It Takes a Village to Save a Frog
A community in Ghana rallies to help the Togo slippery frog, an effort that benefits their own people and other endangered wildlife
The Togo slippery frog was thought to be extinct. Over five millennia, human hunting, fishing and habitat destruction decimated populations. But in April 2007, toward the end of an arduous three-week expedition to assess the amphibians of southern Ghana and western Togo, Ghana’s first formally trained herpetologist, Caleb Ofori-Boateng, finally spotted one. The frog sat in a shallow stream by a forest near the Togolese village of Missahohé. After that first recorded sighting since 1980, scientists documented a few more Togo slippery frogs in the Togo-Volta region of Ghana. But Ofori-Boateng was not present for this leg of the expedition, and for years, he wondered if he would ever get to see the frog in his home country.
Ofori-Boateng’s dream finally came true on a late evening in March 2013, when he spotted a frog close to a waterfall outside the town of Amedzofe. The frog, a roughly three-inch-long creature with brown skin, had eyes that captivated Ofori-Boateng. “I was amazed by its perfect dark pupils that were surrounded by seemingly pure gold,” he says. The herpetologist had seen more than 40 species of frogs, but the Togo slippery frog stood out because of its beautiful whistling call, which it made while calmly sitting in water. Ofori-Boateng picked the frog up and held it in his hands, but once he loosened his grip, the amphibian leapt gracefully away. “It’s totally unique, and there’s no other frog left on the planet like it,” he says.
Indeed, the Togo slippery frog is ranked 18th on a list of the 100 most evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered amphibians. The last population assessment in 2020 across Togo and Ghana indicated the existence of around 249 individuals, with the entire Ghanaian population dwelling exclusively in the Togo-Volta highlands.
Back in 2006, during his quests to document and discover the frogs of Togo and Ghana, Ofori-Boateng set up Herp-Ghana, a nonprofit that is West Africa’s first amphibian-focused conservation group. While in the field, he encountered illegal logging and hunting, and he realized he and other researchers had to act to save critically endangered species like the Togo slippery frog from extinction.
Ofori-Boateng and others at Herp-Ghana spent a decade tirelessly building relationships with residents of villages and towns in the Togo-Volta forests and convincing them of the value of amphibian conservation. In late 2018, they spearheaded the formation of an 864-acre reserve—the Onepone Endangered Species Refuge—that is now co-owned and managed entirely by local communities, and which has since expanded to 12,000 acres to include a sustainable use zone. Herp-Ghana works with around 20,000 residents across the three towns of Amedzofe, Akome and Gbadzeme, training “behavior change champions” to encourage locals to quit poaching in the forests. According to Ofori-Boateng, this grassroots strategy has worked well. He says any illegal hunting that has taken place in the last few years is by wealthier individuals from distant cities.
The reserve’s rangers—some of whom were former poachers themselves—have been diligent in making their rounds and looking out for unlawful activity in the reserve. In addition, locals, volunteers and Herp-Ghana staff have also restored degraded areas of the refuge by planting 20,000 trees to prevent the erosion of the frog’s waterfall and stream habitat. The community’s efforts have had a positive impact on the conservation of many species and have helped save the Togo slippery frog. According to Ofori-Boateng, Herp-Ghana’s recent estimates show that the frog population has more than doubled since its last estimates in 2013 of 156 individuals.
Spurred on by their conservation success, Ofori-Boateng and his team at Herp-Ghana are using their model to create another reserve. Last year, they found an additional 350 Togo slippery frogs outside the confines of Onepone, prompting them to apply to the local municipal government to create an additional area that will span 2,470 acres and protect this new cluster of frogs and 12 other critically endangered, vulnerable and near-threatened species. These include the white-bellied pangolin, the bay duiker and the hooded vulture. The reserve, which will be set up over the next two years with a grant of $87,000 from the United Kingdom-based conservation charity Whitley Fund for Nature, is expected to be a sanctuary for almost 500 wildlife species. Though a detailed survey of the area is yet to be conducted, Ofori-Boateng believes that his team is highly likely to find more unique species as work continues on this planned reserve. “We’ve found at least one new frog,” he says.
The new and old reserve have largely resulted from Ofori-Boateng’s ability to conjure up support at a grassroots level through education outreach. Since 2017, Ofori-Boateng and his team have traveled through the towns in the highlands, correcting existing misconceptions about the frog and trying to persuade locals that saving it and conserving its forest habitat could benefit them socioeconomically, as well as be a source of pride for the community.
Ofori-Boateng says some of the locals believed the frogs had the magical power to change the sex of whoever they jumped onto. Others traditionally consumed frogs as a delicacy. In addition, the communities were heavily reliant on logging for their income and couldn’t understand why forest conservation was important.
Much of the initial outreach work focused on persuading locals how special their forest home was and that they should be caretakers of nature rather than destructors of it. The team convinced locals that it would be a pity to let the Togo slippery frog go extinct without ever learning its true value. “We know that frogs have been important in scientific research, that they may even help in the search for a cure for HIV,” says Ofori-Boateng. “The world might [come to] know about these communities because they helped save this species.”
Getting and maintaining community support began paying off for Ofori-Boateng even before the first reserve was established. In 2018, locals living around the Atewa Forest reserve— where Ofori-Boateng had also previously conducted fieldwork—rallied fiercely against a proposed government scheme to sell the land for bauxite mining in order to repay a loan from China. Resistance was so strong that the plan was scrapped. The creation of the first reserve soon followed, as Herp-Ghana recognized that these communities were now keen on taking charge of conservation efforts. “Their support against mining was massive,” Ofori-Boateng says, “because the general attitude before was that it would have brought them money. We’ve really built a lot of momentum.”
Godwin Dagadu is a 37-year-old tour guide from the village of Amedzofe near the reserve. When the team first showed up in the village in 2017 and tried to talk to locals about the Togo slippery frog, he was skeptical. “It sounded very funny to me, and I wondered why we should be protecting a frog,” he says. “I didn’t like frogs and used to think they were noisy. Then they explained to us that it was about maintaining ecological balance, and now I see its value.”
He decided to join Herp-Ghana’s outreach activities, which involve going into churches and homes in the Togo-Volta area and talking to people about the importance of protecting the environment and caring about amphibians in particular. Ofori-Boateng calls this “conservation evangelism,” a nod to the importance of religion in the cultural lives of Ghanaians. A Christian from birth, Ofori-Boateng does a lot of the conservation evangelism himself, going early to the church to find out what the sermon is about—then asking for permission from church leaders to speak to the congregation by linking parts of the scripture to draw attention to conservation.
Candace Hansen, the executive director of the Amphibian Survival Alliance, an environmental nonprofit, says that what Ofori-Boateng is doing with conservation evangelism is innovative because it “has the potential to build support for conservation efforts among religious communities, which can be a powerful force for change.”
But promoting conservation among local communities isn’t just about conservation evangelism. “We have meetings and workshops with many different stakeholders, to build trust with them and help them understand the opportunities that wildlife conservation presents for them,” Ofori-Boateng says.
The herpetologist and his team meet with game hunters and women who run small businesses. They assure them that they’ll benefit from ecotourism activities—which have seen an encouraging increase owing to a scenic canopy walkway that was built by Herp-Ghana. Twenty percent of the revenue that comes from tourist visits is distributed to locals, and an additional 7 percent is devoted to community development—including to student scholarships and the maintenance of water systems. The rest is funneled back to those who donated land for the reserve, to demonstrate that conservation is a financially viable activity and encourage them to continue investing in it.
Dagadu, who has lived his whole life in Amedzofe and says he never wants to move anywhere else, enjoys his role immensely. He often uses music as a strategy to assemble locals before bringing them into the forests and educating them on the variety of wildlife that is endemic there. As a tour guide, he is also delighted that the village now has more attractions. “Initially we only had the mountains and the waterfalls,” he says. “Now we have the forest reserve and the canopy walkway.”
The locals are already responding well to the announcement of the new reserve. Representatives of the three towns worked with Herp-Ghana toward the end of 2022 to create a benefit-sharing scheme similar to the one implemented at Onepone, and later this year, the communities will present plans for the reserve to the municipal government for review and approval. The reserve is expected to be established over the next two years. Ofori-Boateng says that he has seen a wave of support for pangolin conservation owing to outreach activities about the wildlife species that the refuge will be protecting. “We’ve been seeing people who used to keep pangolins in their homes come forward and say they want to return them to the reserve, which is fantastic,” he says.
Gilbert Adum, another Ghanaian herpetologist who is executive director of the nonprofit Save Ghana Frogs and has considered Ofori-Boateng a mentor since his university days, believes that Herp-Ghana has done a lot to show locals that protecting the frogs benefits them more than harvesting the frogs for food. “It’s not just nature for nature—it’s nature for people, too,” he says.
Hansen agrees: “One of the key strengths of Caleb’s approach is his focus on working with local stakeholders.” She says it is particularly striking how Ofori-Boateng is able to straddle such different interests, and that doing so is important because “it recognizes that conservation efforts cannot succeed without the support of local communities.”
Ofori-Boateng says the project also brings back emotional memories of his late father, who worked as a park ranger at Ghana’s Mole National Park and died when Ofori-Boateng was only seven. “I was very close to him. I remember his amazing tenderness as he carried me on his shoulders, while we looked at these duikers and buffalo,” he says. “He taught me that the norm was for people to be in nature, and so it was very strange for me to go into the cities and find that this was not the case.”
To this day, thinking of an animal species going extinct conjures up the same feelings of sadness that resulted from his father’s death. “It’s like having your loved one disappear and not being able to get him back,” he says. “That’s something I can’t live with.”
But these days, despite the looming extinction crisis that threatens a million species on the planet, Ofori-Boateng says he is optimistic. He is involved in what he calls “capacity building” throughout the region, offering mentorship and training to other young herpetologists in West and Central Africa. He believes that inspiring people to be involved in conservation is not intrinsically difficult, but that resources may not always be put in the right place. “Reversing the biodiversity crisis is very possible—the solutions are not far-fetched,” he says. “I am very positive that things will only get better.”
The new reserve will be home to the largest known population of Togo slippery frogs, and it may lead to the species being downgraded from critically endangered to just endangered. “And that tells the whole story,” Ofori-Boateng says, “that we are on track to saving this species in the very long term.”