By Dr. Jonathan Baillie, National Geographic Society executive vice president and chief scientist
In the natural world, love can sometimes be hard to find, especially when your options are uniquely limited. For Romeo, a Sehuencas water frog, it appeared he did not have any options.
‘Romeo’, a ten-year-old Sehuencas water frog (Telmatobius yuracare), has lived at Centro Kayra, a captive-breeding center in Cochabamba, Bolivia, for 10 years. Photo by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
Collected from the wild in 2008, Romeo was thought to be the last known Sehuencas water frog in existence. Native to a single stream in Bolivia’s Andean cloud forests, the species was teetering on the brink of extinction.
As National Geographic reported, their population plummeted due to a myriad of threats, including habitat loss, climate change and pollution.
For a decade, Romeo lived alone in the care of researchers at the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny and held the dubious distinction of being the world’s loneliest frog.
That is, until scientists found his Juliet.
Juliet, a newly discovered Sehuencas water frog, seems to smile at the camera on January 19, 2019. Photo by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
It turns out, Romeo’s best shot at love was online. Bolivian museum officials partnered with Global Wildlife Conservation to create a Match.com dating profile for Romeo, a fundraising effort to mount future frog-finding expeditions. The campaign shot the obscure amphibian to fame and people donated $25,000 — funds that were then used to find his mate.
In January, a team of scientists announced they’d rediscovered five of these orange-bellied frogs — Juliet, another female, and three males — on an expedition in the Bolivian wilderness, restoring some hope that this rare species could live on.
Stunning images of Romeo and Juliet helped amplify their story, taken by renowned photographer, Rolex National Geographic 2018 Explorer of the Year, and my friend Joel Sartore. Their portraits join more than 9,500 others in the National Geographic Photo Ark, Joel’s deeply personal mission to document every species in the world’s zoos and wildlife sanctuaries before they disappear.
While this is an encouraging step for recovery for the water frogs, we know similar stories of survival are playing out all over the world, and the fate of other species are much more dire. Extinction is a natural phenomenon but we are losing the world’s wildlife at least a thousand times faster than the normal rate.
Just eight days ago, we mourned the death of the only known female Yangtze Giant Softshell turtle, the largest species of freshwater turtle on the planet. We are grateful Joel captured photographs of her, as only three known members remain. Her death brings the species one step closer to extinction.
That is why our work is more important than ever. At the National Geographic Society, we are working to advance understanding of our world in the hope that we can inspire people to take action to ensure a healthier, more sustainable planet for all life.
If we want to avoid an extinction crisis, we need to secure the world’s critical ecosystems so that we can continue to experience the amazing diversity of life, like Romeo and Juliet.
As threats become more urgent, experts around the world are pushing for action. Last fall, in an effort to confront the growing global conservation crisis, philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss invested an unprecedented $1 billion to help turn the tide for our planet. As part of this effort, the National Geographic Society and a growing number of conservation organizations have joined forces with the Wyss Foundation to launch the Campaign for Nature, which aims to inspire the protection of 30 percent of the planet by 2030.
Why set a target of 30 percent? The science shows us 30 percent is a critical milestone to prevent the mass extinction of wildlife and plant species, and it is also essential for preventing the dangerous impacts of climate change. On Friday, my colleague and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala and I joined an international group of scientists in publishing a paper, A Global Deal For Nature: Guiding principles, milestones, and targets, that outlines the necessity of this science-based conservation target to protect our planet. As world leaders plan to negotiate and adopt a new global pact to safeguard life on Earth in October 2020, they must ensure its ambition matches the urgency of the threats we face.
We know change is not going to happen overnight; protecting our Earth is a long-term endeavor. As for Romeo and Juliet, they are a metaphor for an untold number of species on our planet that are threatened with extinction and whose only hope for survival may be human intervention and a captive breeding program. But the science tells us, when we invest in nature, nature comes back. If we focus on securing the natural world, then nature will take care of the matchmaking.
Time will tell if Romeo and Juliet produce offspring, but it is one step toward restoring this special creature, and it illustrates what can be achieved when people come together toward a common cause.
As Joel told National Geographic earlier this year, “If the public cares deeply about the fate of a frog, they’ll care about everything else in the natural world as well.”
This Earth Day, that is my hope as well. The more that we can inspire people to care and to act to save our planet, the more we can continue to accelerate real, transformative change.