Frog hunting in Ecuador

Ecuador is truly a country of contrasts. You can travel from suffocating heat and humidity in the Amazon region to the thin cold air of the high Andes to tropical coast and beautiful beaches – in less than a day.

A few days in the Amazon region provided a glimpse of a life a million miles from mine. I got healed by a local healer, who used tobacco leaves to purge me of my negative aura. To celebrate, I drank Chi-cha, a locally made beverage. Only after a copule of large gulps did I learn from what it is made: chewed up pieces of yucca spat into a bucket and left to ferment for a few weeks. I won’t be ordering that one again.

From the Amazon we scaled the crest of the Andes to descend into Quito, before embarking on a 10 hour drive south to Cuenca. Vertigo-inducing roads treated us to spectacular views of volcanoes, glaciers and mountains cloaked in a colourful patchwork of land carved up for agriculture.

Cuenca has a very European feel with quaint cobbled streets, impressive architecture and nice cafes, and I immediately warmed to it. However, a brief glimpse of the culture was all I was allowed before I was whisked off to the cold, inhospitable mountains in search of rare frogs.

Myself and companions from the Catolica University loaded up with three whole chickens, three loaves of bread and lots of chocolate and headed to a high elevation forest, where we would spend our first day and night in a refuge. Our mission for the next two day was to find two species of frog only known from one site. A bright green harlequin frog used to be so abundant at this forest site that you had to watch your step: the park guard who walks these trails every day hasn’t seen one in twelve years.

We found a stream that offered perfect habitat for the frog and spent several hours clambering up slippery rocks and wading through plunge pools in search of the little creatures. Nothing. It felt as if we had come to document the extinction of this species. Knowing that these streams, which one were alive with small colorful frogs, are now all but empty felt pretty heart-wrenching.

As the light dimmed rapidly, we wearily made our way back to the refuge. In a last ditch effort, we decided to flip a few rocks on the way: and there, under the first one, sat a bright green little frog!!

We returned to the refuge happy, tired and cold. And I mean cold. Something about the thin, damp air and the wind makes the cold even more penetrating at these altitudes. It’s hard to believe you are above the equator.

After a cold night spent trying to find the most thermally efficient position, we set of to Paramo of the Parque Nacional Cajas in search of a jet black harlequin frog. We took a six-hour “stroll” over rolling mountains above 4,000 m. I soon warmed up under my many layers of clothing – but the elevation made it pretty tough going. The views were absolutely spectacular, with shimmering lakes scattered in the foothills of impressively high mountains that stretched as far as the eye could see. On a clear day, you can stand on a mountain at 4,400 m and see the sea!

After three hours of hiking we learned that nobody had actually brought any food. I had, however, remembered to bring a bottle of rum. Supposedly it is a good remedy for altitude sickness – so I pulled it out and we drank. The hike back was tough going – I wasn’t sure if the breathlessness, dizziness and pounding headache was a result of the altitude or the rum. Our attempts to rent a mule from passing locals failed miserably and we plodded on.

We didn’t find the frog we had set out to find – but we did find a species we think may be new to science. So, while frogs continue to blink out of existence around the world, it is good to be reminded that there are still species out there of which we know nothing. Conservation isn’t always depressing.

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