The world’s most famous bachelor frog and friends face an uncertain future as Cochabamba city government threatens to shutter Bolivia’s leading wildlife conservation center
By Lindsay Renick Mayer on March 04, 2022
When the story of Romeo, the world’s loneliest frog, captured hearts around the world on Valentine’s Day of 2018, the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny where he had lived for nearly a decade was thrust into global headlines as a leader in amphibian conservation. Four years and one Juliet later, Romeo’s future is once again uncertain as the city government of Cochabamba considers bulldozing the museum to build a new convention center in its place.
Although Romeo and Juliet may be the most famous residents of the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny, the museum’s efforts to save the Sehuencas Water Frog is only one on a long list of impressive accolades.
“Since the museum opened its doors 24 years ago, it has played a critical role in bolstering our understanding of the country’s natural heritage and securing Bolivia’s role as a leader in conservation in Latin America,” said Ricardo Céspedes, director of the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny. “Not only does the city government’s threat put Romeo and Juliet’s future at risk, but the future of the Sehuencas Water Frog, the other Bolivian wildlife species that we help protect, and even the ability of our country to inspire the next generation of Bolivian scientists and conservationists.”
A local center with global reach
One of Teresa Camacho Badani’s most prized possessions are the letters and drawings that she has received from young students she has spoken to about Romeo, her job as chief of herpetology at the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny, and the importance of together caring for our planet. In addition to providing general education outreach for local schools, the museum does extensive outreach, including with youth, in the communities living near their conservation projects in the wild.
“When students learn about Romeo and the museum’s other conservation successes, they tell me they want to study biology,” Camacho Badani says. “They feel a connection to their country’s wildlife, a spark of curiosity and hope. This is something truly special that the museum has done, one of the most important things.”
Since the museum’s founding in 1997, it has launched the career of or inspired nearly 330 researchers, assistants, interns and volunteers. It has become a powerhouse for science and conservation, the only natural history museum in Cochabamba and only one of three natural history museums in Bolivia. The museum has led more than 110 scientific research projects in the country, collaborated on or supported nearly 40 scientific research bachelor degree theses with students at national and international universities, and its research has been used in more than 430 scientific publications in national and international journals. And more than 1 million visitors have wandered the museum’s exhibits, learning about Bolivia’s rich biodiversity and natural history.
Not only does the museum house some of the world’s most important collections of mammal and fish fossils, but it is also focused on those species alive today—and how to prevent the extinction of the country’s species on the brink of extinction.
The museum’s K’ayra Center for Research and Conservation of Threatened Amphibians of Bolivia runs conservation breeding programs for seven threatened amphibian species, including five Endangered or Critically Endangered species of water frog (like Romeo’s Sehuencas Water Frog), an Endangered species of glass frog that was once lost to science, and a Vulnerable South American toad species.
All 450 amphibians that live here receive world-class care, with filtration systems; temperature, light, water-quality and UV level controls; and even a commissary that provides the frogs with a total of more than four pounds of live insect food a day. Since each species has different requirements (the Titicaca Water Frog, for example, comes from a high Andean lake where the water is very different from the streams that the Sehuencas Water Frog lives in), the K’ayra Center team researches the unique conditions required by each species by taking measurements from their wild habitat and emulating those. And if those conditions change at all, the keepers get an immediate alert on their phones.
“These amphibian insurance populations are critical not only for Bolivia’s health, but for the health of the planet,” says Lina Valencia, Re:wild’s Andean countries coordinator. “But the museum’s work doesn’t stop there. They are also working with local communities and government authorities to mitigate the threats in the wild to each of these species and developing and implementing conservation action plans for the Sehuencas Water Frog and Titicaca Water Frog. Without the museum’s leadership here, these species would be more likely to go extinct.”
In addition to preventing the extinction of several amphibian species, the museum also contributes directly to the Bolivian government’s national conservation action plans for the Andean Bear, Amazon River Dolphin, and Red-fronted Macaw. It works with nearly 140 institutions, museums, universities, research centers, NGOs and national and international foundations on its science and conservation initiatives.
“The museum provides a unique opportunity for Bolivians to do research and implement conservation in our own country,” Camacho Badani says. “Without a doubt it has allowed me to do research in my home country and grow professionally as we collaborate with national researchers and international institutions.”
A city’s threat to a National Heritage Site
In 2014, the national Bolivian government designated the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny a National Heritage site for obvious reasons: the museum’s extensive conservation, research and outreach work in support of threatened wildlife species. Under that legal designation, three levels of government need to agree on any changes to the site—the national Ministry of Culture, the government of the Department of Cochabamba, and the government of the City of Cochabamba.
The good news is that both the Ministry of Culture and the government of the department of Cochabamba have recently voiced their support for protecting the museum. So have more than 100 civil society organizations and individuals, who have been putting out public statements and press releases rejecting the city of Cochabamba’s campaign to replace the museum with a convention center.
“The city’s plan would be especially disruptive to our insurance populations of amphibians, who are particularly sensitive to any changes in their environment,” Camacho Badani says.
It would also disrupt the museum’s future plans, including to implement artificial reproductive techniques with Romeo, Juliet and the other Sehuencas Water Frogs, none of which have yet successfully bred. In addition, the museum’s team plans to continue to look for Sehuencas Water Frogs in the wild to better understand what is left of the population, to continue to work with local communities and leaders to mitigate the threats to the country’s wildlands and wildlife, and to expand the museum’s exhibit on amphibians and the project. Ultimately the team hopes to someday return the Sehuencas Water Frog to the wild.
“The city threatens more than just a few buildings on a plot of land,” Céspedes says. “Bolivia will lose a space where scientific research is conducted and where young researchers, many of them women, have an opportunity to work toward the preservation of Bolivian biodiversity. The government of the city of Cochabamba now has a choice: Embrace and celebrate all that the museum contributes locally, regionally and globally or recklessly threaten the existence of some of our country’s most special animals and the pride of the next generation in our natural heritage. We urge them to make the right call.”
Lindsay Renick Mayer
Lindsay is the Director of Media Relations for Re:wild and has a particular interest in leveraging communications to inspire conservation action. Lindsay is passionate about species-based conservation and finding compelling ways to tell stories that demonstrate the value of all of the planet’s critters, big and microscopic.