How lab breeding could put an end to frog smuggling : Planet Money Back in the 90s, Ivan Lozano Ortega was in charge of Bogota's wildlife rescue center. And he kept getting calls from the airport to come deal with... frogs. Hundreds of brightly colored, poisonous frogs.

Ivan had stumbled upon the poisonous frog black market. Tens of thousands of frogs were being poached out of the Colombian rainforest and sold to collectors all around the world by smugglers. And it put these endangered frogs at risk of going extinct.

Today on the show, how Ivan tried to put an end to the poison frog black market, by breeding and selling frogs legally. And he learns that it's not so easy to get a frog out of hot water.

This episode was hosted by Stan Alcorn and Sarah Gonzalez, and co-reported and written with Charlotte de Beauvoir. It was produced by Willa Rubin with help from Emma Peaslee. It was edited by Jess Jiang. It was fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. It was engineered by Josh Newell. Alex Goldmark is our executive producer.

Help support Planet Money and get bonus episodes by subscribing to Planet Money+ in
Apple Podcasts or at plus.npr.org/planetmoney.

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

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

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An Oophaga lehmanni frog sits on a branch in its natural habitat, in the Anchicayá Valley, Colombia. Charlotte de Beauvoir/NPR hide caption

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Charlotte de Beauvoir/NPR

An Oophaga lehmanni frog sits on a branch in its natural habitat, in the Anchicayá Valley, Colombia.

Charlotte de Beauvoir/NPR

Ivan Lozano Ortega was in charge of Bogota's wildlife rescue center back in the 90s, when he started getting calls from the airport to deal with... frogs. Hundreds of brightly colored frogs.

Most of these frogs were a type called Oophaga lehmanni. Bright red and black, and poisonous. Ivan and his colleagues weren't prepared for that. They flooded one of their offices to make it humid enough for the frogs. They made makeshift butterfly nets to catch bugs to feed them.

"It was a 24 hour [a day] job at that time," he says. "And the clock was ticking."

The frogs were dying, and Oophaga lehmanni was already a critically endangered species. But the calls kept coming, more and more frogs discovered at the airport, left by smugglers.

"Somebody is depleting the Colombian forests of these frogs," he says. "This is a nightmare. This is something that is going to make this species become extinct. Something has to be done."

Ivan had stumbled upon the frog black market. Rare frogs like Oophaga lehmanni can sell for hundreds of dollars. They are taken right out of the Colombian rainforest by poachers and smuggled overseas, where they're sold to collectors, also known as "froggers." Froggers keep these rare frogs as pets.

Ivan Lozano Ortega stands outside the laboratories at his frog breeding facility, Tesoros de Colombia. Stan Alcorn/NPR hide caption

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Stan Alcorn/NPR

According to the biologists who study the Oophaga lehmanni, smugglers have taken an estimated 80,000 frogs out of the Anchicayá Valley in Colombia, the only spot on the planet where you can find them. Today, there are probably less than 5,000 of them left.

Ivan says that part of what has made this frog so special for collectors is that they're rare.

"If you have any kind of good that is rare and difficult to find, difficult to purchase, you will meet, probably, a very high price for that, like a diamond," he says.

These rare frogs are what is known as a "Veblen good" — a good that, as it gets more expensive, demand paradoxically increases, rather than decreases. Ivan decided he couldn't end the demand for these rare frogs, but he could do something about the supply.

Today on the show, how Ivan tries to put an end to the smuggling of the Oophaga lehmanni by breeding and selling them legally. And he learns that using textbook economics plays out differently in the real world.

This episode was hosted by Stan Alcorn and Sarah Gonzalez, and co-reported and written with Charlotte de Beauvoir. It was produced by Willa Rubin with help from Emma Peaslee. It was edited by Jess Jiang. It was fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. It was engineered by Josh Newell. Alex Goldmark is our executive producer.

Help support Planet Money and get bonus episodes by subscribing to Planet Money+ in Apple Podcasts or at plus.npr.org/planetmoney.

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