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Watch a Daring Mission to Rescue Rare Tree Frogs

A conservation project in Honduras battles invasive fungus disease and illegal logging.

WATCH: A National Geographic explorer is working to save the charismatic tree frogs of Cusuco National Park from a pathogen that has decimated entire species.

Several species of tree frog found only in a national park in northern Honduras are in danger of disappearing forever due to an invasive fungus and illegal logging. But an experimental new conservation effort might give the amphibians a leg up.

The high cloud forest of Cusuco National Park harbors rich biodiversity, but that treasure trove of plants and animals is under assault, says Jonathan Kolby, a National Geographic explorer and Ph.D. student in conservation biology at Australia’s James Cook University.

Among the threatened animals are three species of tree frogs, the exquisite spike-thumb frog (Plectrohyla exquisita), the Cusuco spike-thumb frog (Plectrohyla dasypus), and the mossy red-eyed frog (Duellmanohyla soralia). (Read more about these frogs and efforts to save them.)

Kolby and colleagues are in the process of setting up a center to research and treat the frogs, which have seen declining populations over the past few decades. The biggest culprit seems to be the invasive chytrid fungus, which arrived by the 1980s, and which attacks the frogs’ skin and can lead to death. Since developing tree frogs seem to be more susceptible to the disease than full-grown adults, Kolby plans to capture young frogs, clear them of fungus through medication or heat treatments, and then release them back into the wild (tagged for future study).

Kolby’s team hopes to begin catching and treating frogs this summer. To date, they have set up their lab inside used shipping containers. They call the project the Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center.

“We consider everything from the outside contaminated, because we want to make everything as safe as possible for the frogs,” Kolby says.

So they are setting up a water filtration system and are experimenting with growing locally native insects to use as food for the frogs.

“We’ll try to replicate their natural diet as close as we can,” Kolby says. “We’ll be looking at native crickets and cockroaches, for example.”

Kolby is optimistic the project will bolster the number of the frogs in the wild. But at the same time, “while we’re trying to help the frogs survive the fungus their homes are disappearing,” he says.

That’s because the cloud forest is increasingly being cut down by illegal loggers, while the government of Honduras has struggled to enforce the boundaries of the park thanks to a lack of funding, Kolby says.

The British nonprofit Operation Wallacea is working with the Honduras government to develop a plan that would bring in foreign investment to the park in exchange for guarantees not to cut the trees—in a form of carbon credits. If approved, that plan “would be big” in terms of protecting the frogs and other biodiversity in Cusuco, says Kolby.