For over four months of the year, it rains day and night in Koyna Nagar. The rain here, in this little hamlet high up in the Western Ghats, in Maharashtra, is relentless and implacable. You go to sleep listening to the rain, you wake up to it. At times, it comes down so thick it entombs the ancient mountains, the forests and the 49-year-old, concrete-and-rubble Koyna dam. And yet, there is a peculiar band of people, who, each year, descend on the wet, floridly green forests of the Western Ghats. They wear gumboots and leech socks and carry cameras and torches, they congregate around puddles, and walk on all fours, and they peer under rocks and scramble up lichen-covered inclines. What are they looking for? Frogs. There are around 157 known kinds in the Western Ghats, all the way from Gujarat to Kerala. Frogs that live on treetops, in bushes and shrubs, and inside reeds; frogs that clamour percussively, frogs that whistle, yellow frogs and green frogs, frogs with golden yellow irises surrounded by blue rings, frogs that have been spotted after several decades; and yet more species that, unless discovered, are in danger of dying out unnamed and unseen.
At the head of this zealous band, which includes corporate executives, students and businessmen, is a Malayali amphibian researcher named Biju Sathyabhama Das, and, right at this moment, on another wet evening at the edge of the Sahyadri Forest Reserve, he is holding a tiny frog, which he has gently plucked from amid rocks in a little stream. His fellow frog lovers crowd around him, cameras at the ready. The frog is brownish-grey in colour, has wrinkly skin, and a smooth, white belly. It looks like any other frog to me. But, apparently, it’s the Castle Rock Wrinkled Frog (Nyctibatrachuspetraeus), which, while still endemic to the Western Ghats, also features on the Red List of threatened species released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Das dwells for a bit on the morphology of the animal in his hands before placing it atop a rock. Tens of camera flashes pop, and the next moment, it’s gone.
Das and his crew head deeper into the hills in the dying light. The wind rustles through the trees, there are streams purling all around, and rising from the forest floor is an unmistakable vibration: frog calls. They swell and subside in a comfortingly familiar rhythm that is almost as ancient as the oceans. What Das wants people like you and me to do is consider a world without this amphibian harmony. A world without frogs.
A world without frogs? We’ve driven the tiger to the brink of extinction, we’ve ruthlessly sawed off ivory from felled elephants, our power plants manage to electrocute flamingos every year, and not too many people seem to mind. What difference will the disappearance of frogs make?
Das is a spry man with curly black hair and a bushy greying moustache. In the last 20 years, he has discovered over 100 new species of amphibians, and has spent the last decade trying to convince people that frogs, those “ugly, slimy creatures living in puddles”, are as important as tigers in the conservation discourse. His most recent find, along with his associate Rachunliu G Kamei, was an entirely new family of legless, soil-burrowing amphibians called chikilidae.
Das talks in an earnestly gruff manner. “You tell me, which is the most colourful animal? It is not a bird or a butterfly, it is a frog. I can prove that. I will show you photographs,” he tells me, as we sit in a large hall at our hotel in Koyna Nagar, which is run by a burly, bearded man who, quite inexplicably, wears pink nail polish.
The herpetologist grew up in a sylvan village called Kadakkal, in southern Kerala, where he tended to his father’s cows before rushing off to school. The botany major’s first tryst with frogs came in the early 1990s, when he was employed as a scientist at the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute in Thiruvananthapuram. As a plant systematist, Das didn’t do too badly and even completed a PhD in 1999, but he realised he was always more interested in frogs. Every couple of weeks, he would take off into the jungles on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border and relentlessly identify frogs and photograph them. “It was a secret passion, but it was not fair on my employers” he says, with a tinge of regret.
In the late 1990s, he attempt to publish a 35-page book on frogs — “in colour, it had over 100 new species” — and, when he found himself short of money, he beseeched a kind priest in Kadakkal to help him out. “I still remember, I posted all 1,500 copies to journals and institutions abroad, and I had to scrounge for money to send them out as well. For the first 10 to 15 years of my career, I worked alone in the wild. Nobody knew who Biju was then.” Seven years after he joined the research institute, Biju switched streams, and applied, much to the consternation of his parents, for a PhD from the Amphibian Evolution Lab in Brussels.
“I was leaving a secure job, I had spent all the money I had on my fieldwork. My parents never understood my passion, my mother often asks me whether frogs are of any use. Tell me, are human beings useful? But my wife stood by me. I knew it was now or never. No one else was there to speak for frogs. The mandatory frog dissection and fairy tales, that is the extent of our knowledge about frogs,” says Das, who worked as a tutor to supplement his income while completing his second PhD, and stinted, with the help of some of his compatriots, at such prestigious institutions as the British Natural History Museum and the Paris Natural History Museum. In London, Das spent days at the British Natural History Museum, studying amphibian specimens collected from across India by the British.
So, Das went to Belgium and London and Paris, won fellowships, and returned to Brussels to complete his PhD. All that education and observation would have made him a well-rounded amphibian scientist, but just how did this former botanist turn into the Jane Goodall of frogs? The answer to that lies in a curious little purple-coloured animal that looks like a frog but cackles like a chicken. “The purple frog made my life. Maybe, I was a good scientist before, but minus the purple frog, Biju is nothing,” says Das, acknowledging his debt to the Nasikabatrachussahyadrensis, which he discovered, and named, in 2003, near Idukki in Kerala. “I was in the Agastya Mala forests (near the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border) when I received a call from one of my friends in Kerala. He told me that he had seen something very unusual. I asked for a picture to be mailed across, and when I saw the picture, I dropped everything and rushed to the village.” Das gets animated at the memory of encountering the purple frog for the first time, of searching unsuccessfully at the time for more specimens, and of studying his find for seven straight days. “It is a special animal, like a balloon with small limbs and small eyes. A living fossil. If it could speak, it could tell you the history of the world.”
Stubby-legged and with a pointy snout, N. sahyadrensis, or the purple frog, whose ancestors lived during the time of dinosaurs, spends almost all its life underground, often as deep as 20 feet, surfacing only to breed in the monsoon. Its nearest relative is found in the Seychelles, 2,800 km away. Scientists believe that the two were separated when the Indian plate was sheared off from the super-continent of Gondwana over 140 million years ago. The discovery of the frog, apart from helping scientists learn more about the evolution of the species, also bolstered palaeogeographical and evolutionary theories centered on continental drift. Das’s discovery of a previously unknown species of frog was the explorer’s equivalent of stumbling upon a lost city, or a linguist encountering a new language, and it changed his life.
Today, Das, who set up the Systematics Lab, funded by global research bodies, at the Delhi University, in 2005, spearheads the only two serious amphibian conservation initiatives in the country: the Western Ghats Network of Protected Areas of Threatened Amphibians, and the Lost Amphibians of India (LAI) project, which seeks to rediscover species that have not been sighted for centuries. The LAI, which has over 600 members across the country, from teenagers to photographers to engineers, has ‘rediscovered’ around 50 species of frogs, including the Chalazodes Bubble-nest Frog, which lives inside reeds (and was last seen in 1874), from the Upper Kodayar in Tamil Nadu; the Elegant Torrent Frog, from Hassan in Karnataka; the Dehradun Stream Frog; and the Silent Valley Tropical Frog, from the eponymous national park in Kerala.
Das’s supporters include former Indian cricketer Anil Kumble, the American producer and writer George Meyer, who created The Simpsons, and former union environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who endorsed the LAI project after Das cold-called his office and wrangled an appointment with the minister. The 49-year-old Das has been featured prominently in international magazines such as The Economist and National Geographic, received repeated offers from universities abroad, is a much-in-demand speaker at herpetological conferences across the world, and an inspirational figure to people as diverse as Dr K V Gururaja, an urban planner at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, and author of the recently released Pictorial Guide to Frogs and Toads of the Western Ghats, and Mumbai-based microbiologist and photographer Caesar Sengupta.
“Biju is wacky, thinks out of the box. How many scientists have the vision to start something like the Lost Amphibians, which also involves ordinary people? Or talk to a jewellery firm about designing frog pendants?” says BaharDutt, environment editor of television channel CNN-IBN. Das’s dogged drive has also set him on a collision course with the proponents of Project Tiger, the 40-year-old government-sponsored conservation initiative.
Again, why should we be so concerned about frogs as compared to, say, the hoopoe? Frogs, says Biju, are keystone species, and ecological barometers. Since they spend their lives both in water and on land, breathing through their gills as tadpoles and through their skin as fully grown adults, they are highly sensitive and susceptible to changes in the environment, and the first to suffer due to water and air pollution. If frogs move away, or die by the hundreds in a certain place, it is an indication, says Das, that something could be gravely wrong with that place. “When I was growing up, there used to be thousands in my village, hopping in the paddy fields, by the roadside. Now, there is nothing in my village because we are importing chemicals from abroad and selling them to farmers.”
Frogs are also a highly localised species. A new species of leopard frog, which is found only around Midtown Manhattan, was discovered this March, in New York. Similarly, the Bubble-nest Frog is under threat from paper industries in the Upper Kodayar in Tamil Nadu. You deplete the bamboo cover and you kill an entire species, says Das.
Climate change and habitat destruction, say conservationists, has put a third of the estimated 6,000 amphibians in the world in peril, and most of these are expected to became extinct this century. A similar fate awaits 25 per cent of India’s 272 amphibian species, unless, of course, says Das, we can change the way we think about conservation.
Das claims to be unemotional about frogs — “I am a scientist, I view things coldly” — but it is evident he is lying. When he speaks about amphibian conservation, his pugnacious, near militant cadence betrays him.
“People here think conserving the tiger is conserving everything. That is a myth. Forty years after Project Tiger, we still have the same number of tigers. Some bureaucrats have implanted microchips in our heads about the overarching significance of tigers. I have nothing against tigers: they are charismatic, magnificent animals, but biodiversity is a 100-storey building and every brick is equally important. It’s not just about frogs. We have to invest time and money into birds, fish, flowers, and every other creature that is under threat.” Apart from some sanctuaries in southern India such as the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary and Bandipur Tiger Reserve, our attempt to save tigers has failed miserably, says Das. BittuSahgal, who edits Sanctuary magazine, agrees on several counts with Das. “The man is a national treasure, and there is a pressing need to conserve microhabitats. But saving the tiger is a more complex issue. We are up against a well-equipped adversary. Wildlife trade is next only to narcotics and arms; it is a 20-billion-dollar industry.”
Das says he gives himself another seven to eight years to try and achieve several things on his daunting checklist. Among the tasks he has set for himself is to try to shift the focus to wetland conservation (“An ecosystem-based conservation approach is better than any individual-focussed conservation attempt. A frog-rich area can also be rich in tigers”); and to help put together comprehensive data on India’s biodiversity (“After the British left, we have not made any attempt to study it. We have no records, not at the state level, nor at the national level. How can we save something if we don’t even know what we have?”).
He is also trying to be more comfortable with the camera and with journalists. The BBC is making a movie on him, and there is a book being written about him. He doesn’t want to be seen as this bellicose patron saint of frogs. His legacy, he says, will be his team of researchers, and yet others who he has infected with a passion for amphibians. He hopes that one day their chorus will grow too loud for the government to ignore.
He is also wondering whether he should take up a recent offer he got from the Chinese government to study frogs in China. He might earn some money and secure his children’s future. He also wants to spend more time with his family. Sometimes, even Biju Das gets tired of damp jungles. And maybe, the money he earns in China will help him fund, to a certain extent, the purchase of a large tract of land he has earmarked in Kerala. Das is planning to buy a tea or coffee estate, uproot the coffee plants, and turn it into a sanctuary for amphibians. “I am already talking to the owner, but she is asking for a huge amount. But it will be a microhabitat, with no buildings, and lots of puddles. There will probably be a hut; anyone can come there and enjoy the rains and hear and see the frogs. Maybe, someday, the tiger, too, will come, and it will be welcome.”
Photograph By Vinit Bhatt