In September 2019, SAVE THE FROGS! Journalist Romina Vosoughi interviewed SAVE THE FROGS! Ghana's Sandra Owusu-Gyamfi about her experience saving Ghana's frogs from extinction, being a woman in science, educating youth and politicians about amphibians, and her plans for the future.
Sandra is Ghana's first female amphibian conservation scientist and currently serves as the Campaigns Coordinator for SAVE THE FROGS! Ghana, the first international branch of SAVE THE FROGS!. She holds a Master's degree in Environmental Conservation from the University of Greenwich in the UK, and a bachelor's degree in Environmental Science from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. Enjoy the interview!
What is your biggest achievement in this field?
I will consider this question in two parts; professional and personal achievements. Professionally, I would say being able to influence policies on natural resource management. Through collaborative efforts with other interested parties, we succeeded in getting previous governments to rescind their decisions to mine bauxite at the Atewa Range Forest Reserve, home to the last viable population of the Togo Slippery Frog (Conraua derooi) and many other endemic species.
I was also the team leader that discovered the largest population of the Giant Squeaker Frog (Arthroleptis krokosua), including the first records of gravid females. This led to me coordinating the establishment of two community tree nurseries that raise native seedlings for the restoration of the species’ degraded critical habitats. To date, an estimated 30,000+ seedlings have been raised for restoration of the species’ last viable population stronghold at the Sui River Forest Reserve, in western Ghana.
I was the first to raise awareness on amphibian roadkills in West Africa, estimating the kill rate while educating motorists at Ankasa Conservation Area to reduce their speed, especially during the peak of road crossing. Since then, the potholes on these roads, which once collected water and attracted frogs, have been patched to reduce frogs’ contact with motorists.
By my consistent work in amphibian research and conservation, we have seen an increase in female participation in this field. At least one lady has completed her master’s degree with her thesis focusing on amphibians. For the first time since SAVE THE FROGS! Ghana started its internship programme in 2013, we had an all-female recruit for 2019, a testament to younger ladies being inspired by a working female in this male dominated field. There has also been more female participation in our campus programmes, such as workshops and habitat restoration activities, especially at KNUST’s Wewe River.
On the personal level, I would say getting international recognition has been my greatest achievements. In 2014, I received an invitation to give presentations at the British Herpetology Society and at the Universities of Cambridge, Greenwich and Nottingham, to share my experiences as well as build networks for African conservation. This set the stage for other recognitions, including being named the personality of the week in Ghana’s most widely read weekend newspaper, the Mirror, in August 2014, for my work in amphibian conservation and promotion of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
How did you get involved in this field? What sparked your interest in environmental conservation? What were your earliest experiences with environmental conservation?
I credit my wildlife lecturer during my undergraduate years at KNUST, Rev. Dr. Acheampong, for stimulating an interest I never thought existed. As part of his lectures, the class had to review wildlife documentaries, the very first of many being that of Dr. Jane Goodall and her work on chimpanzees. In that video, I saw a fearless young woman looking for answers many men dared not attempt to answer. Similarly, being exposed to the works of the late Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Wangari Maathai and her environmental movement made me see these woman as an embodiment of the spirits of many young girls like me. It was like they were telling me “We have started the path, follow us or go make your own but no matter what, don’t let anyone stand in your way.”
Unfortunately when I started, amphibian conservation in Ghana was still in its early stages. Many people were not appreciative of why we wanted to save amphibians. Coupled with that, there was no woman in Ghana working on amphibians. Thankfully, the Executive Director of SAVE THE FROGS! Ghana, Gilbert Adum, was on hand to mentor me. This kept me going, designing educational campaigns to reach out to schools and local communities, making radio and TV appearances, blogging, and promoting amphibian conservation on social media. I can confidently say that these efforts have paid off, making SAVE THE FROGS! Ghana the national authority when it comes to amphibians, with nearly every search on Ghana’s frogs sending seekers to our sites.
What do you intend to accomplish over the next 5 years?
In the next 5 years, I hope to encourage at least ten women to take up careers as amphibian conservationists. Currently, the numbers are not very encouraging. Young girls shy away from this field because it’s seen as stressful and demanding. I hope to continue to demystify such notions by using a number of approaches, notably, organising annual women conservation leadership workshops and inviting reputable women in the conservation field as speakers, trainers and mentors.
What is your favorite conservation issue to research/try to resolve?
Policy, because we need to make use of all the data we have collected to provide evidence for why we need politicians to preserve landscapes for biodiversity. I live in a country where the state’s priority is to the minerals in the ground rather than to biodiversity. Government’s decisions on the use of lands and natural resources have had profound influences on amphibians and many other wildlife and ecosystem functions. It is for this reason that SAVE THE FROGS! Ghana’s Advocacy and Policy Department is working to ensure that government’s policies are mindful of the consequences on the ecosystem.
How do you exactly train the next generation? How do you encourage the public to take interest in conservation issues?
STF! Ghana has student chapters spread throughout the country, which makes it easier to access the youth and train them to take up the mantle when we are no more. We organise amphibian conservation workshops regularly for our members, combined with visits to our project and tree plantation sites, where they receive hands-on training in amphibian research and conservation. Additionally, we take on interns for 3 month practical trainings as well as supervise their thesis work on amphibian research and conservation. At least 20 students have directly benefitted from our internship programme and have proceeded to join or start conservation organisations of their own.
Countless more Ghanaians have been exposed to amphibian conservation to influence positive behaviour change through TV and radio broadcasts. Blogging and social media competitions such as the Ghana Online Amphibian Literacy (GOAL) programme, which throws the spotlight on selected frogs also helps us to target the youth.
Do you work with governmental organizations to try to encourage them to pass laws and regulations that protect amphibians? What is the biggest challenge?As head of our Advocacy and Policy Department, I serve as a link between STF! Ghana and the government, presenting research evidence to back our requests for policy reviews for amphibian protection. Government institutions we have reached out to in the past have included Forestry Commission of Ghana and Ghana’s Parliament, where we have made calls for the review of mining rights in critical amphibian habitats, such as the Atewa Forest Reserve.
Currently, our two biggest challenges are:
- Lack of interest in amphibian conservation by politicians and lawmakers in general; and
- Stalled progress in amphibian protection due to changes in government that often times force us to start the process all over again.
What do you consider the most rewarding aspect of being an amphibian conservation scientist?
Being the audible voice for amphibians; communicating what is happening on the ground; and demanding that we reconsider our actions and the effect they have on such a helpless group, which has every right to life as much as we do.
Do you have any amphibians as pet? Do you think amphibians make good pets or do you think it’s best for them to be in their natural habitats?
I don’t keep any amphibian as a pet, nor do I see the need for others to do same due to their vulnerability. It is best to leave them in their natural habitats and work at protecting these areas. Such landscape protection goes to benefit not just amphibians but other species too.
If an organization or donor wants to support an environmental issue, how would you try to convince them to support amphibians versus other environmental issues?
I will ask them to consider the evidence. Every environmental issue is important but wouldn’t it be easier to tackle the most at risk, thus amphibians? Owing to the fact that frogs are in the middle of the food chain and form an integral part of nearly every ecosystem, when we save the frogs, we’re protecting all wildlife.
Are these amphibians also affected by other environmental problems such as global warming, over-harvesting, etc?
Global warming, certainly. This affects every amphibian species one could think of. It may be good change for some but bad for others such as the common African toad (Amietophrynus regularis) and Giant Squeaker Frog respectively. Over harvesting on the other hand affects specific species which are known delicacies of certain communities in Ghana. For example, the edible bullfrog (Pyxicephalus edulis) and African tiger frog (Hoplobatrachus occipitalis) are some of the most harvested and this is known to have negatively affected their populations in parts of northern Ghana.
Can you please tell me about your setbacks, disappointments, failures, etc in this field?
Conservation in Africa in general is now gradually catching up. Accordingly, it is not always easy to make speedy progress or even garner enough appreciation from politicians and the general public for amphibian conservation. This is one of our major setbacks which has stalled our advancement in amphibian conservation. An example is our continuous struggle to make Atewa Range Forest Reserve a national park, which would result in higher protection status and prevent any form of future mining exploration. Due to its current status, it has consistently been on the radar of governments to mine its low grade bauxite, regardless of the harm such an activity would have on biodiversity and ecosystem services. This has dragged on for nearly a decade due to government’s priorities not including biodiversity within this unique area.
Do you collaborate with universities in Asia, USA, Canada, or Europe that offer summer internships for environmental science majors? Do such students work as volunteers in West Africa?
I wouldn’t call it collaboration but rather connected to certain individuals at the University of Greenwich (my alma mater) and the Harrison Institute where I received practical training in taxonomy. Where there is the need to seek their professional opinion on conservation matters, we do hold discussions as well as give presentations. If students wish to volunteer, they are welcome to do so if they are motivated and ready to assist the cause.
Did anyone try to discourage you or criticize you for getting involved in this field? If so, how did you deal with that?
A lot of my friends did not understand why I was working on frogs. Now that they know about their importance to the environment and indeed to humans, when I am asked why save frogs, most of them jump in to explain and they do so with such passion. So in a way, some of my biggest critics are working for me unofficially as my spokespersons.
What benefits do these frogs have for the world? Why should we try to save them?
You cannot love one group of wildlife over another; you have to love them all. This answer I believe in the Ghanaian context seems to gain positive response. That being said on a more technical point, several benefits are obtained from the existence of frogs in the environment, which the SAVE THE FROGS! website covers very well. For example, frogs are an integral part of the ecosystem feeding on insects including carriers of vector-borne diseases such as mosquitoes, and being fed on by other higher trophic level species all in all, helping to create a balance in the ecosystem. Additionally, they have been used for several ground breaking research in medicine, including advancement in HIV drugs investigations.
Unfortunately, amphibians are the most threatened group of animals on earth. In Ghana alone, approximately 32% of the amphibian species are endemic, rare or endangered. As an example, less than 30 adults of the Giant Squeaker Frog have been found despite very intensive field work in the last decade; the Togo Slippery Frog (Conraua derooi), once abundant in both Togo and Ghana, is now restricted to a few localities; and the Intermediate Puddle Frog (Phrynobatrachus intermedius) is known to science from fewer than 10 individuals and is restricted to two small swamp sites.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
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