Out On A Limb: Demand for Legs Driving Frogs to Extinction

In this country, a plate of frog legs (or "frogs' legs" as the dish is commonly called outside the U.S.) usually brings to mind France or the French-influenced regions of the American South. Frog legs, however, are especially popular in Cantonese cuisine, as well, and are consumed in homes, restaurants and bars throughout the world. According to a study published in the journal Conservation Biology, from 200 million to over 1 billion wild and farmed frogs are killed every year to meet the international demand for their legs.

Because frogs are exported most often as skinned body parts, it is extremely difficult to track which species are being traded. Consequently, it is difficult to measure the precise impacts of the frog leg trade on wild frog populations. Morphological similarities among commercially harvested frog species suggest that many species may be regularly harvested but misidentified and mislabeled. What is known is that the species most commonly involved in the trade are large-bodied frogs - namely the American bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana), crabeating frog (Fejervarya cancrivora), and Javan giant frog (Limnonectes macrodon). In various countries, many other species are exploited as well for domestic consumption.

Animal Welfare and Ecological Issues

Cruelty is a common theme running through the varied methods used to kill frogs. They are often skinned, and have their snouts and rear legs cut off with scissors or a blade while still alive. Their torsos are then tossed aside in a pile of other bleeding frogs and they endure a slow, agonizing death. Inhumane methods employing nets, hooks and spears are also used to capture frogs from the wild. Frogs captured for live trade may be stuffed into bags or kept in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions until purchased for consumption.

The removal of frogs from the wild can devastate frog populations and their ecosystems. Scientists have stressed, however, that the risk of disease associated with the amphibian trade might pose an even greater risk. The escape of non-native frogs from frog farms or open-air markets, or the intentional/accidental release of such frogs into the wild is contributing to the spread of disease among wild populations.

One particular disease taking a heavy toll on amphibian populations throughout the world is caused by Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), or amphibian chytrid fungus. It is one of the main reasons why more than one-third of the nearly 6,000 known amphibian species are threatened with extinction. Chytrid does not affect all amphibians equally, and some species can harbor the fungus without showing symptoms. Nonetheless, in infected populations, mortality rates of up to 90 percent have been observed, and researchers are desperately scrambling to control the fast-spreading disease.

There are practically no regulations in place to ensure that diseased amphibians are not traded. The American bullfrog is the most commonly farmed frog species worldwide and is highly adaptable to different conditions. Consequently, it has become an invasive species in many countries, competing with and eating native wildlife. Despite its origins here, commercially traded American bullfrogs and legs often enter the U.S. from overseas. A 2009 study by Schloegel et al. found that 62 percent of live American bullfrog specimens imported into the U.S. were Bd carriers.

Major Importers and Exporters

India was the primary exporter of wild-caught frogs until 1987, when it banned the trade due to overexploitation, ecosystem impacts, and animal welfare concerns. Once frog populations became heavily depleted in India, large quantities of environmentally harmful pesticides were used to control agricultural pests and mosquitoes - a service that had been provided naturally by frogs. Today, Indonesia is the leading exporter of wild-caught frogs and scientists fear that the country - which already spends millions on pesticides to control agricultural pests - is following the same path as India.

The U.S., France and Belgium are responsible for 75 percent of global frog leg consumption. Markets in both the U.S. and France were initially supplied by native frogs - until overexploitation of domestic species led to an increase in imports of (purportedly) farmed frogs. Nowadays, the U.S. imports live frogs and frozen frog legs from China, Mexico, Taiwan, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Vietnam.

Throughout the U.S. frog legs can be found at grocery stores and restaurants, and live frogs and other amphibians can be purchased for human consumption at Asian markets. Last year, after a 15-year campaign by animal welfare groups, the California Fish and Game Commission banned the import of non-native frogs and turtles for food. Unfortunately, in February of this year, the ban was lifted because of pressure from the Asian-American community.

Frog legs are particularly popular in the Southern U.S. The Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival in Florida - now in its 20th year - is the largest such event in the world, annually drawing about 80,000 people. Fellsmere, in fact, was featured in the Guinness Book of World Records for "the most frog legs consumed at a festival," after 6,000 pounds of legs were sold and eaten during the 2001 event.

Some responsible chefs and businesses, however, have decided not to sell frog legs. Last year, Mid-Atlantic supermarket chain Wegmans discontinued frog legs from all of its 76 locations in the Eastern United States. And in 2010, Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco became the first restaurant in the world known to have stopped selling frog legs out of concern for the ecological impacts.

Need for Action

The current international trade in frogs and frog legs is unsustainable and is exacerbating the already dire situation for many wild populations. As a leading importer of frog legs, the U.S. has a responsibility to ensure that its trade is not spreading the deadly amphibian chytrid fungus among wild frog populations by introducing invasive frog species, or facilitating cruelty in the methods used to harvest and kill frogs. The U.S. should also introduce and support proposals to list heavily traded species under the Appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in order to regulate and monitor international trade in these species.

 


AWI, Defenders of Wildlife, and Pro Wildlife (of Germany) have released a new report, Canapés to Extinction: The International Trade in Frogs' Legs and Its Ecological Impact, with recommendations concerning what governments should do to protect frog populations and prevent further ecological harm. Individuals can take action, too. If you find frog legs at a grocery store or restaurant, please write a letter to the management explaining the issue and encouraging the company to discontinue such sales. A pdf of the report is available at: www.awionline.org/froglegs.