In amphibian conservation, our challenges are huge and complex. The chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis is the COVID-19 of frogs, toads and salamanders. Then, there is habitat loss, overexploitation and predation by invasive species. The Amphibian Conservation Action Plan was initiated to address these issues strategically. A partnership was developed between the Amphibian Survival Alliance, Amphibian Ark, Amphibian Specialist Group and other conservation organizations focusing on amphibians. Since then, various projects have overcome difficult challenges, designating natural habitats for the protection of amphibians, resisting inappropriate development plans, and, importantly, developing captive breeding programmes for amphibians.

An hourglass tree frog in Costa Rica. Photo: Berglind Karlsdóttir

Our article in Oryx focuses on captive breeding programmes, highlighting that amphibian conservation projects rely on more than ecological and biological research to succeed. Specifically, human factors have much to do with the way in which amphibian captive breeding programmes are designed and operated. Our study was conducted using social science research, including semi-structured interviews, allowing us to uncover these human factors. For example, our research shows that the initial selection of which species to breed is sometimes informed by the personal preferences of managers or by chance as much as it is informed by needs and feasibility. Knowledge and connections support a manager’s ability to problem solve when something goes wrong. Biases influence exit strategies; i.e. when and whether to terminate captive breeding programmes. Although personalities and conflicts can have detrimental consequences for the species and programmes, personal motivation and leadership is one of the main drivers of captive breeding programmes. Apart from these human dimensions, many other components need to come together in a successful breeding programme.

We found that a range of resources are required to ensure the effectiveness of captive breeding programmes. More critically, however, there is a need for programmes to be able to transform their operating model over time. Based on our interviews with managers of captive breeding facilities, we developed a four-stage operational model highlighting what resources and support is required at different points in the programmes. These stages were: establishing a programme, husbandry and breeding, preparing for reintroduction, and post-reintroduction.

Left: Berglind swabbing amphibians for chytrid fungus infection during fieldwork. Photo: Phil Jervis. Right: Berglind visiting the Balsa de los Sapos captive breeding facility in Ecuador. Photo: Andrés Merino-Viteri

Successfully achieving the goal of reintroduction (when this was the intention of the programme) first requires species research, planning and expert input. Keeping and breeding the amphibians requires good relationships with government, genetic management, and staff training. Reintroduction requires continued mitigation of threats in the wild and monitoring of populations. For captive breeding programmes this means there are several stages during which they are potentially unable to shift their focus and resources to proceed to the next stage incapable of transforming, and hence, are vulnerable to failure.

These findings are scalable to global amphibian conservation. A strategic approach is needed to ensure that multiple components (e.g. captive breeding, in situ conservation, education) are joined up at a landscape scale. For example, captive breeding programmes and in situ conservation projects need to be better connected to ensure that species bred in captivity have a habitat to return to. Yet, many barriers persist, some of which are driven by human factors. Social science has the potential to contribute to strategic amphibian conservation by illuminating human influences on conservation practices and highlighting barriers and opportunities missed by other types of research. There are three key areas in particular where social science could provide helpful insights:

A Golfo Dulce poison dart frog in Costa Rica. Photo: Berglind Karlsdóttir

Participatory research Amphibian research is dominated by traditional research led by biological and ecological researchers. However, conservation issues are complex and often benefit from more participatory approaches such as co-design, in which practitioners or research users provide input into research. This improves linkages between conservation researchers and practitioners, and improves the application and use of findings. Social science plays a big role in such projects through investigating the experiences of research participants and evaluating progress.

Diversity of perspectives Continuous deliberation and innovation is needed to redefine narratives about amphibian conservation, and new voices can contribute to this. Social science can help by examining the issues faced by practitioners and researchers, such as where barriers between them occur, how decisions are made, and what can be done to drive positive change.

Monitoring and evaluation: Finally, adaptive management is key to solving complex challenges in a changing world. Conservationists need to understand whether and how our incentives are working, disseminate lessons learnt and adjust actions accordingly. Monitoring and evaluation is therefore an important part of conservation initiatives and should be done on a programmatic level as well as investigating amphibian conservation as a whole.

Our study provides novel insights into the understudied human dimensions that influence captive breeding programmes and are likely to be at play in other amphibian conservation projects, or even in captive breeding programmes of other taxa. The increased integration of social science has a lot to offer in identifying solutions and highlighting strategic actions needed to overcome the many threats that amphibians face today.

Left: A Gliding tree frog in Costa Rica. Right: Boulenger’s snouted frog with a parasite in Costa Rica. Photos: Berglind Karlsdóttir

The open access article Lessons from practitioners for designing and implementing effective amphibian captive breeding programmes is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Berglind Karlsdóttir is a conservation scientist and social scientist. After finishing her master’s degree she took up an internship opportunity with the Saving Amphibians From Extinction team at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, where she carried out this research. She is now working with Forest Research, following her passion for understanding the role of people in nature conservation. Her current work focuses on land manager behaviour for managing resilient tree-scapes.