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Tracking the Vanishing Frogs

An Ecological Mystery

by Kathryn Phillips

244 pages, paperback, Penguin, 1994

In 1990 scientists noted an alarming fact: from California, Colorado and Wyoming to Brazil, Switzerland and Japan, frogs are disappearing. Recognizing that frogs are a 'living barometer' of the earth's environmental health, a number of biologists set out to discover why. Tracking the Vanishing Frogs chronicles these efforts.

Praise for Tracking the Vanishing Frogs

"Is human folly or a quirk of nature doing amphibians in? Phillips' narrative skill has us sitting on edge, enthralled."-- Sierra

"Informative, engaging, and enraging."--Booklist

Quotes from Tracking the Vanishing Frogs

"After scientists publicly raised the declining-amphibian alarm, human trade in amphibians . . . increased dramatically. More than four times as many amphibians legally passed through U.S. ports in 1992 as in 1990, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service records. The increase probably had nothing to do with the alarm, and everything to do with a simple increase in human exploitation to meet a popular demand. People sell frogs for food, pets, purses, and wallets, now more than ever. And consumers continue to buy these products.

"Like any other predator, people want frogs mostly for food. Many Asian cultures have included frog legs in their diets for centuries--or at least until they have run out of frogs. But the most famous frog-eaters, and the people who inspired frog- eating in Europe and the United States are the French. . . . The preferred frog for the French was their own Rana esculenta, commonly called the green frog or --even more appropriately, considering its fate--the edible frog. But as local demand increased and frog populations declined, the French began moving across Central Europe and then into Turkey, grabbing other large frogs to satisfy their increasing taste for the creature. By 1977 the French government, so concerned about the scarcity of its native frog, banned commercial hunting of its own amphibians. At about the same time, the Central European and Turkish supplies were drying up. None of this, though, stopped the human frog-eaters. So the French and Dutch (a major frog-leg wholesaler) turned to India and Bangladesh for frogs. A combination of efficient refrigeration and dirt-cheap (often child) labor in these countries made it possible to catch frogs, cut off and freeze their legs, and then ship them to Europe and still sell them at a price that made them appealing.

"The demand for frog legs surfaced in the United States in various parts of the country . . . . At New York's large Oneida Lake, hunters perfected on style of mass frog-collecting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that helped make the area among the most productive in the frogging industry. Each year from July until winter, men and boys would 'tramp the borders of the lake and swamps and upland fields, singly or in small parties, carrying clubs about three feet long,' according to one paper published n 1916. 'The frogs are flushed and as they alight a blow is struck with the club, killing them.' Using this rather brutal method, hunters collected three types of medium-size frogs, including leopard frogs, green frogs (Rana clamitans), and pickeral frogs (Rana palustris) . A hunter could collect on average six hundred to eight hundred frogs in a single day, although at least one hunter reported taking more than 1,200 during less than six hours of work."

"It took about twenty-five to forty Oneida-area frogs to make a pound of frog legs. The legs sold for an average of just over one dollar per pound. It would then, take a whole lot of frogs to make the frog collecting pay off. But even by 1916, frogs in the area were abundant enough to provide a hunter a decent living. One hunting team claimed an annual gross of about $15,000 from frogs alone--very big bucks at that time. 'They used to literally collect tens of thousands of frogs in a day. Just tremendous amounts of frogs,' Hayes says of the Oneida area hunters. 'You would think it wouldn't take terribly many years to decimate a population, but what was truly amazing about the way they operated was that the population didn't go down very fast. There must have been tremendous populations for them to harvest them as they did.'

"Louisiana and Florida swamplands were also prominent commercial frogging sites in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But as the technology for catching and storing frogs improved, the number of frogs dropped from overharvesting. Until the 1930s, according to Hayes, most commercial frog hunters in the southern swamps used elongated dugout boats that they slowly maneuvered with long poles through the stump-ridden waters. As they moved, they would catch the frogs by hand. There was no refrigeration, so the frogs had to be treated delicately and kept alive, so that they wouldn't spoil before they got to market. This limited the number of frogs a hunter could nab and the amount of time he could spend in the swamps before having to return to shore. These hindrances to mass production kept frogging low enough to prevent any major damage to local frog populations.

"Things changed in the 1930s, when block ice became available. Suddenly, froggers were free to use spears to nab frogs from the swamp because they could keep the dead animals from spoiling by placing on ice. But what really revolutionized commercial frogging, according to Hayes and Jennings, was the invention of the airboat. Rapidly pushed by an aircraft-type propeller, the airboat allowed froggers to speed through the swamp and cover many miles in a single night's work. 'Commercial froggers expert at airboat use could easily harvest a metric ton of frogs in less than a week, ' Hayes says. 'In the absence of any restriction on harvesting, airboat-assisted commercial harvest rapidly depleted frog populations. 'Commercial frogging peaked in the mid- and late 1930s. Within twenty years the bull-frog and pig-frog populations were so depleted that most commercial harvesting ended."

. . .

"As happened in France, . . . , American frog-leg fanciers and restaurants turned increasingly to frozen imports. . . . According to figures collected from government agencies by Traffic U.S.A., an arm of the World Wildlife Fund conservation organization, the United States imported more than 6.5 million pounds of frozen frog meat each year between 1981 and 1984. This meat represents only the legs of the frogs, a fraction of their total weight. If you figure that one pair of frog legs weighs a quarter of a pound (a generous estimate), then about 26 million frogs were captured and killed during each of those years to serve the American frog-leg appetite. Ninety percent of those legs came from India and Bangladesh, according to Traffic. In 1987, India banned frog-leg exports after reports that frog-hunting was decimating local populations of Rana tigrina and Rana hexadactyla, the two Indian versions of the bullfrog. Conservationists and one prominent Indian biologist charged that such decimation was causing an increase in mosquitoes and forcing India to become more reliant on expensive pesticides."

. . .

"Since the India and Bangladesh frog-export bans, Indonesia has become the major exporter of frog legs to the United States and Europe. But no matter what country the legs come from, one thing is usually constant: The legs once belonged to frogs taken from the wild, not from farms. Frogs are nearly impossible to farm economically. . . . in the countries where frogs are commercially harvested from the wild, the harvester gets paid only pennies per frog. No farm can compete with that price."

Table of Contents of Tracking the Vanishing Frogs

  1. Lazarus
  2. Costa Rican Gold
  3. In the Field I
  4. In the Field II
  5. To Have and to Hold
  6. sunbathing
  7. Whither Weather?
  8. Unnatural Disasters
  9. A Place for Frogs

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