Most zoologists would be thrilled to find an animal species yet unknown to science—but Kim Howell’s 1996 discovery of a rare toad in Tanzania has turned out to be a mixed blessing, since it lived near a river waterfall that was slated to be dammed for hydropower. In a gripping conservation tale called simply “The Toad,” Guernica recounts Howell’s discovery and the ensuing conflict it has brought—to him, to Tanzania, and to the beleaguered amphibian at the center of the fight:
Discovering a new species can define a zoologist’s career and Howell’s big find came in 1996 when he reached into some vegetation at the base of a waterfall and pulled out a little toad, believed to inhabit the smallest native habitat of any vertebrate on Earth. Following his discovery, the Kihansi spray toad became the focus of one of the most controversial conservation efforts in recent decades, a crucible for the clash between biodiversity conservation and Tanzania’s need for economic development.
“I’ve often said I wish I had never discovered the toad,” reflected Howell.
In plot turns that recall an outrageous T.C. Boyle story but are in fact true, author Maura R. O’Connor describes an elaborate artificial spray system set up to mist the wild toads’ habitat after the dam was built; an airlift in which 500 toads were flown, in boxes lined with foil and wet paper towels, to a captive breeding program at the Bronx Zoo; and the wild toads’ subsequent extinction, probably from a fungus that has endangered amphibians worldwide. Now scientists are considering reintroducing the Kihansi spray toad to its native gorge at great cost—and with great uncertainty.
Ultimately, story prods us to ask hard questions. How far should we go in attempting to save endangered species? Is an animal removed from its native habitat really “saved”? One ethicist lays out some of the terrain to O’Connor:
“We’ll never know with any degree of certainty whether these animals can be reintroduced or not,” said Mark Michael, a professor of environmental ethics at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee. “There are a lot of environmentalists who say, ‘If you take a species out of the wild and there is very little possibility of reintroducing them, then you shouldn’t do it.’”
But proponents of captive breeding believe it’s better to have the species in the world than to let them disappear, even if the animals that remain in zoos are essentially, as Michael said, “museum pieces.”
Image by Julie Larsen Maher © Wildlife Conservation Society.