Become a volunteer to help save the toads

Western leopard toad numbers are continuing to dwindle despite efforts to save the endangered species.

According to Dr Tony Rebelo, chairman of the Western Leopard Toad Conservation Committee, there were hundreds at Die Oog in 2007, reduced to a mere couple of dozen last year. Die Oog is the smallest of the City of Cape Town’s nature reserves and is in Bergvliet near to where Dr Rebelo lives.

He has no idea why the toads’ numbers have declined at this location but said it was representative of other populations, with the exception of Lakeside-Kirstenhof.

Little is known about the toad’s unique breeding habits. This is why the public has been asked to help collect data by loading pictures and details to the citizen-scientist website iSpot (www.ispotnature.org).

Western leopard toads live in Cape Town and the Agulhas Plain, and every year for a few days, from mid-July to September, usually late August, they go courting.

“You can’t miss them, they sound like a bunch of Hell’s Angels at full speed on steroids. I can hear them at Spaanschemat one kilometre away,” Dr Rebelo said.

It’s not known what triggers their breeding except that it’s usually a combination of full moon and rain.

“Toads migrate to water bodies where males fight to hop onto the females, usually larger than themselves. Smaller males hang on piggy-back style to get a hitch-hike to the ponds. A few females die in the process, but it is generally not a problem… the strongest and fittest males usually get their gals,” Dr Rebelo said.

Male toads are distinguished by the colour of the throat, which is creamier in females and darker for males.

Dr Rebelo said one of the huge misconceptions about western leopard toads was that they lived in water. Instead they normally hang around our gardens, feeding or hibernating, living in drains, an old shoe or under leaves. “If you are lucky to host these guests do not think of moving them to water or another location as they will return,” said Dr Rebelo.

Construction of roads, highways and high walls has caused havoc with the toads’ annual migration patterns and thousands are squashed each winter.

Dr Rebelo encourages homeowners to create small gaps in perimeter walls or fencing so the toad can come and go as needed. And to place a 30cm section of netting alongside their swimming pool so that toads – which cannot swim well – can get out.

Sensible dogs usually steered clear of the toads, said Dr Rebelo, although there had been two or three incidents where some terrier breeds had been poisoned.

“The toads skin is exceedingly unpleasant to the taste. Most animals that once mouth, lick or even smell a toad, will never touch another again.”

The leopard toad, like most other toads, has a toxin gland (called the parotid gland) just behind the ears. The toad secretes a bufotoxin when it feels that its life is threatened, typically when its body is in the grip of a predator’s jaws or if the skin is damaged.

Dr Rebelo said volunteers were needed who could help the toads cross the road safely at night, especially during rush hour.

““They must be taken across the road in the direction they are heading. Never move them around: they may be coming or going and moving them any distance may be taking them back to where they don’t want to be. And take a picture of them as each western leopard toad has a unique ‘fingerprint’ of markings on its back. Using this data, we can follow them from year to year and calculate total numbers,” Dr Rebelo said adding that squashed toads should also be photographed and record-
ed.

The western leopard toad conservation groups from Tokai, Bergvliet, Constantia and the KirMiTS groups (Kirstenhof to Muizenberg Toad Savers) will be holding an information and volunteer sign-up session on Saturday July 29, at 10am, at the Tokai library.

For more information, contact Susan Wishart at 083 441 4740, or email susan.wishart.za@gmail.com