The frogs of suburban Nairobi
Four years ago I moved to Nairobi and repaired the concrete-lined fish pond on my property. Soon thereafter the frogs appeared unbidden. Their performance generally begins with a single peep or croak and rapidly crescendos into something so dramatic and deafening that it feels more like the opening refrain of Carmina Burana than a mundane event in an expatriate Nairobi garden. But, halfway across the world from New York, it is these frogs that remind me where I am. However, their presence, both nocturnally and seasonally, is fleeting. No doubt they are there to breed and lay their eggs. But as the effects of climate change intensify and the distinctions between seasons are blurred, they are less signifiers of seasonal shifts than some obscure evidence of a micro-opportunism I have not yet discerned.
The relationship between human and non-human nature in Nairobi usually raises the issue of exploitation, particularly wildlife poaching. It is true that Nairobi National Park and the Karura Forest – the only protected area in the world adjacent to a capital city and one of the largest urban gazetted forests in the world, respectively — represent relative successes, however isolated. Still, industrial effluent from nearby factories has contaminated the ground water of the Park and the construction of a highway bypass has threatened a wetland connected to the Forest. In the main, biodiversity in Nairobi is considered vulnerable, where it is considered at all. It is easy to think of the frogs in my pond as mere victims. That we as humans impose our own narrative on nature is hardly surprising.
The gardener on my property, James, says that it is the belief of his ethnic group, the Luhya, that frogs cease their calls only when a “bad man” happens to be walking by. This raises the scintillating possibility that the frogs impose their own judgmental narrative on us…and, moreover, the possibility that we may, in turn, use them as a kind of security alarm. (Jane, another Luya, dismisses this with a laugh as sheer superstition. Like many other Luhya, both are effectively long-term commuters who have come to Nairobi for the work opportunities yet continue to identify with and return seasonally to their home in western Kenya).
At some point during the night the frogs in my garden pond conclude their song and suburban Nairobi returns to the hum of generators and bore hole pumps and distant hooting of matatus. Whatever their reasons or our uses for them, the fact remains that the frogs are there. And then, at a certain point, they are not. They arrive when the conditions suit them and disappear, it would seem, once things turn unfavourable. Once again my sense of being on a suburban plot in Nairobi, Central Province Kenya supersedes that of being within the Tana, Athi & Coastal Drainages Freshwater Ecoregion of East Africa (whose description, curiously, on the Freshwater Ecosystems of the World website does not even mention Nairobi).
A new species for New York
In February 2012 biologists in the United States published an astonishing discovery. A theretofore unknown species had been discovered in one of the most built-up and ecologically studied areas in the world. According to Jeremy Feinberg of Rutgers University, who first discovered the new species on Staten Island, one of New York City’s five boroughs, an entirely distinct leopard frog exists exclusively within the typical commuting range of midtown Manhattan, effectively New York City’s central business district. Its epicentre, amazingly, is estimated to be Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. However, so far the new species has only been found in parts of the commuter belt surrounding the core of New York City: Staten Island (New York City), in Orange and Rockland Counties (New York State) and in Great Swamp, New Jersey. In other words, its range is relatively low density – i.e. relative to Manhattan — but still very built up with highly fragmented green patches. The area lies entirely within the Northeast United States and Southeast Canada Atlantic Freshwater Ecoregion.
How could an entirely new species have been missed for so long? Feinberg admits that the New York City metropolitan area had long been dismissed as lacking biodiversity. In appearance, the new species closely resembles the northern and southern leopard frogs (Rana pipiens and Rana sphenocephala, respectively) whose own natural ranges — which extend over areas of North America thousands of times larger — intersect here in metropolitan New York City. However, the new species’s mating call is completely different. Unlike the “repetitive chuckle” of the other two widespread North American species, the new species emits a terse single cluck.
The New York Times immediately commenced a name-the-frog initiative, highlighting its unique croak. Readers suggested enshrining its commuting habits as well as the New Yorkness of its terse mating call. Some marvelled at its exclusive existence within the urban metropolitan area; others clarified that, strictly speaking, much of the frog lived in upstate New York and the adjacent state of New Jersey, outside of New York City proper. Still others, citing the relatively high (human) incomes of much of the commuter belt that the new leopard frog species inhabits, called it out for its snobbery (admittedly, the original publication does cite “high levels of divergence [that] strongly suggest a lack of gene flow between R. sp. Nov. populations and other leopard frog species, and cluster analysis indicated that none of the samples were of admixed ancestry”).
I myself wondered whether it was being ironical. Was its limitation to metropolitan commuting New York out of solidarity for public transportation? Or had it been riding the Staten Island Ferry, New York Water Taxi and MetroNorth trains out of sheer convenience? Or was this the latest wave of hipster frogs recolonizing the periurban wastelands? Then an unnerving possibility came to my urbanistic mind: perhaps it really is a suburban frog.
The metropolitan settlement patterns of human New Yorkers have long been studied and theorized. For E B White, in Here Is New York, there were “roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter—the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the–the city of final destination, the city that is a goal.”
Had this new species first appeared inevitably in New York and stayed effectively invisible all this time? Or had it come from somewhere else in quest of something new? Had it tried the City itself and, like White’s much-maligned “locusts”, fled for the peri-urban edge? Or had it really discovered a peri-urban niche all along? Mr. Feinberg has hypothesized that the new frog may have once existed in the rest of New York City – Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and yes, the Bronx of the Yankee Stadium – but only further studies will tell. Mr Feinberg will be publishing a related manuscript later this year.
The frontier within
White’s literary contemporary, John Cheever, chronicled the relationship between New York City’s core and periphery. His suburbanites north of the city (near where the new frog species has been found) had also sought access to livelihoods, maximization of opportunities and space — real and perceived – in which to thrive. Many thought they had found the best of both worlds at the metropolitan edge. However, dysfunction and disillusionment was beginning to creep into many of their lives. In The Five-Forty-Eight a corporate commuter abuses and abandons his office assistant, then hopes to escape the consequences by leaving the city. For him, atonement lay in the suburbs beyond the urban periphery. But when his disgruntled ex-assistant follows him home on the commuter train, he realizes that the frontier of consequences has been breached and he is forced to reckon with his earlier indecencies. We learn that there is no protected area that consequences cannot surpass.
Regular readers of this site will already know that the heterogeneous mosaic that comprises the urban built environment – in short, “the city” – hosts a high amount of biodiversity, especially in terms of richness. Whether in the core or at the periphery, cities and their concentrated interchanges of resources, money, ideas, innovation and genes draw all creatures in search of opportunity. Urbanites and suburbanites; humans and nonhumans; and the New York as-yet-unnamed leopard frog have all come to the New York metropolitan region to secure a place in their respective niches. Evolution favours the resourceful. Some may revel and steep in the midst of constant surprise and exposure; others may go about their business, oblivious to the diversity around them; still others may dash in, acquire what they need and return to the privacy of their homes to enjoy their spoils.
For those who may still think that biodiversity has at best a marginal role in cities – or vice versa – I would ask what becomes of the protected areas once the frontier of development has passed them? As in Nairobi, the key is not so much the continued existence of its protected areas – important as they are – as it is what we do with the built-up spaces that remain in between them. With so many spaces already fragmented, the key is to link the patches into a functional mosaic, leveraging the heterogeneity of urban and suburban green spaces and the varied, unexpected opportunities they provide. But unless we can make our suburbs more sustainable, those opportunities may no longer be there. The problems of the city cannot be displaced by pushing the edge/frontier further.
Wily as they may be, these new frogs’ exceptional niche existence remains threatened as long as wetlands – particularly those in peri-urban areas – are continually drained, degraded and fragmented. The biologists of this discovery remind us that “urban environments such as the northeastern US have been shown to be detrimental to anuran populations, primarily due to habitat fragmentation and isolation, road mortality, and contamination”. That is why the passage of the Ramsar Convention Resolution XI.11, Principles for the planning and management of urban and peri-urban wetlands, is so important. And the stakes are even higher for cities like Nairobi and thousands of others in the developing world whose low-density, peri-urban fringe – often where land is cheapest and environmental and zoning regulations weakest – is expanding faster than its population. How to allow these cities to grow without increased environmental impact in a time of climactic uncertainty and an impending resource wall?
Unless we take urgent measures now to make our cities more compact, less resource intensive and less disruptive of natural processes (often one and the same thing) there will remain no edge beyond which there is no consequence. The key is to assess how advantageous our configuration is now, its implications for urban metabolism – materially, what is flowing through our cities – and adjust them accordingly. This is critical to halting sprawl, preserving existing large green patches on the periphery and improving environmental interface within existing built-up areas.
In this International Decade for Biodiversity, it is clear that there are no more deferrals, write-offs or “elsewheres”. We cannot any longer sacrifice our metropolitan edges to the caprices of unplanned, underzoned development in the hopes that our indecencies can later be atoned for by compensating with “untouched” protected areas. Instead, the solutions lie within rather than without. The Convention for Biodiversity’s Global Biodiversity Outlook 3, from 2010, showed that amphibians – including frogs – were the most endangered of all classes, with 42 per cent of all amphibian species declining in population.
The time and place for urban wetlands is now and here, in the places we have already created. Biodiversity in urban areas continues to be opportunistic, but we must ensure that urban opportunities remain viable for all.