He had been looking for his lady for six years. Six long years of fruitless searching upon a muddy mountaintop.
Sometimes it was so cold, snow was underfoot and on the mountain ash branches above.
When Deon Gilbert eventually found her, his heart skipped a beat. She was everything he had hoped for: voluptuous, mature and (better still) pregnant.
After laying eyes on her, he didn’t know what to do. He looked around for someone to hug. But there was no one there. He let out an almighty yelp. And then sat down and cried.
“I almost find it hard to put into words how important this female is,” Mr Gilbert said.
The lady in question was a critically endangered Baw Baw frog.
The frogs, which are found only on the Mount Baw Baw plateau, are in such a perilous position it has been estimated they may be extinct in the wild within five years.
Captive breeding programs have been hamstrung, as they operate without females.
Researchers collect fertilised eggs from the wild and hatch them in a purpose-built, temperature-controlled “Baw Baw bunker” at Melbourne Zoo.
This tar-black and brown female with her patchy, lumpy skin changes things completely.
As a mature-age female, she brings fresh genetics to the captive gene pool. Being a fit female, conservationists are confident she will produce healthy offspring, raising hopes for the entire species.
“It puts us three to five years ahead of where we would be if we hadn’t found her,” Mr Gilbert said.
The day after being found on October 16, she travelled the 120 kilometres from the mountain to Melbourne in a container layered with moss and leaf litter, which was then placed inside an Esky.
Mr Gilbert admits he put a seatbelt around the Esky to keep her safe and secure. At the zoo she got a heroine’s welcome.
“As the first female she is like the first-born child,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting.”
She laid eggs a week later at the bunker to the sounds of the male’s mating calls. A few are now fertile. Mr Gilbert has seen tadpoles starting to develop within the eggs.
They should start hatching in mid-December and develop into frogs by early February. These will be the first generation of pure captive-bred frogs.
Even for the experts, watching the process unfold has been a learning curve.
“To be honest, we don’t know a lot about it because we’ve never seen it,” he said.
The Baw Baw frog is a secretive amphibian that lives underground. The females are notoriously difficult to find as, unlike males, they do not call.
Since Mr Gilbert found her, another seven females have been collected. The zoo’s amphibian specialists will now be able to breed and raise younger animals and start releasing captive-bred offspring earlier than planned.
For a species whose population has declined by 98 per cent since 1980 due to the highly infectious chytrid fungus, it’s a much-needed boost.
“When we are talking about an animal that is declining so quickly, anything we can gain is critical,” Mr Gilbert said.
The search for females and the breeding program is supported by a $1.5 million state government grant.
“These creatures really are the canary in the mine,” Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said.
“Their extinction would have a devastating impact on our ecosystem.”