Toads in the Gorge
Kim Howell is a white-haired giant who wears Kissinger glasses that magnify his eyes. He was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and paid for a degree in vertebrate zoology at Cornell University by working at the school’s Library of Natural Sound. Howell preserved archival recordings of birdcalls collected in Africa in the nineteen forties and after four years he was convinced he should go to Africa. He taught science at an elementary school in the Zambian bush before going north to Tanzania, where he taught at a school for apartheid refugees. That was in 1970. Howell has lived in Tanzania ever since, raising a family and teaching zoology at the University of Dar es Salaam.
During his career, Howell has discovered tapeworms, spiders, and other species previously unknown to science. Former students and colleagues have named a bird, a shrew and a lizard after him. Discovering a new species can define a zoologist’s career and Howell’s big find came in 1996 when he reached into some vegetation at the base of a waterfall and pulled out a little toad, believed to inhabit the smallest native habitat of any vertebrate on Earth. Following his discovery, the Kihansi spray toad became the focus of one of the most controversial conservation efforts in recent decades, a crucible for the clash between biodiversity conservation and Tanzania’s need for economic development.
“I’ve often said I wish I had never discovered the toad,” reflected Howell.