In a small farmhouse surrounded by cloud forest, Ivan Lozano inspects dozens of glass containers that hold some of the world's most coveted frogs.

The conservationist has been fighting the illegal trade in rare tropical frogs for years, risking his life to save the brightly coloured, poisonous amphibians whose population in the wild is dwindling.

But Lozano doesn't hunt down poachers and smugglers. He's trying to undermine them by breeding exotic frogs legally and selling them at lower prices than specimens plucked by traffickers from Colombia's jungles. His frog-breeding centre, Treasures of Colombia, is among a handful of programmes around the world that are trying to curtail the trafficking of wild animals by providing a more eco-friendly alternative: specimens bred in captivity.

"We can't control the fact that in some countries it is legal to own these animals," Lozano said.


"But we want to make sure that collectors buy animals that are raised in captivity and are legally exported," he said.

Lozano's efforts to replace illegally captured poison dart frogs have made him well known among collectors in the United States, who are increasingly seeking legally traded specimens.

"Before there was no way you could get a histrionica legally," said Julio Rodriguez, an experienced New York City collector, referring to the harlequin poison frog by its scientific name. "If you saw one in a collection, it most likely came from the black market."

Rodriguez said that since Treasures of Colombia began exporting frogs to the US six years ago prices for some coveted species have dropped significantly.

The price tag on the harlequin frog dropped by 50 per cent, he said. The golden dart frog, another much-sought species, went from around US$150 ($230) a few years ago to US$30.

"We want prices to go down so much that it's no longer profitable for traffickers to sell these frogs," Lozano explained.

He said his company also helps collectors breed their own frogs, so they can flood the market with legally raised specimens, taking pressure off those living in the wild. The frogs raised in captivity by Lozano are no longer poisonous, because they have a different diet than wild specimens. But collectors still seek them for their brilliant colour patterns.

"We make ourselves sustainable by moving on to new species," said Lozano, who already has permits to export seven species, including the red lehmani, a frog so rare collectors refer to it as "the Holy Grail".


- AP