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Nantou County (Taiwan) (AFP) – Toads are a symbol of prosperity and good fortune in Taiwan, but the unexpected discovery of an invasive species has prompted officials and environmentalists to scramble to contain their spread.
With flashlights in hand and protected by protective gloves, dozens of volunteers from the Taiwan Amphibian Conservation Society worked through the night searching for paddy fields and vegetable gardens in search of their prey, the toad.
There should be no reason for these large, highly poisonous amphibians to exist in Chaotun, a commune at the foot of Taiwan’s central mountain range.
Cane toads are native to South and Central America and although they made a famous destructive path through places like Australia and the Philippines, they had not been recorded in Taiwan.
That was until a few weeks ago, when a local resident discovered large amphibians hanging out in his community vegetable garden and uploaded a photo online, a move that immediately sparked a toad hunt.
“A rapid and massive search operation is crucial when the cane toads are first discovered,” Lin Chun-fu, an amphibian scientist at the Endemic Species Research Institute, told AFP. by the government, explaining why environmentalists have since rushed to find and remove any cane. toads.
“Their size is very large and they have no natural enemies here in Taiwan,” he added.
Shortly after the photo was uploaded, Yang Yi-ju, an expert from Dong Hwa National University, sent a group of volunteers from the Amphibian Conservation Society to investigate.
They arrived at the vegetable patch and were shocked to find 27 toads in the immediate vicinity.
She quickly identified intruders as rhinella marina thanks to the large telltale partoid glands behind the ears where toads secrete a dangerous poison.
“I was shocked and worried when they found more than 20. It won’t be an easy thing to fix,” she recalls.
“We started to educate and mobilize everyone to take action,” she said, adding that the presence of juveniles showed that toads were breeding.
Cane toads are a dangerous invasive species for three main reasons.
They are voracious predators, they are extremely successful at reproducing and they are poisonous. This last quality, a defense mechanism, is particularly dangerous for dogs who might lick or bite one.
Local farmers told environmentalists they noticed the arrival of these beefy toads but never reported it.
“Taiwanese farmers usually ignore toads and even look favorably at toads when they find them because they help rid the earth of pests and are also a symbol of good luck,” Yang explained.
“It has never occurred to them that this is an invasive species from a foreign land.”
Conservation officials and environmental volunteers have worked tirelessly to conduct careful research.
“We divided (the township) into 200 by 200 square meter grids to investigate one by one if there are any marine toads present,” said field researcher Lin Yong-lun, pointing to a series of coded cards. by color.
The search perimeter has since been extended to a radius of 4 kilometers.
So far, more than 200 marine toads of various sizes have been captured and housed at the Endemic Species Research Institute.
Toads are part of the global list of “100 invasive alien species” compiled by the Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG), an international advisory body of scientists and policy experts.
Also known as sea toads, their most common English name comes from the fact that they were used in sugar cane plantations to hunt cane beetles.
They have been introduced to plantations in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, the Caribbean as well as Florida and Hawaii where they have caused damage to local ecosystems.
Despite their warty appearance, toads are a symbol of wealth, longevity, and luck in Chinese culture. They are also used in Chinese medicine and their totems are common in feng shui to ward off bad luck.
“In store windows, you can find toad totems, designs and even real live toads. It is a symbol of fortune and luck,” said amphibian scientist Lin.
Until 2016, it was legal to import toads to Taiwan as pets where they can fetch between NT $ 3,000 to NT $ 4,000 (US $ 107 to $ 142).
Environmentalists believe that since imports were banned, people have started to breed cane toads locally and some have since escaped or been abandoned by their owners.
So far, no further sightings have been reported from Taiwan and Yang is cautiously optimistic that the spread will stop.
“Next spring, during mating season, is when we really know for sure if we’ve contained it,” she said.
© 2021 AFP