Every so often, you meet someone who’s story becomes synonymous with hope and inspiration. For me, Whitley Award Winner and Togo Slippery Frog guardian Caleb Ofori-Boateng is one of those people.
Born in Ghana, West Africa, Caleb became the first formally trained herpetologist (amphibians and reptile expert) in Ghana. He is the Founder of Herp Conservation Ghana, a charity that helps to protect amphibians and reptiles and is best known for discovering that the Togo slippery frog is not extinct, even though scientists had believed it had died out 40 years ago!
Caleb has worked tirelessly in the remote forests of the Togo-Volta Highlands to ensure this Critically Endangered amphibian’s protection ever since.
The Togo slippery frog
Caleb works with the Togo slippery frog, which is also known as the ‘whistling frog’ due to the sound it makes. The species was thought to have been extinct until Caleb and his team heard its calls in the night time and discovered a previously unknown population.
He has become the local guardian of this frog species, and has found that the biggest threat to the species is humans. For thousands of year’s local people have viewed these frogs as food, and continue to eat them.
Through education about the importance of this Critically Endangered frog, many people have decided to change their eating habits and have even donated their land to create a safe zone for these noisy critters.
I sat down to chat with Caleb on behalf of National Geographic Kids magazine, shortly after he was announced as a Whitley Award Winner and chatted to him about his fabulous frog discoveries, and the things that make his story so unique…
Kate: Hi Caleb! What inspired you to work in conservation?
Caleb: I was inspired by my father to work in wildlife conservation. When I was a little boy, my father was one of the park officials of the National Park, and I was literally born into the reserve.
So it was in my blood. For those early years I lived conservation.
I had a very good relationship with my father and he would often carry me around the reserve on his back, or we would go out in his old jeep to watch buffalos and duikers.
Then he died suddenly when I was 7 years old and he was only 45 years old. It was traumatising for me. I related this loss to species extinction.
As a little boy I had this hope that maybe one day I could grow up and do something to bring him back. I didn’t understand what death really was – I felt like he’d gone somewhere and that he was going to come back, or that something would happen and I would see him again.
I realised over time that it was impossible for that to happen, and I understood that that was what happens when a species goes extinct. The species has potential benefits, just like my father had big plans for wildlife conservation in Ghana – but none of that can happen when they’re gone.
When I realised the rate of extinction, I felt I was in a race against time.
What made you have an interest in amphibians?
Caleb: I wanted to do conservation work that matters and decided to look into amphibians, because I learnt that they were among the most endangered and most threatened species and there was nobody in Ghana who was researching or working with them.
Amphibian research had only taken place in Ghana in the 1950s and 1970s. I knew that nothing was being done today, so if I didn’t do something myself, we would lose a whole lot of species, including ones that science doesn’t even know exists yet.
All I knew about amphibians and reptiles was that toads were not very beautiful or colourful – but when I went out to the forests, I saw frogs that were beautiful; black, green, yellow and red. My love for them really deepened by the day, I’ve developed a deep connection to these vulnerable creatures.
You specialise in helping the Togo slippery frog. What is it that makes this species interesting to you?
Caleb: The Togo slippery frog was named after the Republic of Togo, where it was discovered, but locally we call it the ‘whistling frog’, after the sound it makes. It whistles through the forest.
It is one of the closest relatives of the largest frogs in the world, but it’s very hard to see. It spends about 99 per cent of its time in the stream, so you have to track it down by its call.
Scientists spent 40 years believing that the Togo slippery frog was extinct, but you helped to discover a new population and change the animal’s classification. How are you now helping to keep the species safe?
Caleb: I helped to find the frog species and reverse the extinction classification when I was just beginning my conservation work in 2005 and I was part of a training expedition.
As the only local person on the team, it became my responsibly to ensure they survived.
There was no legal protection where this frog species was found. It was found in people’s private forests, community land, in streams and waterfalls that weren’t protected.
You have to look at why a species is in trouble; what the problems are, why are frogs in decline? And you can always relate these to human activities.
Local people consider the Togo slippery frog as food. It’s been a part of their diet for 5,000 years. Historically, it is part of the reason why people settled in the area – in those days they were very dependent in the natural resources, and this was a very easy food resource.
So I had to ask the questions: why would people eat a critically endangered frog, today? The answer is: it’s possible that they don’t know that is critically endangered, so the issue could be knowledge, information and awareness. Why would people destroy the forests and streams that the frogs live in? They probably don’t understand the science of it.
We’ve identified a low level of conservation awareness as one of the key issues to tackle – so we’ve started by creating awareness in local communities and getting them involved.
What are some of the ways you’re helping local people to care about these frogs?
Caleb: People asked “what can we do to help?”, and we told them these areas were critical for the frogs. So people started donating land!
We mapped it out and there are 17 families, including a local church, who have donated 847 acres (3.4 sqkm) of their land, which is now a legally protected area.
We are finding innovative ways to spread the word. We have volunteers from the local communities who all wear our t’shirt and go to their churches to share our message.
They’re also planting trees to restore the habitat, and patrolling the reserve to make sure that other people are not destroying the critical areas.
We’re getting children involved by showing them camera trapping techniques and things to get them interested in conservation.
While I was studying and doing my research, I would always go to the schools and talk to the children about frogs, climate change and planting trees.
I felt that we had lost a lot of time when it came to saving frogs, so I took every opportunity to go into schools and talk to children about helping frogs.
We’re currently working to complete a centre where students can come in their free time to watch conservation videos and enhance their education.
Is it true that you also discovered a new species of puddle frog?
Caleb: Yes. Our study in 2005 was the first study of amphibians in Ghana in more than 30 years, so we knew very little.
It was necessary to start off with making a general inventory, so we could find out which species we still had in Ghana, to begin to develop conservation programmes for them.
I did lots of surveys and we found a couple of new species – in fact, we’re still finding new species. I discovered a new species this year that I named after my mother.
What an honour for your mother. Was she excited to have a frog named after her?
Caleb: Yes, she was very proud. It’s a puddle frog, which is a very small species of frog, and it’s called afiabrago.
My mother’s name is Afia, which is a name given in Ghana if you are born on a Friday, and Brago is her Surname. It’s the only frog that has a Ghanaian name.
When my father died, life was very difficult for all of us, but my mother did incredibly well to keep us going to school and to raise us. So I thought I would immortalise her in this way.
What advice would you give children who want to make a difference themselves?
Caleb: I once read on a tall building in the United States: “What you are passionate about can change the world”. My advice would be to not lose that passion.
There’s a lot of things that people will want you to be: family, parents, school; they might have certain ideas for you, but only you know your true calling.
If you have the opportunity to follow it, give it all you’ve got. You may change the world.
Read the full interview from National Geographic Kids magazine and discover what happened on the night Caleb discovered the Togo Slippery Frog population (reversing their extinction status) and hear his dream for the future by clicking here or on the image below: