Extreme social embarrassment, all for the love of a frog

golden-poison-frog-proaves-colombia-choco-rainforest-bethan-john-11Last night, I got up on stage in a pub to talk about deadly frogs and cocaine, in front of over 100 people

The event was Ignite Cardiff: it gives anyone, as long as they have the courage to get up there, a platform and 5 minutes to talk about their passion.

Give me a stage, a microphone, a huge crowd …and things are not going to go well. I’m no sleek speaker that oozes confidence, I’m more your awkward, rambling type.

Public speaking is in the top 5 of things that terrify me most. All my life, I’ve done whatever I can to avoid speaking in front of big groups.

Sadly, this was no feel-good Hollywood moment; I didn’t get up there, conquer all my social fears and give a rousing, all-inspiring speech! It was more a stumble-over-your-words, nervous and sweaty race to the 5 minute finish line.

So, why did I do this to myself?

I’ve spent the past 14-months travelling across Latin America, working alongside conservationists and seeing some of the most awe-inspiring natural wonders on Earth. I have met people that have been directly impacted by environmental destruction and those making huge sacrifices for the protection of our natural world.

The least I can do as a writer, is to tell their stories.

But I need to make sure I’m telling these stories to as many people, from diverse worlds, as possible. My mission is to go out there and recruit – I want to inspire more people to join the environmental movement.

Did I succeed? Well, I don’t think I got anyone to kick their weekend cocaine habit for the love of a frog, but maybe I inspired just a few to do their recycling more often.

But what do you think? Now that I’m safely back behind my computer screen, let’s relive the moment – here’s my talk, with imagined panache!

Bethan John holding a golden poison frog in the Choco Rainforest, Colombia

We need deadly frogs… in 5 minutes, you’ll find out why:

The photo (right) is of a slightly sweatier and much more nervous version of me. I’m standing in the Choco Rainforest of westernmost Colombia. And I’m nervous because this used to be the stomping ground of armed rebel groups, being the hotbed of coca cultivation to produce cocaine.

In fact, just an hour before this photo was taken, a man dressed head to foot in camouflage gear, ran through the jungle towards me shouting and wielding a submachine gun. It took all my inner strength not to give off my girliest scream and adopt the foetal position. So why did this happen?

When armed conflict between the guerrilla army and the government came to a climax in this area between 2008 and 2011, it left 50,000 Colombian’s living as internal refugees and resulted in 50 children starving to death within one month, in this region alone.

Thankfully, two years on and today this area welcomes relative peace. But coca cultivation is still rife and the army is monitoring the movement of people to clamp down on the illegal activities. Luckily, when the armed official approached us, our reason for being in the jungle was acceptable, if not a little bit bizarre.

We were in search of a frog. This takes me on to the next reason for being incredibly nervous. Sitting calmly in my hand is the golden poison frog – one of the world’s deadliest creatures. Drenched on this little guy’s skin is enough poison to kill between 10 and 20 people.

timbiqui-golden-poison-frog-proaves-colombia-choco-rainforest-bethan-john-6Yet despite the incredible nature of this species, it is on the edge of extinction. Deforestation of the rainforest driven by coca cultivation, as well as gold mining and a rise in agriculture, means that this frog is running out of habitat. It is now an Endangered species and hangs onto survival in this remote region of Colombia and is found nowhere else on Earth.

Luckily, the people that share their forest with this deadly frog have decided to give it a life-line. They have agreed to give up some of their land – which they could be using to grow food to feed their families – they have given it up so that it can be designated as a protected area for this frog.

As little as two years ago, this community’s home was a battlefield. Today, the region is relatively safe so outside companies have descended on it in the search for gold and timber. It’s an incredibly depressing situation: peace for these people has brought with it exploitation of their natural resources.

timbiqui-choco-department-colombia-bethan-john-4The extraction methods used in gold mining pollute rivers with toxic mercury and siltation. This has a catastrophic effect on fish populations, which this fishing community depends upon to feed their family and to make a living.

Yet despite the hardships these people face, they are still willing to give up their land to protect a frog. While I was here in rural Colombia, meeting these people, back home in the UK …we were shooting badgers.

So this made me think: why do poor communities in Colombia make sacrifices for the conservation of our natural world, while here in the UK – a developed and rich nation – we decide to go against the wealth of scientific evidence and choose to destroy?

Some people argue it’s because – in our largely urbanised society – we are so far removed from nature that we cannot possible understand or value it. We’re not getting out there and learning from nature itself. You will not love or protect what you do not know.

Making this problem worse is that we’re also not being taught about the natural world in our schools. I don’t know about you, but I was never taught the basics of ecology or why diversity in ecosystems is important – the essence of how and why life on Earth functions.rana-terribilis-reserve-golden-poison-frog-proaves-colombia-bethan-john-1

Over in Colombia, conservationists have been working with that community for years to teach them why having diverse species of trees, plants and animals within the forest creates a stable, stronger, and better functioning ecosystem. How this in turn produces clean air and fresh water.

So here is just one example of why we need nature. Scientists predict that 86% of the species that exist on Earth have not yet been described.  Yet, nearly 90% of human diseases known to medical science can be treated with prescription drugs derived from nature.

Take our friend the golden poison frog; the chemicals within its poison are being studied by researchers to manufacture a painkiller. But when taken into captivity the frog stops producing the poison and eventually loses its toxicity. When born in captivity, the frog is not poisonous at all.

golden-poison-frog-proaves-colombia-choco-rainforest-bethan-john-10Amazingly, scientists do not understand why; they believe its related to the frogs diet and food source in the wild, but they don’t which prey species supplies the potent alkaloid that gives the golden poison frog their exceptionally high levels of toxicity.

If we’re not careful we will wipe out the golden poison frog in the wild and its food source before this has been discovered. And this is happening across the world, year on year. We are destroying species before we even know that they exist, never mind how they work and their importance within an ecosystem. These species could treat disease and relieve suffering.

So what can we do about it? Instead of spending our weekends snorting cocaine, we should be out getting wet, dirty, and learning to love nature.

We need to recognise that our lifestyle choices impact poor communities across the world, but we can take positive action to make a change. So this week join an environmental group – get involved, get active and get your voice heard.

Thank you very much! (rousing applause)


An environmental journalist and communications trainer, Bethan specialises in nature conservation and social justice

Posted in Green Issues, Travel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: