Should Smuggled Madagascar Frogs Be Returned Home?

Conservation biologists are celebrating last week's bust of Madagascar animal smugglers at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. But in an ironic twist, they're now scrambling to ensure that the animals aren't shipped back home. The 40 extremely rare tomato frogs that were found hidden in a piece of luggage "should not be returned under any circumstances," says Joseph Mendelson, a herpetologist at Zoo Atlanta. They could bring home the amphibian-killing Chytrid fungus, found in Malaysia that the entire island of Madagascar has so far avoided.

E-mails have been flying fast and furious between herpetologists today with proposals for what to do with the stranded frogs. Euthanasia seems to have been ruled out. "The best thing is to ship them to a zoo with a captive breeding program," says Mendelson. "There's a good one in Hong Kong." But Mendelson and others say that they fear that the frogs could pick up the fungus during their several-day stay in the airport. The only way the fungus moves across the ocean is on the bodies of amphibians; scientists have called for a complete ban on amphibians crossing Madagascar's borders.

The smuggling of the animals off the island is the latest sign that Madagascar's new military rulers have not brought the illegal trade of the country's unique species under control.

Scientists have been cautiously optimistic since 2 April when the regime caved to pressure to reinstate the ban on the logging of Rosewood trees. Since then, allegations of government complicity with species trafficking have not abated. But the orphaned tomato frogs pose a far greater threat to the island's biota, says Mendelson. "Madagascar is one of the few places left that has escaped the fungus," and just a single contaminated amphibian could spark "an extremely rapid loss of species."