Sometime in 2002, Dr Sathyabhama Das Biju got a call on his phone from a friend. Biju was working with Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute in Trivandrum. He was trying quit plant research to enter the little-frequented field of amphibian research in India. His friend told him that while digging for a well, they had chanced upon a strange creature. “It looks like a tortoise,” Biju remembers him as saying, “But I think it is a frog.”
When Biju visited the spot, he found the creature in two pieces. A labourer had accidentally hit the animal while digging. Of its remains, one part was the front of its face, including the nose, and the other, the rest of its body. Biju was sure he had stumbled upon something rare. It was a frog unlike any he had ever seen. The creature had a slimy and bloated body. It had tiny eyes and stubby limbs, and strangely, a snout-like nose. What followed was a long and tiresome search for a living specimen that lasted over six months. “It was a foolish hunt,” he says. Because, as he later learnt from the discovery of two frogs of this species, this particular frog lives underground. And the only time it emerges is when the monsoon’s first showers hit the earth, and that too, just for about ten days—to mate.
A year later, Biju and another researcher, Franky Bossuyt, published their findings in the science journal Nature. Not only was this an entirely new species, it was found to belong to a hitherto unknown family of frogs. Since new families of frogs are extremely rare discoveries—only 29 such have so far been identified, mostly in the 1800s, the last discovery having been made in 1926—the journal dubbed Biju’s work a ‘once-in-a century find’.
The new species was named Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis, and popularly came to be called the Purple Frog. Interestingly, the frog’s closest relatives are located nowhere in or around India, but about 2,400 km from mainland Africa on the archipelago of Seychelles: Seychellean frogs. In terms of evolutionary descent, it was found that this newly-discovered frog had split from Seychellean frogs at least 130 million years ago. This had important implications for the field of palaeogeography as well, and could throw fresh light on how species migrated in prehistoric times.
“That discovery probably gave me everything,” Biju says, referring to his academic career boost. After he completed his second PhD (in Amphibian Systematics) from the Amphibian Evolution Lab of Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, he delved deeper into the world of amphibians, especially frogs.
Now, a little more than a decade later, at 50, Biju is considered India’s foremost amphibian researcher. Often referred to as the ‘Frogman of India’, he has discovered over 100 new species in various parts of India (58 of which have formally been described in various journals). Apart from the Purple Frog find, his work has yielded another hitherto unknown family of amphibians. In 2012, along with a team of researchers, Biju discovered a new family of caecilians (legless amphibians) in the Northeast. Termed Chikilidae, it was described as a ‘giant scientific discovery’ by Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the journal that published the finding. It was just the 10th caecilian family ever identified, and, interestingly again, the Chikilidae split from their closest African relatives more than 140 million years ago.
Before Biju became an amphibian researcher, he had spent 10 years studying plants. His interest in frogs was aroused once he focused on one through the viewfinder of his camera during a field trip studying the flora of the Western Ghats. “Have you ever taken a photograph of a frog?” Biju asks. “When you focus on a frog, you realise how beautiful it is. Its various colours, the eyes, the expression… very few in the animal world can give you that experience.”
Biju continued to take pictures of frogs. In 2002, he even sold some of his images to National Geographic and bought his first computer with the Rs 2 lakh he earned. His love of frogs increased as he pursued them with his lens, and he soon knew he had to shift academic focus. “Don’t get me wrong, I like plants,” he says, dressed in a shirt with red checks. “But they are boring compared to frogs.”
His answers are terse and formal and he delivers them sitting with a straight back and square shoulders. However, on occasions that he recollects a fond moment, his tone changes and his back stoops and shoulders get rounded, as if cosying up to the memory.
Biju is also an amphibian conservationist. The Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature claims that amphibians are the most threatened vertebrate group in the animal kingdom, with 41 per cent of their species at risk of extinction. The cloud of gloom is perhaps darkest over India, 60 per cent of whose amphibians are unique to the Subcontinent. According to records, around 57 species of Indian amphibians are considered lost—which means they have not been sighted for over 10 years. Globally, several factors have combined to threaten the amphibian world, from climate change and habitat loss to the appearance of diseases like chytrid fungus. But, according to Biju, the chief threat in India is habitat destruction. “People find frogs and amphibians cute or even weird, but no one was really interested in saving them. All our interest and conservation efforts, from the Government’s to [those of] lay individuals, were and still are for the country’s sexy animals—tigers, elephants, etcetera. But what about our frogs and lesser animals, which are equally if not more threatened?” he asks.
It was sometime in 2005 that Biju began to realise the scale of the crisis. “Academics and experts can go about their jobs of studying various species and speak about the importance of conservation,” he says, “But none of this means a thing if you don’t involve lay people.” In late 2010, Biju came up with a project to generate awareness of amphibians. Called Lost! Amphibians of India (LAI), the project put out a public notice listing the 57 lost species and asked people to join him and other researchers in looking for them. The response was overwhelming; LAI currently has over 500 members, mostly non-researchers, and has undertaken as many as 59 expeditions so far in various parts of the country, including the biodiversity hotspots of the Western Ghats and Northeast.
The effort has led to the finding of five lost species. These include the remarkably colourful Chalazodes Bubble-Nest Frog (fluorescent green body with bluish-black pupils and yellow iris), which had not been seen for 136 years and is a critically endangered species, apart from the Anamalai Dot-Frog that was spotted after 73 years, the Elegant Torrent Frog after 73 years, the Stream Frog after 25 years, and the Silent Valley Tropical Frog after 30 years. There are many more species that have been discovered, according to Biju, but these will be announced only after the finds are peer-reviewed and published in a journal.
LAI’s expeditions can last four days to a month or more. The researchers, both amateur and expert, set out with sleeping bags, supplies of dry fruits and knee-length leather boots to protect them from snake bite. Sometimes, they get decent shelter. But they usually have to make do with sleeping bags in tents.
Finding frogs is never easy. “Amphibians are only found in swamps and forests,” says Sonali Garg, a member of LAI, “They only come out at night and usually camouflage themselves very well with their surroundings.” Garg has been part of several LAI frog hunts, and was a member of one of the teams that rediscovered the Dehradun Stream Frog near Tiger Falls in Uttarakhand’s Chakrata area. It was a memorable expedition. They would trek up to the point of the falls, wait for sunset and strap on their headlights to look for the frog. They finally spotted not just one but several—perched on a rock close to the rapids, glowing light green in the glare of their lights. That was the easy part, as it turned out. Capturing them proved tough. “Even if our endeavours had proved unsuccessful,” she says, “the delight of exploring such a place was worth it.” Later tests of the specimens in Delhi showed that it was indeed the lost Dehradun Stream Frog.
Biju was born to a family of farmers in a rural part of Kerala in Kollam district. As a child, he would have to bathe and graze cattle and feed the chicken that his parents owned. They were not well off, he says, but he believes his childhood taught him more about nature than any schoolbook could. “I would often go fishing in a nearby river,” he says, “But I would not eat [my catch], I would bring it home to illustrate.”
Eco-sensitivity, he believes, requires a sustained effort at all levels, urban and rural. During his expeditions in the Northeast, he found that many frogs were under threat because locals consumed them as part of their diet without thinking twice about it. “The marketplace would be filled with baskets and jars of frogs,” he says, “I would try to explain to them why one should not eat them. But in the beginning, this was not taken to very kindly.” Locals often got into altercations with him. And sometimes the police also turned up to have a word with him for making a nuisance of himself.
Biju had an especially difficult time in Manipur, where his forest excursions were viewed with suspicion by both Indian Army soldiers and militants. “To both, I was an outsider wading into their space.” On one expedition, he was even held captive by some militants for about six days. “I kept explaining that ‘My interest is not in you or the Army, or politics, I am here for the frogs’.” He was eventually let off.
In time, he was also able to recruit a few locals to his cause in Manipur, asking students for help explain the need to conserve frogs. “Some of them stopped hunting and selling baby frogs and mothers that come out to mate during the monsoon.” According to Biju, there is a ‘nameless extinction’ underway in India: “Many species remain undiscovered and several of them are becoming extinct before they are found.” But something can still be done. In a recent talk he delivered in Mumbai, he said that LAI members would now visit schools and colleges in an effort to involve even more individuals by asking them to take pictures of amphibians for project members to sift through and identify.
“Amphibians once lived in habitats throbbing with life,” Biju says, “Today they are mostly seen only in the silent and sterile unchanging world of spirit jars. We need to change that.”