Tired of Lions? Try a Frogging Safari
AMAZULU GAME RESERVE, South Africa — They are voracious predators that make scores of kills each night, many are brilliantly colored and few creatures can match them for raw agility and prowess.
Yet not many visitors to South Africa's game reserves give much notice to the lowly frog, with lions, elephants and other big critters topping their list of "must see" animals.
Alwyn Wentzel hopes to change this as he pioneers a novel and mud-splattered concept in ecotourism -- frog safaris. "Frogging is physical, it's challenging. Unlike game viewing or birding you have to get in there and get dirty," Wentzel said as he sloshed through the muck in search of quarry, a headlamp lighting his way through the inky darkness.
The goal is simple and the same as bird watching: spot and identify as many frog species as you can in the run of a night.
The difference with bird watching is that you try and catch the animals in your hand to get a proper look at them before releasing them -- which is no easy task and involves lots of sliding in the mud and splashing through water.
And doing it at night in the Amazulu Game Reserve in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province has an added element of danger: This is "Big 5" country, home to lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant, not to mention crocodiles.
This means frogging is done with a .375 rifle close at hand, with big spotlights shone over potential spots from the vehicle to see if any dangerous creatures are lurking in the vicinity.
"We're not going to be doing much frogging here which is unfortunate as it's an ideal spot," said Wentzel, pointing to a pair of young male lions sprawled on the muddy bank of a dam.
Undeterred, the search continued elsewhere, briefly interrupted by a large bull elephant blocking the road.
"Look out for crocodiles. If you see what looks like a tiny red light moving through the water let me know," said Wentzel as he plowed into the reeds in the shallow part of a dam in search of painted reed frogs.
Tumbling through the foliage eventually brought succes.
"This is a beautiful painted reed frog," Wentzel said, holding the tiny black and yellow specimen up to the light before allowing it to escape from the palm of his hand.
"You can hear them all around us, they're everywhere, there are hundreds. But just finding one of them is the hard job," he said.
Wentzel can identify several species by the calls they make, which often blend together in a dizzying nocturnal chorus.
A Good Night Out
The night's outing yielded eight species, including a banded rubber frog, a rarely seen red and black creature whose sharp colors warn predators that it is poison.
The most amazing sighting was a tiny specimen in the throes of metamorphosis between tadpole and adult frog. Hopping on land but still burdened by its aquatic tail, it resembled a freakish jumping lizard.
Wentzel reckons there are about 20 species on the 30,000-acre reserve. More humid conditions often produce 10 or more sightings in a night.
"Lodges should be offering more, there's so much out there than just the big 5," said Wentzel, who manages Amakhosi Lodge, which caters mostly to tourists in search of large fauna.
Other enthusiasts say frogs are of interest because of their crucial role in the ecosystem, their diversity and their astonishing athletic feats.
Several species can jump up to many times their own body length, putting even the most graceful gazelles to shame.
"Wildlife lodges are asking for courses on frogs to take their guests out after dark to introduce them to frogs. I think people hear them a lot but don't realize their diversity," said Vincent Carruthers, who has written several guide books to frogs in South Africa.
Carruthers said South Africa alone was home to about 110 species of frogs and toads.
"They are very large consumers of insects but in turn are preyed upon themselves by birds and snakes, so they sit midway up the food chain. That makes them an important group to monitor the environmental health of a region," he said.
Frogs also have a highly permeable skin which makes them extremely sensitive to changes in freshwater and air quality.
The signals they are sending are troubling.
A major study released late last year -- the Global Amphibian Assessment -- estimated that about one-third of the 5,743 known amphibian species were threatened with extinction. By comparison, only 12 percent of bird and 23 percent of mammal species are endangered.
So for froggers who are donning their headlamps and heading out for the swamps, it may be the last chance to see some species chirping in the night.
(Additional reporting by Spokes Mashiyane)