05 September 2011

Are you braking to save the endangered western leopard toad?

Renée Leeuwner

On the evening of 1 September 2011, Two Oceans Aquarium Assistant Communications and Sustainability Manager Renée Leeuwner went on a mission to try to rescue endangered western leopard toads. When western leopard toads migrate to their breeding sites, they often have to cross a busy road – unfortunately leading to death in many instances.

The other night, I slowed down. Down to a crawl. Down to a slow-motion scan of what was waiting for us around the next corner. The other night, I had the opportunity and privilege of experiencing an evening of pouring rain, speeding motorists and western leopard toads.

Earlier in the day we were informed that the toads had started their breeding calls in Zeekoevlei. Everything pointed to them starting their migration from the gardens in the area to the vlei. By 19h10 I received a text from Helen Lockhart (Two Oceans Aquarium Communications and Sustainability Manager): “3 Already. We might need you.”

We were already on our way, but had to travel from Pinelands to Zeekoevlei. The drive felt like it dragged on forever, but eventually we arrived and so did our first frog. The little painted reed frog hopped in front of our car. Stop! Hazards on. Hood over your head against the pouring rain. Move the frog in the same direction it was going. It was cute and lovely to see, but the reed frog was not the main reason we were there.

The slow crawl of the car was accentuated by the speeding motorists swishing past us, our warning lights and torches reflecting off the wet road and the rain. “Stop,” says my companion. Calmly and without much fanfare he gets out of the car, bends down, picks something up and gets back in the car.

Slowly he reveals his hidden treasure, a tiny western leopard toadlet about 4cm in size, but with the most incredible markings! Number one for our mission.

The car crawls along. I spot something and stop. It’s a beautiful adult leopard toad that makes number two. Shortly thereafter, I had to stop again, sadly this time, to move a dead and mangled toad out of the road. In death, their white undersides fling accusations at reckless drivers, pointing a finger of shame to those who seem not to care about their battle for survival.

We meet up with frog patrollers in two other cars and together we release our toads near the vlei. They quickly disappear through the fence – on their way to congregate, breed and then to return to their garden homes until nature calls them again next year.

We continue on our mission and soon the tally stands at 15 live toads and five dead. Always the dead ones. Always the ones we didn’t get to in time.

We crawl along the roads, with the rain now bucketing down with all its might. In the road ahead there is a car, stopped at a slightly odd angle. We approach and see a western leopard toad in the road in front of the mystery car. We stop and I get out. The driver points: “There’s one! There’s one!” he exclaims excitedly. Picking up the toad, I realise that I have just found something very special. A female toad, her belly swollen and round with eggs. The next generation.

“Can I see it?” the gentleman in the car asks.

“Of course you can,” I reply.

“I’ve always wanted to see one of these,” he smiles.

“Thank you for stopping, really, thank you,” I say.

“Can I touch it?” he asks, while his companions in the car strain to see.

“Yes, you may. Thank you again for stopping. Tell your neighbours,” I entreat.

“I will, I really will,” he says as he waves and drives off, slowly.

Thank you for stopping. Thank you for making this all worthwhile.

By 22h30 when we called it a night, the tally stood at 40 live toads, 10 dead. Ten dead western leopard toads in only three hours on patrol. That’s just too many toads that won’t be able to contribute to the gene pool.

While we drive, I try to understand how people cannot see these toads in the road. It’s all in the speed I guess. I remember once seeing a photo of a lion cub that had been killed by a speeding motorist in the Kruger National Park. I was shocked and so were countless other people.

Western leopard toads are endangered animals being killed by motorists speeding down residential roads. What is it going to take to get people – for only a couple of nights a year – to just slow down and be aware of these toads? I don’t have the answer, I wish I had.

I carry incredible memories from our toading night: the first toadlet we found, the gentleman in the car, the excitement of hearing a toad call while in my hand, and the dead toads.

I have these memories and I’m still completely submerged in the excitement and feeling of “a good deed done”.

I hope that my small contribution will ensure that there is a next year for this species; that the future of the Cape natural heritage will include the western leopard toad; and that future Capetonians and visitors will have the opportunity to enjoy the unique beauty of these small amphibians.

Please slow down and brake for frogs and toads.

Thank you to everyone who contributes to the survival of the western leopard toad. Special thanks to Helen, Dagny, Neil and Gert, who shared in my incredible experience. A very special thank you to the gentleman in the car. I don’t know who you are, but you’ve made a difference.

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