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The black market endangered this frog. Can the free market save it?


In the Colombian rainforest, there's a tiny frog caught in a vicious cycle. It's critically endangered due to poaching. And the more endangered it gets, the more lucrative it is to poach. But Planet Money's Stan Alcorn and Charlotte de Beauvoir explained there is a plan to outcompete smugglers.


CHARLOTTE DE BEAUVOIR, BYLINE: This one tiny spot of rainforest in Colombia, the Anchicaya Valle, is the only place in the world where you can find this frog, the oophaga lehmanni.

STAN ALCORN, BYLINE: They used to be all over this valley, but today...


ALCORN: ...We had to machete our way through dense jungle for hours...

DE BEAUVOIR: Oof. Watch your step.

ALCORN: ...Just to find one frog.


ALCORN: Ay, there it is.

DE BEAUVOIR: It's really cute.

ALCORN: Red and black with bright white toes like it just had its nails done.

DE BEAUVOIR: Biologists estimate there are fewer than 5,000 of these frogs left in the wild.

ALCORN: As many as 80,000 were taken out of this jungle and smuggled overseas.

CHRIS MILLER: They weren't readily available, but if you knew who to ask, you could get them.

DE BEAUVOIR: Chris Miller collects frogs in Chicago, and he once bought three smuggled oophaga lehmannis for $300 each.

ALCORN: In the '90s, police were confiscating boxes of this critically endangered frog at the Bogota airport, and they'd bring them to Ivan Lozano Ortega.

IVAN LOZANO ORTEGA: It's a huge responsibility. It's like you got a box of panda bears.

DE BEAUVOIR: Ivan is an animal conservationist, and he says because this frog is so rare, it's expensive.

ORTEGA: Like a diamond.

ALCORN: Which makes it worth it to poach. So to save the frog, Ivan hatches a plan to make this diamond of the frog world common and cheap.

ORTEGA: Our bet was breeding them in large numbers, flooding the market, decreasing the prices so nobody want ever to go to the jungle and poach these animals to be collected for the international trade.

ALCORN: So you're going to put the smugglers out of business with economics, basically.

ORTEGA: Exactly.

DE BEAUVOIR: Ivan's plan - breed frogs and sell them so the few remaining in the wild are left alone.

ORTEGA: With this, we're not going to lose this incredible species anymore. I was really confident.

ALCORN: But his first lab-bred oophaga lehmanni frogs sold for 1 to $2,000 each.

DE BEAUVOIR: Yeah. It turns out breeding and exporting frogs is a lot more expensive than just ripping them out of the jungle.

ORTEGA: You cannot compete with the smugglers. You need also a backup.

ALCORN: So Ivan comes up with a backup plan - to educate the frog collectors, basically convince them it's worth paying a premium for frogs that were farmed ethically.

DE BEAUVOIR: Chris, the frog collector - he says he'd never buy a smuggled frog again. Today, collectors police themselves.

MILLER: Everyone will crucify you. They'll call you names. You'll get blacklisted. Like, there's a really negative stigma now with acquiring smuggled frogs.

ALCORN: Frog smuggling these days is threatened, but it is not yet extinct.

DE BEAUVOIR: In the last few years, Colombian police have confiscated hundreds more oophaga lehmanni frogs. For NPR News, I'm Charlotte de Beauvoir.

ALCORN: And I'm Stan Alcorn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Stan Alcorn