There’s a magical mountain on the Colombian coast, said Lina Valencia, a biological anthropologist and Colombia conservation officer at Global Wildlife Conservation. The 18,700-foot peak, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, is the tallest coastal mountain on Earth. At different elevations, the peak hosts life found nowhere else.
At about 6,500 feet up, a black toad, spotted in white like an impressionist night sky, inhabits the mountainous land. It’s the starry night harlequin toad, or Atelopus aryescue, and conservationists hadn’t spotted the ornately decorated species since 1991.
But the indigenous Arhuaco people knew the toad was there, all along. “It was never lost to them, it was lost to science,” said Valencia.
Recently the Arhuaco banded with local researchers to document the toad’s existence, and the pictures were made available on Wednesday by Global Wildlife Conservation.
That the species still exists is phenomenal news, for the mountain the starry night harlequin toad inhabits is home the highest number of threatened amphibians in the world, according to Valencia. A pathogen, the infamous chytrid fungus, the most deadly disease ever known, is exterminating amphibians in South America and around the planet. The virulent fungus hinders the animals’ ability to breathe, causing heart attacks. It’s brutal. “It decimates populations really fast,” said Valencia.
Of 96 known species of harlequin toads, 37 are potentially extinct. Yet the starry night toads appear to have a stable population, for now. The toads might naturally carry a microbe that kills the fungus (an antibiotic), but understanding the toad’s resilience has just begun, explained Valencia.
The rare toads also owe their continued existence to their shrewd, farsighted cohabitants on the mountain, the Arhuaco. They prioritize protecting the toads’ limited habitat.
“The local communities see the mountain as a person that you should respect and value,” said Jeferson Villalba (through translation by Lina Valencia), who met with Arhuaco to photograph the toads. “They don’t see themselves as owners of nature,” said Villalba, the president of Fundación Atelopus, an organization that seeks to conserve the amphibians of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
“They don’t see themselves as owners of nature”
After four years of dialogue, the Arhuaco were convinced Villalba and Fundación Atelopus had genuine conservation intentions and permitted them to photograph the toads.
The toads have an immensely vital presence in the Arhuaco’s lives, explained Villalba. The animals are “the guardians of the water,” and their appearance signals good water quality and the health of the verdant, mossy, high-elevation ecosystem.
The Arhuaco have educated the visiting conservationists. “We tend to forget we are just one species in the ecosystem,” said Villalba. “We are not above any other species.”
That’s why the Arhuaco don’t raze the ecosystem when they develop land for agriculture. They don’t convert the fertile land into biodiversity-devastating fields of a single monoculture, like sugar cane or oil palm. Acknowledging their human footprint on a mountainous world with limited habitat, the Arhuaco sustain themselves with community gardens, and are able to support the rare, endemic creatures around them, too, said Villalba.
The Arhuaco certainly inhabit a remarkable place on Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
“In one night — over around three hours — we saw 10 species of frogs that are only found there,” said Global Wildlife Conservation’s Valencia.
“Every time you look around you only see a species that’s found in that place,” she said.