the mission, opting to spend weekends in the mountains as a volunteer with the team.
“If you have a passion for it and you want to learn, you can make time,” Mr Darwish said.
It is important to be in touch with the place where one lives, and protecting nature is crucial because it ties into global warming and other environmental hazards, he said. “Sure, they are toads, but it’s the existence of an ecosystem that depends on it. If we lose these animals, it could trigger a collapse in the wildlife, and this is so important to me – and should be to everyone.”
Mr Darwish hopes to encourage other people to do their part.
“We’re looking to educate people, to tell them how important nature is – not to kill wildlife or interfere, because it’s all a cycle,” he said.
Those interested in volunteering can email firstname.lastname@example.org.