I just finished watching "The Starry Night Toad," a new documentary by First Nations Frontline.
The Starry Night Harlequin toad, thought to be extinct since 1991, was reintroduced to the world in late 2019. "The indigenous Arhuaco community of Sogrome in Colombia, which shares habitat with the toad, first invited the scientists to research the species and managed its reintroduction to science." The shared habitat includes the remote mountain range, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, known as Niwi Umuke in Arhuaco.
The name Starry Night Toad, known as "gouna" to the Arhuaco people, comes from the image that tiny toads make when huddled together, their white spots sparking and twinkling, mirroring the night's sky. The recovery project is a collaboration between "Global Wildlife Conservation, a U.S. nonprofit that was involved in the re-discovery, along with the Colombian conservation organization, Fundación Atelopus."
Toads have always been an indicator species, "an organism—bacteria, plant, or animal—that reflects the condition of the environment around it. They're often the first in their ecosystem to be affected by a particular environmental change, such as a warming climate, pollution, human development, and other environmental degradation. By monitoring changes in the behaviour, physiology, or number of an indicator species, scientists can monitor the health of its whole environment."
For the Arhuaco, the toad is life, guide, direction, and answer, part of a "biological calendar."
This episode begins with Gunyerin Maku (Ruperto Chaparro Villafaña), the "Ambassador of Arhuaco Thought," explaining the cosmovision and the relationship to the land for the Arhuaco people. The remainder explores rituals of preparations to visit the toad sanctuary, centering the encounters between the Arhuaco and the visiting non-indigenous scientists. The indigenous scientists shared much knowledge about the toads yet known to non-indigenous scientists.
The visiting scientists are trying to discover more about these toads and why they are susceptible to a skin fungus that has affected other toad species to total extinction.
As Kaneymaku Suarez Chaparro [a member of the Sogrome community and a biology student at the Francisco José de Caldas District University] and Ruperto Chaparro Villafaña explain, this group effort began in 2016 through "conversations with the biologist and researcher Luis Alberto Rueda Solano from Fundación Atelopus. We talked about the importance of establishing a peer-to-peer relationship, especially a scientific one that reinforces the objectives of preserving the territory and its natural and cultural wealth."
"In the Arhuaco culture we believe that the world is built of bridges that connect people around their dreams, uniting them and their purposes, whether due to their needs or motivated by their aspirations. Based on this idea, we created Amas la Sierra, an indigenous organization of the traditional community of Sogrome, designed to create bridges between our Arhuaco culture and the culture of the younger brother—or non-indigenous people–allowing us to join different ways of thinking to together manage our potentials in a more evolved and connected way with society and the environment."
"The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a place that we consider sacred, and harlequin toads are guardians of water and symbols of fertility," Chaparro explains, "We manage our resources and conserve our home as the law of origin dictates, which means that we live in balance with Mother Earth and all of life here. Now we have a great opportunity to bring together two worldviews for the protection and preservation of the Sierra species: the Western scientific knowledge and the indigenous scientific, cultural, and spiritual knowledge."
Gold mining and oil drilling also threaten the habitat and life of the Arhuaco and the Starry Night Toad. You may be surprised at the ending: an agreement to "jointly create ideas" toward a comprehensive biodiversity inventory that might protect from the devastation of gold and oil industries.
Ruperto states, "Just as biological diversity in nature is key to the evolution of life," the toad allows us to understand each other.
"We need scientists to be crazy enough to think differently but not forget the essence of science."
Check out this "Frog Chytrid Extinction" video by Katie Garrett and produced by Jonathan Kolby.
These mountains are also where the famed marijuana strain "Colombia Gold" originates. This Strain Hunters Raw episode from Vice News covers this story.