North Carolina Zoo helps save Puerto Rican endangered species

Story by: Catherine O’Neill 

Photos by: Viviane Feldman

Video by: Amanda Lalezarian and Viviane Feldman 

GUÁNICA, Puerto Rico — Each year, close to four million people travel to Puerto Rico. But in the last 20 years, over 30,000 much smaller passengers have also made the journey in the cargo hold of commercial airlines.

Dustin Smith, the curator of reptiles and amphibians at the North Carolina Zoo, chaperones thousands of tadpoles making the journey from Asheboro, North Carolina, to their new island homes.

The Puerto Rican crested toad, which is endemic to Puerto Rico, is on the federal endangered species list. In 1984, the federal government created a Species Survival Plan (SSP) with the American Zoo and Aquarium Association to help protect the species.

The North Carolina Zoo is one of over a dozen zoos in the United States and Canada that have breeding programs for the toad. In Puerto Rico, the AZA partners with a number of local institutions, like the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and community organizations to help with the reintroduction and management of the toad population. Smith said these partnerships are crucial to the program.

Persuading people to care about the Puerto Rican crested toad has been part of the challenge in encouraging conservation and increasing awareness, Smith said.

“When people ask me, “Why do you save the toad?’ it’s a difficult question for most people to understand,” Smith said. “Because, for most people, it’s just a little brown toad. But in reality, it’s a very unique species. …(B)ecause the species is endangered and its numbers have gone down over the years, we are looking at that, but we are also looking at the fact that it’s endemic; it’s found nowhere else in the world.”

Like many species, the toad has faced serious threats as a result of human impact on the environment.

“The natural sites where the toads used to breed, most of those have been developed or water has been redirected,” Smith said. “The current breeding sites, the main concern is mainly habitat loss and sea level rise.”

Although the recovery plan involves the reintroduction of the toad across the island, one of the most significant sites is found in the Guánica Dry Forest.

“(T)he Guánica Dry Forest is very important for the Puerto Rican crested toad because it is the last known breeding site for the…toad,” Smith said. “Currently there are only two… sites known that are natural where the toad still breeds.”

“I’ve put a lot of time into this species, and the N.C. Zoo has put a lot of time and resources into it as well,” said Dustin Smith on the conservation of the Puerto Rican crested toad. “And our goal going into every one of these projects is to help save the species and eventually move on because there’s a lot of other species that need the attention.”

But these two sites are in danger of destruction as well due to climate change, Smith said.

“So the two known breeding sites that we visit regularly, they are so close to the ocean that they could be inundated by any kind of large waves or any kind of hurricane activity,” Smith said. “But the other concern is that, as sea level rises, it will actually inundate from below.”

Eloy Martinez, the refuge manager in Guánica, said work on the Puerto Rican crested toad represents not only an important way to preserve biodiversity but also a powerful example of inter-agency environmental collaboration.

“In the strict sense of biology…,we’re looking at a loss of biodiversity on a daily basis,” Martinez said. “We are losing species worldwide, particularly amphibian species. And we believe that this is an emblematic project for all agencies and a good example of how multiple agencies can get together and increase or preserve the biodiversity of this important place.”

The work includes not only breeding and reintroduction into native habitats, but also the construction of breeding ponds for the toads and monitoring the species.


When educators and scientists struggled to get the public to care about recovery of the Puerto Rican crested toad, they resorted to something near and dear to the hearts of many Puerto Ricans–baseball.

After printing caricatures of the toad on the baseballs, educators began to hand them out at local events.

Fish and Wildlife Service had a custom-made Puerto Rican crested toad costume that was donated by Disney to be used at parades and school visits as well.

Smith said part of the reason the education is necessary is because many locals have never seen a crested toad before. Many previously assumed that the marine toad, which is an invasive species that was introduced to the island, was native.

“If you go to Puerto Rico, you’re not going to find a crested toad unless you know exactly what you’re looking for,” he said. “And that’s because they like to live in these karst (rock) habitats where they’ll hide themselves in rock formations, and they’ll stay in there and they won’t come out until they get a good amount of rain or they need to seek food.”

The organizations involved in the protection and reintroduction of the species have encouraged a growing local pride in the toad. Fish and Wildlife Service has even taught many to recognize the distinctive call of the toad.

Since they began educating the public about the endemic species, Fish and Wildlife biologists Jose Cruz and JP Zegarra have grown used to fielding calls from locals convinced that they have spotted one of the endangered amphibians in their backyard.

Each report requires a visit from one of the biologists, and none of the calls has yielded a true sighting of a toad. However, rather than becoming frustrated by the false alarms, the two men said that the calls are a positive sign of the community becoming invested in the future of the endangered species.

To reach his isolated oasis in the mountains near Arecibo, Abel Vale has to drive up steep switchbacks bordered by small houses, down gravel roads unmarked by any signs, and well beyond the range of any navigation system.

After 20 minutes of winding deeper into a jungle-like forest, Vale finally arrives at his self-sustaining paradise–a home he built for himself and his wife surrounded by banana trees and squash plants, by a bubbling stream and ample wildlife, and by enough solar panels to power their lives.

Vale began purchasing the land, which now amounts to 400 acres, in 2003.

Soon after he began, he discovered a number of endangered species, like the Puerto Rican boa constrictor and a few species of bats, on his property.

Although he has no formal training as a scientist, Vale has always felt a powerful connection to nature.

“I find myself at peace in nature,” he said. “I find there is no sort of thing …that will draw out your energy; indeed, if anything it recharges your energy being in nature.”

Abel Vale is the president of the Citizens of the Karst, a nonprofit that works to promote the biodiversity and conservation efforts in Puerto Rico.

As a conservationist and the president of the nonprofit organization Ciudadanos del Karso (Citizens of the Karst), Vale was more than willing to use his land for preservation. Although he did not purchase the land with the intention of making it a reintroduction site for the endangered toads, when he realized how valuable the tropical karst region could be for them, he began working with the organizations involved.

In 2006, Vale and his nonprofit became involved in discussions with Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Natural Resources about building more reintroduction ponds for the toads.

Vale said the agencies often found their hands tied by restrictive rules and the discussions weren’t going anywhere. Eventually, he asked the agencies to give him a chance to build the ponds on his property.

With the help of biologists, hydrologists and a multidisciplinary team, the ponds were built in a month, Vale said.

Since then, partner zoos from the AZA have continued to introduce thousands of tadpoles into the two ponds on his property. On a quiet night, you can hear the distinct call of an adult crested toad who has successfully bred in his new home.

For Marelisa Rivera, deputy field supervisor at the Fish and Wildlife Ecological Service office, this carrying call is the sound that means their work is making a difference.

“For us having natural breeding after reintroduction for several years on a site, that’s the measure of success,” she said. “If you go to the site three or four years after the first reintroduction and you see animals sexually mature, calling each other to try to breed, and then after several times you have breeding.”

Both Smith and Martinez hope that one day, Puerto Rico will have the resources to breed the toads itself. But until then, those involved in the program remain thankful for collaboration and hopeful about the species’ future.

“It would be one of the most important things in my career if we could say that this species has recovered to the point where we are no longer working with the species at the zoo, where we are no longer doing the reintroductions,” Smith said.

Zegarra said humans must be committed to recovering the species because it was humans that harmed it in the first place.

Jan Paul Zegarra poses for a portrait at the Cabo Rojo branch of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife in southwester Puerto Rico.

“It’s our responsibility,” he said. “The land abuse history in Puerto Rico is why the species is in the federal endangered species list. So it’s our responsibility to recover the species. We essentially destroyed the breeding ponds that the species used to use…”

For many conservationists, the project is about more than just the crested toad.

“I personally think that people should look at biodiversity loss as a serious concern, and it’s something happening in all species,” Smith said. “And so, by saving the Puerto Rican crested toad, you’re not just saving a small brown toad. You’re saving a very very unique species found nowhere else in the world…. You can’t just look at them as being an animal far away that doesn’t affect you. You have to look at biodiversity loss as a whole.”

For Vale, preserving the natural environment is an act of self-preservation.

“As humans we have to realize that if we could live without nature, (nature) would be fine,” he said. “But it’s not true (for us). We cannot live without nature, so if we endanger nature we are endangering and threatening our own lives.”

“And all life is precious,” Vale said. “It doesn’t matter what you call it; it could be crested toad it could be a spider, it could be an ant. it’s all part of our common heritage on this planet.”

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