Photo by Renee Bish
Since Jacques-Yves Cousteau's adventures in Lake Titicaca brought images of a giant frog into my childhood living room, I'd always planned one day to meet this monster face to face. Now, nearly 30 years later, only a thin sheet of glass separated our noses as I peered into the boggly eyes of the most bizarre amphibian I'd ever seen. Its skin sagged like the baggy trousers of a before-and-after weight-loss advertisement. Indeed, its scientific name, Telmatobius culeus, translates as 'aquatic scrotum.' It absorbs most of the oxygen it needs across its skin; the highly folded surface serves to double the area available for oxygen uptake. The larger the frog, the more exaggerated the pleats and folds, to keep up with the increased respiration demands.
Reneé [Bish] and I had come to the edge of the highest navigable lake in the world to investigate rumours that these gentle giants were rapidly disappearing. Set at 3,815 metres above sea level, and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, Lake Titicaca has a surface area of more than 8,500km² and spans both Peruvian and Bolivian territories.
In the early 1970s, Cousteau's team reported frogs up to 50cm long, with individuals commonly weighing a kilogram, making these the largest aquatic frogs in the world. But such giant individuals have long gone, and now the frogs are not nearly as common.
The frogs have long been considered by the indigenous community to have special powers. In some parts, they are used as 'rain-makers' - in times of drought, a large frog is carried in a ceramic pot to a hilltop, where its distressed calls are interpreted as its cries for rain. When the rains come, the pot overflows, allowing the sacred frog to escape.
In the soup
In places such as Lima, Tacna and Arequipa in Peru, the demand for Titicaca frogs seems to be growing. A recent Peruvian television report stated that 150 live frogs were needed daily to satisfy Lima's latest fad - frog juice. Known locally as Peruvian Viagra, live frogs are stripped of their skin and dropped into a household blender with water, a local tuber and sometimes honey. The locals lay great claim to its prowess as an aphrodisiac.
The frogs are legally protected in Peru, but, in practice, this means limited control during their transportation by road to the cities, and Peru's frog juicers are blatant and unpunished. Bolivia has no legal statute specific to the Titicaca frogs. With a growing public awareness of the potential of a community-based project, locals seem to be showing more interest in the well-being of the resource. Hopefully, co-operation between the two nations bordering Lake Titicaca will mean that the frog population will not be allowed to sink into the depths of oblivion.
Read the original Natonal Wildlife Federation article by Pete Oxford; or another article on Living Underworld.org . See more photos of the Titicaca frog here.