A Mistake Not to Make With One of the World’s Most Poisonous Frogs

Lucy Cooke recounts her close call with an endangered golden poison frog in Colombia’s Choco forest.

Conservationist Lucy Cooke stares at a Golden Poison Frog (Phyllobates terriblis) in Colombia's wild west. (Photo: Courtesy of Lucy Cooke)

Apr 2, 2013· 2 MIN READ
is an award-winning doc filmmaker, best-selling author, National Geographic explorer, and more.

I press an inky thumb down on the disclaimer. The soldier has clearly explained the dangers: This is a high-risk area for malaria and yellow fever, so I must watch out for being attacked by mosquitoes, not to mention lethal, aggressive bushmaster snakes and guerrillas. Not the furry kind.

It’s January 2013 and I’m in Colombia’s wild west: a forgotten land of steamy jungles and hot politics. For decades this has been the centre of Colombian conflict, kidnap, and cocaine as warring factions of guerrillas fight over control of coca plantations and illegal goldmines.

Pandas might be cute, but they can’t cure cancer. However, frogs might.

This is my most dangerous expedition yet, and there seem to be a dozen ways to die. But who would have predicted that an amphibian would be what nearly kills me?

My mission is to find one of the world’s most toxic animals. No, not Paris Hilton, but a small banana-colored frog no bigger than my thumb, whose skin contains enough poison to kill two bull elephants.

Phyllobates terriblis, the golden poison frog, lives in an amphibian El Dorado—the wettest place on Earth. Everyone talks about saving the Amazon, but it’s the soggy Choco forest that harbors the world’s greatest biodiversity; it’s home to almost ten percent of the world’s species. Many, like terriblis, are found nowhere else.

It’s no place to be without a seriously savvy guide, and I’m joining Paul Salaman of the World Land Trust US and Alonso Quevedo, president of Pro Aves, two of the only conservationists fighting to save this rich but troubled land.

Paul and Alonso are my heroes. Not only are they braving a war zone to save an extraordinary endangered species, but they’re also doing it on precious little funding. Frogs might be my greatest passion, but saving them isn’t considered sexy. Studies have shown that the charismatic mega-fauna—pandas and polar bears—command 500 times more conservation money than animals like endangered amphibians.

This has always struck me as shortsighted. Pandas might be cute, but they can’t cure cancer. However, frogs might. The toxins they produce are blueprints for cures for everything from HIV to Alzheimer’s. Almost half of the $640 billion pharmaceutical industry is based on natural genetic diversity. And much of it from unfuzzy micro-fauna like frogs and fungi.

Which is why Professor John Daly, a sort of Indiana Jones of chemists, came in search of the legendary terriblis back in the 1970s. He’d heard how the local Embera Indians used a frog to poison their darts—which remained capable of killing a jaguar up to two years later.

When he discovered terriblis, he noted its skin secretions “made strychnine [pesticide used to kill rodents and small birds] look like table salt.” The secretions are now being developed as a local analgesic and a cure for arrythmia.

During his expedition, Daly took great care to dispose of anything that had touched the golden poison frog, but the next morning the rubbish bin was strewn with several dead chickens and a dead dog. Handling something so deadly is a dangerous game. Even experts have accidents. Let alone amateurs like me.

I always have a rush of adrenalin whenever I find a frog. But handling terriblis for the first time is in a different class. My heart feels like it might burst out of my chest, and my hands, protected by rubber gloves, are shaking. I feel like I’m holding a loaded gun.

But terriblis is as beautiful as he’s deadly. And I’m struck by how sad it is that an animal that’s evolved such a unique defence system now needs to be protected or face extinction in less than 15 years.

Tears start rolling down my face and without thinking I go to wipe them away. Everyone screams, “STOP!” My gloved hand, hovering an inch from my eye, is covered in the most potent neurotoxin known to man. A microgram entering my blood stream would kill me. In three minutes flat.

My stomach shrinks and the prickle of fear flashes under my skin as I realise what an incredibly close shave I’ve just had. But the irony does not escape me, and I can’t help but laugh with relief. Death from an outpouring of amphibian love would be a particularly tragic way for this frog fan to go.