Saving endangered tree frog

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On May 22, this year's International Day for Biological Diversity was celebrated under the theme "Be part of the Plan", urging action to halt and reverse the decline in biodiversity in support of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, also known as The Biodiversity Plan.

Wang Ningjing, a 29-year-old Chinese wildlife filmmaker, is actively involved in this plan. Her 15-minute short film, Immaculate, was showcased at the 47th International Wildlife Film Festival in Montana, United States, in April.

The documentary follows Wang's journey to find the Chinese immaculate tree frog, or Dryophytes immaculatus, a species native to China that is now on the brink of extinction. It was listed as threatened on the 2004 Red List of Threatened Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Wang's passion for wildlife emerged at a young age. As a child, she was captivated by nature documentaries, often visiting wildlife parks and spending hours observing tadpoles by ponds.

This love for nature led Wang to study ecology at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang province, and later environmental health sciences at Yale University in the United States.

During her field studies and travels, she discovered the power of the camera in capturing the intricate relationships between species and their habitats, as well as the fleeting animal behaviors often overlooked by the human eye.

"I see myself as a chronicler of the relationship between humans and nature," Wang said. "Even if I cannot change the current status of these species, at least I have documented the evidence of their existence."

Wang shares her wildlife photography and related knowledge on social media. As her following grew, she realized the potential of nature photography to attract public attention and promote conservation efforts.

"I believe China boasts incredibly rich biodiversity and is home to dedicated conservationists," she said. "Through my films, I hope to spotlight these stories."

With this mission, Wang became the first Chinese mainland student to enroll in the wildlife filmmaking program at the University of the West of England, UK, in 2022. This program, conducted in collaboration with the BBC Natural History Unit, offers a professional approach to natural documentary filmmaking.

Wang's project, Immaculate, was her graduation piece for this program, marking her debut as a filmmaker directing and starring in her own work.

In this documentary, Wang partnered with Amael Borzee, an IUCN ecologist, and a professor at Nanjing Forestry University in East China's Jiangsu province, to venture into the remote rural areas of Jiangsu and its neighboring province, Anhui, in search of the elusive Chinese immaculate tree frog.

The journey began with a rescue mission in June 2023 when Wang observed that despite Shanghai being one of the frog's original habitats, the species had not been sighted in the past decade.

Borzee informed Wang that animal conservation organizations were considering reintroducing the tree frogs to their former habitat in Shanghai, but the first step was to find tree frogs in "amplexus" — a mating position in which male frogs clasp onto females for fertilization.

Wang's hometown of Taizhou in Jiangsu is also one of the few remaining habitats of the Chinese immaculate tree frog, but she had never encountered one during her childhood. Instead, she learned about it through stories passed down by her elders.

"I'm eager to revisit my hometown and uncover the truth about the tree frogs," she said.

However, locating these frogs presented significant challenges. According to Wang, these creatures rely on healthy rice fields for survival, but unfortunately, factors like climate change have disrupted their habitats, leaving many drier than before.

Since the frogs' breeding season coincided with the mosquito-infested summer season in the humid southern regions, during filming sessions, concerned about the frogs' delicate skin, Wang avoided using mosquito repellents that could harm them. Instead, she and her team opted for protective clothing like long sleeves and pants to ward off insects.

"We were a feast for mosquitoes," Wang joked. Despite returning to the hotel covered in bites, she had no regrets.

After more than 10 days of searching and overcoming numerous obstacles, Wang finally discovered a mating pair of Chinese immaculate tree frogs in a village in Anhui on the very last day of filming, when she was considering giving up.

The team carefully transported the frogs to Borzee's laboratory, where they laid around 70 eggs. Borzee then released the couple back into the rice field where they were found.

The fertilized eggs soon developed into lively tadpoles. Some of them were nurtured in Borzee's laboratory and would eventually be released into their natural habitat once they matured into frogs. Another group was relocated to a conservation center in Shanghai, where they were raised in a semi-natural setting, awaiting reintroduction into their native environment.

One of the reasons Wang chose the Chinese immaculate tree frog for her documentary was to raise awareness about lesser-known species.

She noted that amphibians like the Chinese immaculate tree frog are often overlooked compared to larger, more charismatic wild animals. However, these amphibians are more vulnerable to climate change and have closer relationships with humans, as we are more likely to encounter them in our daily lives.

"In this film, the stories of humans and animals are interconnected through the seemingly inconspicuous tree frogs. In fact, it could be any other animal, plant, or microorganism," said Wang.

The Chinese title of this documentary is Yu Wa, which translates to "with the frogs". Through this title, Wang aims to convey that human existence and survival are closely intertwined with our environment and the species that coexist with us.

"As long as you are willing to spend some time observing them, you will discover that our connection with nature is far deeper than we might imagine," she said.

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