Having never actually travelled outside of the EU before, I approached my trip to the Caribbean islands of Montserrat and Dominica with a mix of excitement and a fair degree of trepidation. I was excited to see a part of the world I had always wanted to visit and I was really looking forward to filming the work ZSL and its partners are doing out there to study and help conserve the critically endangered mountain chicken frog. On the flip side of that I was nervous about the many unknowns I was going to come across, such as would Caribbean mosquitoes find me as delicious as the Greek ones seemed to last year and would I be able to sleep knowing there was a genuine chance a real life tarantula could walk in at any time?
The most immediate challenge I faced however was whether I could fit three weeks worth of clothes and a lot of expensive camera equipment into just one suitcase and my hand luggage. Luckily, using a combination of overloading the pockets of my coat and my girlfriend’s ever-efficient packing skills, and after a couple of nervous hours weighing things on the bathroom scales, I had met that challenge head on and set off on the 21 hour journey.
As we began to fly over Montserrat, there was something about this little emerald green island with its towering volcano that reminded me of the opening of Jurassic Park. If I squinted at the pilot, squinted really hard, he even looked a bit like Richard Attenborough. Suddenly I was like Sam Neil heading to a land that time forgot. Was that a bird or a pterodactyl I could see in the distance? Da-Da- DA DA DA Da-da DA DA DA. As we landed I realised I had been humming the Jurrasic Park theme tune loudly throughout most the flight.
Work began immediately after landing as I was met by Laura, one of the people I would be following around for the next week. Laura works for the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, ZSL’s partner in the Mountain Chicken Project, and is helping to co-ordinate the release of the frogs which had been bred at ZSL London Zoo and Jersey Zoo and were now on their way to Montserrat. Our first stop was to visit the beautiful National Trust Botanical Gardens where our lucky frogs would be spending a few days acclimatising after arriving on the island. Laura and volunteers Chris and Karen set to work finishing the ponds where the frogs would initially be kept before release. This involved covering the floor of the ponds in dried leaves to replicate the Mountain chicken frogs’ natural habitat, creating little hiding places for them and filling some dishes with water to create little pools for them to sit in. All this had to be done very carefully to minimise any possibility of the ponds getting infected by the chytrid fungus, which was now rife throughout most the island and had nearly wiped out the natural population of the species.
Once the ponds were ready it was time to head back to the airport and pick up our very special cargo. I have to say watching the plane land which I knew was carrying the very same frogs I had seen depart from ZSL London Zoo before I head off made me feel like a piece of home had just arrived on the island. The frogs were quickly loaded onto a convoy of cars and driven to the Botanical Gardens. The unloading process was much slower however. Each frog had to be carefully unpacked, it’s microchip scanned, weighed, visually assessed, then placed in some water to rehydrate for 20 minutes before it could be placed in the ponds we had set up earlier. Everyone was on tenterhooks as the crates were opened because the frogs had been on a very long and tough journey (I could attest for that!) and no one knew at that point if they had survived the transportation. However, to the obvious delight of the team the first frog came out wriggling and kicking, and by the end of the evening we had over 50 healthy mountain chicken frogs in their ponds, ready for the start of their big release in a few days.
Filming this process was fascinating and it was amazing to see the frogs sat there in their little pools, thousands of miles from where they had been just a day ago, and only days away from being released on the island. These frogs had no idea they were hopefully going to play a big part in helping scientists at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology and their partners at Durrell not only understand more about this critically endangered species, but importantly learn more about the chytrid fungus that has decimated their numbers here in Montserrat and on neighboring Dominica.
As the frogs were left to settle in, I too could finally get some rest back at my guest house and take a moment to actually take in my surroundings. As I sat outside my apartment a rather large lizard scuttled past me and I found myself humming the Jurassic Park theme once more.
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Every month one of the pieces held in ZSL’s Library and at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will feature here as Artefact of the month.
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