On March 23 – three days after World Frog Day and nearly a year after Hungary’s most severe drought in more than 120 years – Duna-Ipoly National Park nature protection guard András Németh was saving toads near a main road in the village of Farmos with children from a local kindergarten after holding a brief information session to educate the children about the importance of the event.
“Do you guys know why a boy toad would want to cross the road to go to a pond?” Németh asked the children during the information session. “To find girls,” the children answered.
“Our task today is to not let the frogs and toads get hit by the cars on the main road,” Németh told the children. “Make sure to look for them carefully!” The children were then divided into groups led by their teachers, and they all started checking out the 68 collection pots placed along a 1-km fence along the road Németh and other volunteers had built to prevent the amphibians from entering the road.
As the event progressed, the children found several common spadefoot toads (Pelobates fuscus), a common toad (Bufo bufo), and a wide range of other animals such as Balkan wall lizards (Podarcis tauricus) and Carabus convexus beetles. When a toad was discovered in a collection pot, the children took it out of the pot and placed it into a transparent box they then carried with themselves. After all the discovered amphibians were placed into the box, Németh released them near a reedy area towards the other side of the main road. It was at this moment that the Budapest Times decided to sit down with him to talk about the situation of amphibians in Hungary and the consequences of climate change.
Frogs and disgust
Why are frogs important in our lives?
Frogs are a part of nature. We live on a planet that has an ecosystem that has been in crisis largely due to human activities, and we cannot avoid this crisis. The ecosystem we are talking about is a closed system – if we make a change to that system, it inevitably induces consequences. We need to realize that everything, including the frogs, is important for this very reason. One might ask: “What can a common spadefoot toad give to the people in Farmos?” The simple explanation is that the frogs and their tadpoles can eat insects like mosquitoes and their larvae, which is in itself beneficial to humans, and the frogs can then be eaten by birds which we can admire from afar, which is also important. If we pull out an element from the ecosystem, the whole system collapses.
Why do some people dislike frogs?
Regarding why some people dislike frogs, I would link that to our fundamental disgust towards frogs and toads. This is our culture – from our childhood, we see our grandparents and parents scream when they see frogs, and we socialize to be like them and start to fear amphibians. In bedtime stories, toads are always the ugly and sinister antagonists. Another reason why people hate frogs and toads is because they are cold-blooded. I always say that frogs are just like babies – they are soft, fragile, cute, and slimy. The only difference is that while babies are soft and warm, frogs are soft and cold. It might also be the cold sensation that evokes disgust in people who are used to the temperature of babies. But in the frog world, the cold creatures find each other beautiful.
Amphibians’ situation in Hungary
How are amphibians doing in Hungary?
We have been rescuing frogs in Farmos for 20 years. We used to rescue tens of thousands of frogs here each year, but in recent years, we only encountered a few hundred or one or two thousand frogs – there is a considerable difference between these numbers. Such declines in population size are particularly true for common spadefoot toads in this region. People from Farmos would tell me that they used to find more common spadefoot toads than potatoes in the soil, implying an even larger population of these toads that once occupied the village. The current trend is very bad, as we are getting closer and closer to finding zero common spadefoot toads here. These common frog species may not become extinct in the near future, but their considerably rarer occurrence is alarming. This trend is also true at an international level – amphibians are one of the most threatened species groups in the world. Amphibians are very sensitive to environmental changes and need water for breeding, but humans tend to transform a lot of these aquatic environments and contaminate the environment, which also adversely affects amphibians’ eggs. According to research, the hormones in contaminated water that even the water filtration systems of the western world cannot get rid of can cause changes in the proportion of genders in frog populations, which has negative consequences.
According to the newest Results of the National Biodiversity Monitoring System, all the nine monitored frog and toad species have experienced significant declines in population size in the surveyed locations over the past 20 years mainly due to human activities and droughts. Do you have any comments on the data?
I can only confirm these statistics. It is now a universal trend that frog populations in Hungary are drastically declining. Although it can be more challenging to monitor insect populations, this trend must also be true for them. Among birds, only a small number of species capable of adapting to adverse environments could survive and thrive in response to such drastic environmental changes.
What are some risk factors for frog and toad populations in Hungary? What has the Duna-Ipoly National Park done to address these risk factors?
Climate change is probably the most important risk factor. Addressing climate change is not only the job of the National Park but also a task for humanity as a whole. Every small act counts. We should try to reduce food consumption – don’t buy six kilos of avocados if you can only consume five kilos. Transportation and chemical use also count as risk factors. A major issue in Hungary is the use of mosquito sprays – we are still using neurotoxins in those sprays even though biological solutions were discovered decades ago. We should also try to reduce the use of pesticides in agriculture. Regarding transportation, when a road is constructed, we need to think of helping small animals like frogs and big animals like predators cross the road. Luckily, here in Farmos, there was a road reconstruction project by the Hungarian government and the EU that valued nature protection – small tunnels have been constructed in 20% to 25% of the area where we conduct these frog rescue events. Using these tunnels, the frogs can safely cross the road underground. However, the number of tunnels now is obviously insufficient for the frogs – this is a major issue that investments in infrastructure have to tackle. Every government and every human being should work together to create a liveable planet for the next generations.
Frog rescue events
What are frog rescue events about? What are the benefits of such events?
We have been organizing such events for 20 years. 20 years ago, a colleague and I went to an evening football match and saw several frogs on the road on our way there. Since we were nature protection workers, we obviously rescued the frogs at the expense of the football match. Since then, we have experienced the drastic decline in frog populations I mentioned before, and we found environmental education very important. The frog rescue events in Farmos happen every year in a safe location along the main road, where we demonstrate the process of rescuing frogs to one to two thousand people each year. We find such events very important, because they can inform the children and adults – since teachers and parents usually join the kids – that it is really important to conserve frogs. The problem is that it is not enough to just spend one day showing a kindergarten group how to rescue frogs – our education system needs to progress in a direction that allows children to not only learn about data but also learn how to live together with nature. The world needs computer science, economics, and languages, but we also need to teach children about humans’ relationship with nature. There is a connection between economics and ecology, too – we need to be more self-sustaining at a continental, national, regional, and even a familial level.
I have seen on Facebook that you went to a similar event on March 4. Could you tell me more about it?
On March 4, what the volunteers and I did was actually to construct the 1-km fence with small pits for the collection pots essential to our frog rescue events in Farmos. It is a temporary fence that only stands during frog mating season every year, and it will be taken down around mid-April when the frog rescue events end.
Tackling the decline in frog and toad populations in Hungary
How much do you think the Hungarian government supports the protection of amphibians? Do you think there is a need for more support? If so, what can the government and regional administrators do?
Obviously, more support is always needed. We always have areas that need development. It does not need to be financial support – more attention needs to be paid to amphibians and nature. We should not rush all the time in life. At the governmental level, it means that instead of only prioritizing the building of new Formula One circuits, we should rather focus on supporting local initiatives and progress one step at a time. However, the reason behind the government prioritizing large-scale projects also lies in us, since they think that we need such projects. So, we also need to let people know that it is important to focus on and have fun in their local communities and think in small steps. Everyone needs to know that. I cannot expect everyone to be a nature protection guard, but everyone should do something for nature.
What can ordinary people do to conserve amphibians? For example, what should we do if we find a frog on the road when we drive?
We need to rescue the frogs we find on the road. However, in Hungary, every amphibian and reptile is protected by law, but the law can make adjustments if we find such animals in crisis situations. In such situations, we don’t need permission to rescue the amphibians ourselves. After rescuing the amphibians, however, the law demands that we release them as soon as possible. Frogs can be released in parks and ponds, and if we are talking about European green toads (Bufo viridis), we can also release them in a nearby garden. It is important that we release them locally, though – if we take the frogs kilometers away from the spot where they were discovered, we might expose them or local frog populations in the new area to different kinds of diseases.
For those people who have a backyard, how can they make their backyard frog-friendly? For those who don’t have a backyard, can they still create frog-friendly environments?
We can definitely make our backyards frog-friendly. We can create a corner full of trees and fallen leaves for frogs to rest, or we can also construct garden ponds. If we want to construct a garden pond, we should not place fish into the pond, because the fish can eat the eggs that the frogs lay. This is the first step – we can find more information online. For those who don’t have a backyard, they can take part in community engagement initiatives to create frog-friendly environments. For such initiatives, they need to contact water regulatory authorities or local authorities. Recently, the retention of water in lakes, streams, and ponds have also become increasingly important, so if we could help with such efforts, we are also contributing to the conservation of frogs. In such situations, we should also contact local nature protection authorities to prevent the frogs or other species from ultimately being harmed by our actions.
Last summer, Hungary experienced a severe drought that negatively affected amphibian populations. What can regional administrators and ordinary people do to prevent the occurrence or minimize the impact of such droughts?
The key is water retention – it should be the most important term of 2023 in our country. TV programs should talk about this topic instead of hosting other miscellaneous talk shows. If talk shows are held, water retention should be the topic for discussions. The next episode of the reality TV show Házasodna a gazda should be held at a pond. People should know that in the real world, there are huge problems. We should keep every drop of water we find. There should be elaborate water retention facilities at an estate, district, regional, and national level. Collaboration is key, but every area should work hard towards this goal. Agricultural lowlands should also have a reedy area as a water reserve. The most important concept in combating droughts is keeping the circulation of water constant – when the precipitation reaches the soil, it is stored underground, and nearby plants will suck the water out of the ground and evaporate it. Plants not only combat extreme heat, but they can also contribute to forming local precipitation. At the end of January, the precipitation was relatively high, but the water could not be retained due to poor water retention systems. It would have been our chance to prevent a drought from occurring this year, but we did not pay attention. Society in Hungary has already lost its fight with this year’s drought. We did not learn enough from last year’s extreme drought. According to environmental scientist Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, last year’s drought was the worst in the last few decades, but it might be the best in the next decade. Our actions do have long-term consequences – whether the planet will be liveable or completely unliveable is in our hands.
Being a nature protection guard
How come you became a nature protection guard?
I came from a family that paid average attention to environmental issues, but as a child, I developed a strong passion for observing birds. I remember watching birds from afar in our garden using my Russian binoculars – those were wonderful childhood experiences… At university, I studied geoinformatics and took a course on nature protection. This was the moment I realized I wanted to work in this field. For a long time, I didn’t know what I wanted to be – I decided to be a land surveyor, because I liked filming in the wild. But then, I realized that land surveyors point out highways through salty lawns and that I would rather attach myself to the salty lawns. After university, I voluntarily decided to be a civil servant at a national park. After switching several workplaces, I landed a job at the Duna-Ipoly National Park at which I’m working to this day and trying to tackle the challenges our environment is facing today.
What does your typical workday look like? To what extent is your job exhausting?
My job is so multifaceted, and my schedule varies a lot from day to day. This is incredibly exciting but also incredibly exhausting – rather than the monotony, it is the variety that causes the exhaustion. It can be a very difficult task emotionally to preserve nature, as success is relatively rare. I often get calls but not because something is working well – I get those calls because of injured birds, improper agricultural practices, and a wide range of other problems. It can be hard to process the emotions I experience at work, and unfortunately, my colleagues working in the field of nature protection were still not able to receive proper mental health services, which I think is also a huge issue.
Frogs and peace
In Hungarian language, the word for frog (“béka”) resembles the word for peace “béke”. To what extent are frogs peaceful? Would you recommend frogs to be the symbol of peace?
I have also thought about these questions a lot. When I grab the frogs, they don’t jump at me. Frog don’t sting, bite, or kick us – from this aspect, they are peaceful. But if we were to ask mosquito larvae the same question, they would not say their predators are peaceful. We often project human emotions onto animals, but this analogy should only be a pun. I don’t think frogs should be the symbol of peace. I believe that peace is an element of nature’s harmony, even if nature’s harmony – the harmony we perceive – is about constant fighting. People often say that the flowers in the meadow are peaceful, whereas in reality, their roots are battling with each other for resources. Life in itself is a constant war, so we need to use the concepts of peace and war carefully. With that being said, it is important for us to fight against the loss of both frogs and peace. May the frogs and peace be with you!
András Németh, nature protection guard of the East Pest region at the Duna-Ipoly National Park, carrying a common spadefoot toad (Pelobates fuscus, left) and a common toad (Bufo bufo, right) that he rescued with kindergarten children in Farmos – Photo: Canqi Li
Németh holding an information session about frogs and toads for the kindergarten children – Photo: Canqi Li
Németh holding a rescued common toad for the children to examine – Photo: Canqi Li
Németh holding rescued common spadefoot toads for the children to examine – Photo: Canqi Li
A small tunnel for frogs and toads looking to cross the main road in Farmos – Photo: Canqi Li
The rescued common toad looking at the camera – Photo: Canqi Li
Fence-like banners labeling the site of the March 23 frog rescue event in Farmos – Photo: Canqi Li
The 1-km temporary fence for the frog rescue events in Farmos – Photo: Canqi Li
A collection pot that contains soil for the common spadefoot toads to bury themselves in, a “wellness pool” filled with water, and a tree branch for bigger mammals to climb out of the pot – Photo: Canqi Li
Some of the rescued common spadefoot toads in a transparent box to be carried to a release site – Photo: Canqi Li
Németh releasing the rescued toads at a nearby reedy site towards the other side of the main road – Photo: Canqi Li
Németh holding a textile common spadefoot toad that local kindergarten staff in Farmos gave him as a present – Photo: Canqi Li
A rescued common toad waiting for release – Photo: Canqi Li