By Vittoria Vaturi, Naples Zoo Reptile Keeper
Growing up, my love for nature and wildlife started with amphibians. I have early memories of being in my backyard watching frogs jumping into a pond and living their natural lives. It was at that moment I knew I wanted a career with wildlife. I made that dream a reality when I became a reptile keeper here at Naples Zoo. My dreams came true again this year when I traveled to El Valle, Panama to help with Project Golden Frog.
Project Golden Frog is a conservation project dedicated to helping save and protect amphibians, specifically the Panamanian Golden Frog, which hasn’t been seen out in the wild since 2009. The non-profit organization El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC) is the main reason these frogs are still on the earth today. Amphibians all over the world are declining due to a deathly disease called chytridiomycosis, which is caused by chytrid fungus. As the disease made its way to Panama, golden frogs, as well as other species, were collected by EVACC to save them from extinction. They are housed in a bio-secure cargo container that is referred to as a “frog pod.”
My travel to El Valle was to help EVACC in any way needed, including designing and executing exhibits for different frogs. I was excited to help use my skills, since as a zookeeper I have designed and created exhibits. Over the several days I was there, the team and I were able to transform seven tanks. Previously, EVACC had only one exhibit of golden frogs – it was the only one in the entire country to see these rare amphibians. I was thrilled to work with them to create more golden frog exhibits. Although it was a lot of taxing work, it was worth it. These frogs are very important to Panama. Golden frogs are their national animal and seen as good fortune. In 2010, Panama’s National Assembly even declared August 14 as National Golden Frog Day.
It's not an easy role that EVACC has, with the pressure of saving an iconic species in their country, but they are truly devoted to conservation. While I was there, they were discussing potential soft release plans to get the golden frogs back into the wild. There are many factors that have to be planned for release, one of which is release site. I was able to hike with them to look at a potential site. It was so interesting to learn all the considerations needed to find the best site for the species to thrive. My conservation trip to Panama was an incredible experience that I will never forget. It taught me so many things, not just about golden frogs, but all amphibians and the many challenges conservation programs face. There are many tools I learned to bring back to Naples Zoo. Thank you Naples Zoo for allowing me to be in the action of conservation!