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Jeanne won a prestigious Whitley Award – known as a “Green Oscar” – for her research on and contributions towards the conservation of frogs.
The UK-based conservation charity, the Whitley Fund for Nature, awards the Green Oscars to individuals from the global south. Six conservationists, three of them from Africa, were recognised for their achievements in nature conservation in 2020. Jeanne is the only one focusing on amphibians.
Based in Durban and currently the head the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s threatened amphibian programme, Jeanne grew up in Underberg in the Southern Drakensberg and attended Howick High School.
She completed her undergraduate studies at Rhodes University before enrolling for postgraduate studies at the NWU’s School of Zoology.
Here she did her MSc under the guidance of Prof Louis du Preez and Prof Ché Weldon between 2006 and 2008, focusing on the taxonomy (naming, describing and classifying) of Lesotho’s river frogs.
Jeanne then continued with a PhD on conservation assessment of threatened amphibians in KwaZulu-Natal while also studying the fungal disease chytrid in South Africa’s threatened frogs.
In 2012 she started her postdoctoral studies – also through the NWU – on the Pickersgill Reed Frog and Amathole Toad, both critically endangered species. At the same time, she joined the Endangered Wildlife Trust, initiating the Threatened Amphibian programme.
No, not really, Prof
Her study leader, Prof Louis du Preez, fondly tells the story of their first meeting when Jeanne visited the Faculty of Natural Sciences in 2006. They were introduced by Prof Pieter Theron, then subject head of Zoology, when she was looking for a project for her postgraduate studies. Louis asked whether she likes frogs and it was then that she rolled her eyes and told him “Not really”! Needless to say, the rest is now history.
Nothing is as satisfying as seeing how well Jeanne is doing, Louis says. “I am extremely proud of what she has achieved. It is now her turn to teach and train the youth.”
For someone who once told her promoter that she actually did not like frogs, alumna Dr Jeanne Tarrant has come a long way. She recently won an international award for her research on those very same amphibians.
How frogs are threatened
Currently 41% of all amphibian species are at risk of extinction globally, making them one of the most threatened groups of animals on the planet.
Jeanne ranks habitat loss as the single biggest threat to amphibians, followed by water pollution. The use of frogs in the pet trade or laboratory experiments is also an emerging threat.
Why Mr Frog is actually a prince
Together with her team, Jeanne – affectionately known as the Frog Lady – aims to elevate public awareness and change negative attitudes by highlighting the importance of amphibians.
“We want to cultivate an appreciation for frogs and their link to human health,” she says.
“A frog’s skin is its own pharmacy – each species has a unique combination of secretions, including proteins, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial secretions, peptides or poisons. These protect the animal from infections, or in some cases act as a predatory defence because they are bitter-tasting or toxic.”
Jeanne explains that the compounds can be used in human medicine in a very wide range of applications.
“Compounds from tree frogs in Australia (Litoria) have been shown to inhibit HIV transmission, while others, especially from highly toxic species, are extremely effective painkillers when used in the right dosage.
“This is a very active field of research and has in fact been responsible for several Nobel prizes in medicine and science. These compounds can be harvested as secretions – in other words the animals do not have to be killed – and in some cases manufactured synthetically once understood.”
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