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Amphibian advocate receives state conservation award

From left to right, N.C. House of Representatives Rep. Marilyn Avila, Gov. Pat McCrory, and Rachel Hopkins in June 2013. McCrory is signing legislation designating a state frog and salamander.
From left to right, N.C. House of Representatives Rep. Marilyn Avila, Gov. Pat McCrory, and Rachel Hopkins in June 2013. McCrory is signing legislation designating a state frog and salamander. PHOTOS COURTESY OF PAM HOPKINS

Rachel Hopkins had heard of campaigns asking for help to save the tigers, polar bears and rare monkeys.

So when she learned about the plight of the frog, it startled her young mind that had been fascinated with the tailless amphibians since as long as she could remember.

“To me that was really jarring because they were so close to me, and they had been such a part of my life,” said Rachel, 16, a junior at Durham Academy in Durham. “If they continue on this trajectory they might not survive the 21st century.”

From that moment on, Rachel, who lives in Raleigh, became an advocate for frogs and amphibians.

Her efforts have included establishing the statewide annual “Save the Frogs Day,” which is the last Saturday in April, and the designation of the Pine Barrens tree frog as the official state frog.

Rachel’s efforts were recently recognized at the annual Governor’s Award Banquet in Cary, where the N.C. Wildlife Federation named her the Governor’s Youth Conservationist of the Year.

Rachel was nominated by the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, said Tim Gestwicki, chief executive officer of the N.C. Wildlife Federation.

Rachel epitomizes what we they are looking to highlight in the next generation of conservationists, Gestwicki said

Rachel said she has never really been able to pinpoint when and why she started playing with frogs, but she chose a frog theme for her birthday party when she was about 4 and has always loved picking them out of the neighborhood swimming pool.

She didn’t, however, learn about the frogs plight until she was in the sixth grade at Ravenscroft in Raleigh.

Her American history teacher Cori Greer-Banks had a “crazy fear” of frogs, Rachel said.

“Myself and my peers decided we wanted to make her not afraid of frogs,” Rachel said.

The students would bring Greer-Banks frog stickers, pictures and memorabilia, said Greer-Banks, who now teaches eighth-grade world history.

“Rachel even brought a live frog,” said Greer-Banks, who never got over her fear. “She did show it to me from across the room.”

The intervention included Rachel doing research on frogs and discovering the “SAVE THE FROGS!” organization, a global amphibian conservation organization.

“From there it become this wonderful idea,” Greer-Banks said.

Facing issues that range from pollution to invasive species, frog populations have declined at unprecedented rates, according to the SAVE THE FROGS! website, with one-third of the species threatened with extinction.

Since 1980, more than 200 species have disappeared. Frogs, the website states, are key to the earth’s ecosystems.

They eat mosquitoes, serve as food for birds and filter drinking water. They are also indicators of environmental stress.

Rachel said nobody around her seemed to know about the frog population decline, she said.

And when she told them, they didn’t seemed to care.

“The first thing I decided to do was raise awareness,” Rachel said.

In seventh grade, Rachel used her Girl Scout Silver Award project to advocate for the frog.

She later partnered with the N.C. Herpetology Society, an organization that advocates for the conservation of amphibians and reptiles through education, and the N. C. Museum of Natural Sciences on a campaign to establish an annual Save the Frogs Day.

She set up booths at science museums, amphibian-related events and collected signatures that covered a 75-foot banner.

Rachel took her cause to the Wake County Board of Commissioners, which wrote a letter of recommendation to then Gov. Bev Perdue, who approved the petition in 2012.

Following, the N.C. Herpetology Society asked her to work with them on petitioning state officials to declare a state frog and a salamander, which took about nine months.

The campaign included support from representatives of the society, Museum of Natural Sciences and Wild South, an environmental and conservation protection agency with an office in Asheville.

Rachel spoke to the N.C. House of Representatives and then the N.C. Senate advocating for a bill that would designated the Pine Barrens tree frog the state frog and the marbled salamander the state salamander.

Pine Barrens tree frogs are shy creatures that live in the Sandhills, Rachel said.

Their call sounds like a baby duck, and they have a purple flash of coloration.

“They are arguably the most beautiful frog in North Carolina,” she said.

The marbled salamander is black with white or gray splotches, and they can be found across the state, Rachel said.

Gov. Pat McCrory signed the bill into law in June 2013.

Since, Rachel has continued giving talks and raising awareness about amphibians, but she is also focused on making it through her junior year.

“Right now I am trying to get through AP literature and survive that in one piece,” she said.

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