The home of a frog orchestra

Image © Caleb Ofori-Boateng

By |2022-06-27T15:10:03+00:00October 2nd, 2020|Amphibians, Conservation, Conservation Optimism, Forests, Herp Conservation Ghana, Interviews, People and Wildlife|Comments Off on The home of a frog orchestra

An Interview with Dr Caleb Ofori-Boateng, Founder of Herp Conservation Ghana

Dr Caleb Ofori-Boateng was the first formally trained herpetologist in Ghana, and has become a global champion for Ghana’s biodiversity, particularly its unique and threatened amphibians. He is the founder of Herp Conservation Ghana, the latest partner in our Amphibian Programme, and has been working to save Atewa Forest, one of the highest priority ecosystems in West Africa, from mining since he first visited it and fell in love with its wildlife in 2006.

What is the biodiversity like in Ghana?

Ghana is an amazing place in terms of its biodiversity. We are not a landlocked country, so we have the sea, the coast, then the forest and then as you go north there is the savanna ecosystem. This is where I was born and raised, and where I grew up in a national park, the wildlife was visible. You could see them and interact with them.

Since I have become a conservationist, I have mainly worked in forest ecosystems. The Atewa forest is particularly special to me. The first time I worked in Atewa Forest was in 2006, when the government was thinking of mining the reserve for bauxite. I was still a very young student, I had just finished my BSc, and I was called upon as an assisting scientist to a senior herpetologist to conduct a Rapid Assessment Programme of the site. It was a three week expedition, until then I had seen the forests from afar but this was the first time that I slept in the middle of a rainforest. It was life changing.

The lead herpetologist was from the Ivory Coast, and we were asked to work together because we were both supervised by the same German professor (Mark-Oliver Rödel). We worked both in the day and in the night. The other team members who were studying birds and mammals and other species all went out during the day and then came back at nightfall, lit a fire, got a beer or a Coca Cola, had dinner and a chat. But when it got to 8pm, me and my supervisor would leave again for night-time surveys.

Night-time surveys are an important part of assessing amphibian diversity. Image © Caleb Ofori-Boateng

Why did you have to go back out at night when no one else did?

It’s actually easier to detect some frogs, particularly those we call tree frogs, at night because that is when they are more active. Their mating calls can be heard and these will lead you to where they are and then you can identify them. If you want to have a good idea of the amphibian diversity of an area it is good to combine day-time searches with night-time searches.

So what kind of species did you find during the day?

There are leaf litter frogs, small brown frogs which live in the leaf litter, which you can find in both the day or the night. We would also use the day hikes to earmark areas that we would then search that night. It was a new area, very hilly with gullies and remnants of bauxite drilling activities, so it was not a very safe place to go out into at night unless you had familiarised yourself with the terrain. So we would head for those places we had identified during the day when we went out at night, and often while we were on our way there, we would hear calls and our torches would pick up reflections of frogs or other animals.

It was also on this trip that we thought we had discovered a new population of the long-lost Togo Slippery Frog!

Your very first expedition and you rediscovered a species! That’s a high bar to set yourself!

You’re right! It was. I remember that night very well, because it was very scary. The camp was uphill, and when we left we went deep down into the valley, down and down, walking along the stream to the very base of the mountain on a side we had never been on before. It felt very adventurous, being so far away from the camp. Then it got to about midnight and it suddenly became very cold, and the wind began to blow.

It was maybe about 20 degrees – which for us is very cold! Then there were owls calling, and occasionally night-time birds would swoop over our heads – it was like a scary part in a Harry Potter movie –with a bu-bu-bu-bu-bu noise of their wings. Then we heard this eerie whistling call… and we’d been told stories of the forest, scary stories about spirits, and that night I really believed it. I thought there was something supernatural in this forest, I was really afraid!

Only to realise that the whistle was a frog! It wasn’t a spirit at all. So we looked and there it was, sitting on a stone in the middle of the stream: the Togo Slippery Frog.

Did you know what it was straightaway?

Not at first. We knew that it was from the Conraua genus, one of the slippery frogs. But there is another species, Conraua alleni (Allen’s slippery frog), that was relatively common in the Western part of the country. So we knew we’d found a Conraua but we didn’t know if it was the Conraua derooi (the Togo Slippery Frog) or the alleni, and it wasn’t until later it was confirmed as the Togo Slippery Frog, which had not been seen for forty years.

However, now we know that it wasn’t even the derooi, it is actually a new species to science and the new description will be published soon! We are almost ready to publish the new species name, and I think it will be named after the paramount chief in the area in the hope that he can put in a word for us against the planned bauxite mining of the forest. We had also considered naming it after the Sagyimase community that has been so supportive of our conservation efforts.

The slippery frog species Caleb discovered in Atewa Forest. Image © Michael Akrasi 

But I haven’t finished the story! One of the things I remember very well about that trip was how cold the Atewa forest was – even the westerners slept with sleeping bags – and, on top of that, was the rain. We did not have very good tents at the time, and it rained almost every day. We had these flat foam mattresses and they would get wet, some of them only a little, or half wet, but some were soaking. And I would get back from our work in the middle of the night and all the other researchers would have taken the drier mattresses – leaving me with the wettest one!

A high price to pay… but you did discover a frog!

Yes, we did, and despite the damp and the cold, I really fell in love with the place. I’d primarily focussed on frogs because they are so threatened and I felt they were going extinct, and nothing was being done about it, which really concerned me. This was the main reason that