Poison arrow frog mystery

There are suspicious discrepancies in the numbers of South American poison arrow frogs reported in international trade, according to a new study published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

green-and-black poison arrow frog Dendrobates auratus photo.jpgThe green-and-black poison arrow frog Dendrobates auratus was the poison arrow frog species most frequently reported species in international trade, the wildlife trade monitoring organization, TRAFFIC, said today.

Photo by Chris Martin Bahr/WWF

Vincent Nijman of the Oxford Wildlife Trade Research Group and Chris Shepherd of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia analyzed international trade records reported to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) between 2004 and 2008 in poison arrow frogs species native to South and Central America, TRAFFIC said in a news statement today.

“They uncovered a number of discrepancies in the data.

“Kazakhstan, for example, reported no trade whatsoever in poison arrow frogs, but between 2004 and 2008, Thailand claimed to have imported more than 2,500 originating from Kazakhstan, via Lebanon,” TRAFFIC said.


Blue poison frog (Dendrobates azureus) from Suriname.

Photo by Chris Martin Bahr/WWF-Canon

“It is probably highly significant that exports from Kazakhstan to Thailand went via Lebanon, a non-party to CITES who, therefore, would be under no obligation to report the transfer,” said Chris Shepherd, Senior Programme Officer with TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

“Further investigations should be carried out into the reasons why this particular route was reportedly used and authorities should also be alerted to the possibility that specimens declared as captive-bred could be wild-caught and are being laundered into the international trade,” Shepherd said.


Green-and-black poison arrow frog.

NGS stock photo by James L. Stanfield

Many poison arrow frogs are brightly colored to act as a warning to predators, which has led to them becoming popular as exotic pets in Europe and North America, and increasingly in Asia, TRAFFIC added. “They are so-called because of their toxic skin secretions, used by indigenous people in South America as poison on the tips of blow-darts.”

“The popularity of poison arrow frogs as pets has led to some species being over-harvested in the wild, putting them at risk,” Nijman said.


Phantasmal poison frog (Epipedobates tricolor)

Photo by Chris Martin Bahr/WWF-Canon

According to the study: More than 63,000 poison arrow frogs of 32 species were traded internationally between 2004 and 2008. For 21 species the majority of individuals were reported as captive-bred. Around a fifth were destined for markets in Asia–Japan, Thailand and Taiwan–where keeping exotic pets is becoming increasingly popular.


Poison Dart Frog (Dendrobates tinctorius)

Photo by Martin Harvey/WWF-Canon

“Five of the species reported in trade are regarded by IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, as at risk of global extinction. They include the golden poison frog Phyllobates terribilis, an endangered species known only from tiny areas on the Pacific coast of Colombia. Of 342 reported in trade, 287 were claimed to have been captive-bred, 200 of them in Kazakhstan,” TRAFFIC said.

“Similarly, 100 of the 213 Epipedobates tricolor reported in trade–a species known from just seven localities in Ecuador–were said to be captive-bred in Kazakhstan, while 200 of the 220 reported captive-bred black-legged poison frogs Phyllobates bicolor, a Near Threatened species, were also claimed to have originated in the Central Asian country.”


Trade routes of frogs from Kazakhstan and Lebanon to Thailand and thence to South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. Size of arrows are proportional to the volumes traded. The dotted line indicates a minimum number of individuals following an assumed route from range states.

Map courtesy of Vincent Nijman and Chris R. Shepherd/Conservation Biodiversity

The authors recommend better accuracy in reporting and investigations into the origin of pets in international trade to ensure wild-caught specimens are not being laundered under the guise of being captive-bred.

poison dart frogs facts.jpg

Last month, representatives of 175 member governments to CITES met in Doha, Qatar and voted for stronger controls over the international trade in Central American treefrogs, and effectively banned all commercial trade in Kaiser’s Spotted Newts from Iran.

“While a CITES listing will help both the treefrogs and the newt threatened by trade, as the poison arrow frog case demonstrates, a listing is only useful if it is properly adhered to,” Nijman said.

All species of poison arrow frog (genera Dendrobates, Phyllobates, Epipedobates and Cryptophyllobates) are listed in Appendix II of CITES, thereby regulating international commercial trade in the species, TRAFFIC pointed out.

The paper by Vincent Nijman and Chris R. Shepherd, The role of Asia in the global trade in CITES II: Listed poison arrow frogs: hopping from Kazakhstan to Lebanon to Thailand and beyond,  is published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

TRAFFIC is a partnership of the conservation organizations WWF and IUCN. The UK-based network employs around 100 staff based in nearly 30 countries.


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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn