The frogs of Borneo: more than just a race
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By Aya Kawanishi
It all started when two students approached their professor, herpetologist Indraneil Das, who specializes in the study of reptiles and amphibians at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS). They became concerned when they learned that the world’s population of frogs was declining and one third were threatened with extinction. They wanted to know if anything could be done.
Das says he found this an opportunity to go beyond his usual teaching and research to do conservation work for the society. “I am so grateful for my students opening my eyes,” he says.
The encounter led to Das organising the first Bornean frog race in 2012. Wait for it: it’s not what you’d expect.
Back then, the race was a very small event for UNIMAS students. Now, more than a decade later, the event attracts participants from as many as 17 countries around the world.
A small event with big impact
The International Bornean Frog Race aims to raise awareness on the conservation of nature and amphibians while promoting outdoor activities and ecotourism in Sarawak’s national parks, on the northwestern portion of the island of Borneo. The island is politically divided between Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Sarawak is one of two Malaysian states in Borneo.
Did you know?
The International Bornean Frog Race inspired by conservation efforts of Save the Frogs and modelled after the annual Sarawak International Bird Race*.
The annual event attracts young and old alike, and is packed with talks, workshops, exhibitions, live auction, movie-screenings, live paintings, a mini-marathon and junior programs, followed by a race kick-off after dark.
During the race, participants compete to identify and take pictures of as many frog species as they can find in the forest within a two-hour period. The winners of the different categories – including the highest number of species found, best photography in two different formats (mobile and camera), youngest participant and most enthusiastic – are announced at the end of the night.
The organisers provide instructions on how to take part in the event without disturbing the wildlife and their habitat. A strict code of conduct prohibits physical contact with frogs and going off-trail, and requires minimising the use of flashlights. Participating judges, who are professional photographers and amphibian experts volunteering for the event, have the skills to recognise when a pictured frog is manifesting signs of stress, in which case the image is disqualified.
Participants’ shoes are also sanitised to ensure a fungus that causes a deadly skin disease in frogs in South America and Australia is not carried into the local sites.
The event accommodates up to 100 participants for the race and 200 visitors during the day to keep it manageable and minimise its impact on local vegetation and trails. “The emphasis of the event is on the quality,” Das says.
Did you know?
The island of Borneo is home to 178 species of amphibians, of which 73% are endemic to the island. During the pandemic, a virtual frog race ran for three months and received almost 2,000 entries. This had led to the discovery of two new frog species and numerous records at local sites.
To ensure the event is interesting and engaging, organisers invite not only scientists as guest speakers, but also artists, journalists and professional nature photographers who excel at communicating the beauty of nature and how to appreciate it. A range of merchandize is specially developed for the event each year and includes field guides and apps for frog identification, teeshirts, stickers, postcards, button badges and postage stamps which have become collectibles among race fans.
"Eventually, the programs have become not just about frogs, but a way of looking at nature through one element of diversity here [in Sarawak, Malaysia],” Das says.
Forest at night
The biggest takeaway is learning how safe and interesting forests are. Das says that it is surprisingly uncommon for locals, even biologists, to go to a nature reserve, despite living in close vicinity to one. This is now changing, he says.
“I was told that our event has led to an increase in the number of night visitors at the national parks,” he explains. “People are coming to the forest with a camera to shoot nightlife, whether it be a glowing fungus, an unusual spider or flowering plants, and to practice for the next race.”
Did you know?
Each year, the International Bornean Frog Race takes place at a different site. Past locations include Kubah National Park, Santubong National Park, Matang Wildlife Centre and several other national parks and nature reserves in Sarawak.
Das hopes that this new trend will bring a greater awareness of wildlife and their habitats. “I hope that, when there is a threat to a forest, more people will be willing to come out and say, “Hey, there is more to it than the trees here that need protection.””
The 10th International Bornean Frog Race was held on 17 June 2023 at the Sama Jaya Nature Reserve, located in Kuching, the capital city of Sarawak, Malaysia. It was jointly organised by the Institute of Biodiversity & Environmental Conservation at UNIMAS and the Sarawak Forestry Corporation.
For more information, visit the official website and Facebook page:
*The Bornean Frog Race 2013 and how it was modelled afer the Bird Race
The winning photos of the 2023 International Bornean Frog Race