"Save the blue frog!" "Save the blue frog!" That is a battle cry heard today throughout the southern region of Suriname , a tropical country in northern South America . Of course, they don't say it in English, but in the native language of Sranan - "Kibri Den Okopipi!" And the okopipi in question is Dendrobates azureus, the blue poison dart frog, which is endemic to Suriname . Endemic means that these creatures live nowhere else on Earth than in that one place. And in fact, Suriname is so diverse that they boast a total of 13 known endemic species. Compare that number to the state of Ohio , which is almost the same size, and has no endemic, or unique, plants or animals and you begin to get a picture of the immense variety of life in tropical regions.
But, why save the blue frog? What's the big deal? Well, first of all, they are absolutely amazing creatures. They are one of the largest members of the genus Dendrobates, or poison dart frogs; their electric-blue skin serves as a warning to predators that they secrete a poisonous mucous. As their name implies, indigenous people have long used that poison to help kill the birds and mammals they hunt. But the real importance of any species, no matter how tiny, is that it is an integral player in the complex, living web of life that makes up an ecosystem.
Since 1992 the Cincinnati Zoo has partnered in Suriname with Conservation International, the wildlife organization most involved in protecting tropical rain forests. Our efforts in support of the blue frogs have involved everything from t-shirts, buttons, and posters featuring their picture, to videos for Surinamese television promoting the protection of wild areas; even the purchase of several 25-horsepower Evinrude outboard motors has occurred for park wardens to use on their dugout patrol boats. In total the effort to protect the blue frogs has been a big public information campaign to demonstrate the unique nature of one species and the importance of the wild areas of Suriname . These wild areas are needed to have these frogs...and you have to have public support to keep these areas wild. As Abraham Lincoln said 140 years ago, "Public support is everything. With it anything is possible, without it even the most noble cause will fail."
Today almost everyone recognizes that tropical rain forests are diverse and important ecosystems, but the pressures these areas are under are not completely understood. A good case study is Suriname . Not much bigger than the state of Ohio , Suriname is a nation blessed with amazing tropical diversity. Suriname has an incredible array of wildlife, including 674 bird species, 200 mammal species, 130 reptile species, 99 amphibian species, and, hold on to your hats, 5,500 plant species! It has a greater percentage of remaining forest cover than any country in this hemisphere - 85%.
With so many trees, timber has been a major export of Suriname for more than a century. The practice of selectively taking out the trees most valuable for lumber occurs in Suriname ; therefore logging is done on a relatively small scale, without clearcutting, without leveling a forest world. Timber production on this scale is sustainable, which means that forests can remain viable while timber production continues providing jobs for Surinamese workers for many years.
But today difficult choices are being asked of the leaders and people of Suriname . Huge foreign logging corporations from Korea , Indonesia and Malaysia are attempting to purchase multimillion-acre logging concessions in these forests to clearcut them and then grind up the trees into pulp for paper. Some of their factory ships are already offshore, while the executives do their bidding in the capital of Paramaribo . These timber practices are the complete opposite of sustainability, and these rain forests are so fragile that once they have been clearcut very little else can be done with the remaining, exposed land. Many people believe that these forests are more valuable than to just be used to make paper. Conservation means using resources wisely, not just depleting them. And the best way to insure the long-term prosperity for the people of Suriname is to resist the most immediate urges of consumption and to explore alternative ways that people can live successfully with the forest; appreciating, conserving, and saving a part of this tropical world.
Wildlife conservation issues are very complex, and it is easy to think that people are the problem. But, in fact, when protecting wilderness areas, people are the essential part of the conservation equation. For example, in the South American tropical nation of Suriname , there are eight national parks which encompass and protect some of the most beautiful and biologically significant areas on the continent. But, like our parks in the United States , these areas are relatively small, protecting less than four percent of Suriname 's forests. In fact, the key to protection of wilderness areas is the presence of the indigenous and traditional people who live in the forests surrounding the national parks.
The forest is home to the tribes who live there, providing the food and shelter needed for survival. The presence and vigilance of the tribes, in turn, protects their land from intrusion by outsiders like commercial poachers and gold miners from Brazil . The best hope for the future protection of Suriname 's forests lies in the land rights and official protection of the country's traditional tribal lands.
The rain forests of the world have been a treasure chest for people who have lived in and with them, and for people who have used them to live. Medicines, foods, and resources above and below the ground have been harvested and extracted from these fragile places...filling insatiable appetites. Now it's time to recognize that there can be an end to these riches within our life time. We need to recognize and take account of what is available, what we need, what we can save, and what we can pass along.
Saving the rain forests in South America isn't just about the protection of jaguars, parrots, and boa constrictors. Saving the rain forests is about saving something important and vital for the people who live in them, and for the people, like us, who live because of them. We all depend on the balancing effect of the rain forests of the world. Individual peoples have lived in and depended on the forest for thousands of years; but, today the future of the forest depends upon all of us. We have come full circle to a time of decision...Save a little to save us all.