Keerthi and I were stationed at the beautiful campus of the Kerala Veterinary University, nestled between verdant rolling Shola-covered hills of the Western Ghats. Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary was best accessed from the KVU campus and we found extremely comfortable rooms at the guesthouse (hot water and an electric kettle were luxuries beyond wildest imaginations). Additionally, the campus is also home to injured, sick, rehabilitated wildlife that the authorities bestow with appropriate medical care and human love. So, you have civets (Viverridae family), a bonnet macaque (Macaca radiata) baby, a Malabar Giant Squirrel (Ratufa indica), male Sambar deer (Rusa unicolor), Spotted deer (Axis axis) fawn and the enigmatic Indian giant flying squirrel (Petaurista philippensis). I almost regretted not having studied medicine and becoming a veterinarian, and not for the first time.
One night, we were making our way down the winding road to get to a restaurant. Keerthi sat in the front of the jeep keeping her eyes peeled for suicidal frogs. Suddenly, she shouted, "Stop stop stop!!!" bringing the jeep to a skidding, screeching halt. She jumped out and ran up the hill like a madwoman. Stomach rumbling with hunger I grabbed the sampling kit and started to follow her, buoyed by the hopes of finding a cool new frog, perhaps a Microhylid or the Burrowing Frog. When I reached her, she was in a state of frenzied excitement. Her speech was garbled and sounded like her native tongue, Tamil - "Ella ampu ella". I looked at her quizzically, thinking that the incessant frog hunting had finally taken a toll on her. Finally, after a deep breath, she repeated, "Indrella ampulla. Endemic snail." Looking down, I saw one of the most beautiful snails I have ever seen in my lifetime. A large pale yellow foot bordered with white and the most exquisite black spiraled flat shell was crossing the road, leaving a distinctive snail-mucus trail. I gazed in wonderment at this marvelous piece of art that was determined to cross the tar road in stubborn defiance of Keerthi's efforts to relocate it to safety on the other side. We left it, hoping against hope it would survive any traffic headed its way. Fortunately, we found no traces of road-kill on our return, so I guess the snail must have reached its destination safely.
Indrella ampulla is the only species belonging to the genus Indrella. It is a terrestrial snail inhabiting regions at moderate elevations in the tropics. You must google up the snail, if you haven’t already.
The next Indrella ampulla I encountered was in Karnataka. I was volunteering again on the project with Keerthi. This time around, we were accompanying a 'fish team' that consisted of a motley crowd of fish taxonomists, a molecular biologist, hobbyists and an employee of the fisheries department. The second sighting of the snail was a stroke of luck, and special because I spotted it while we were in a moving car. Car stopped, Keerthi and I bounded out and looked in amazement at the mollusk. Instead of the pale yellow, the foot was a bright tomato red! It was impossible to miss. Fantabulous! Later, Keerthi spotted another while we were scouring the reeds for frogs next to a stream. We were in sandals, not the smartest choice of footwear when you are in a place infested with leeches! Leech complaints aside, if you belong to the train of thought that snails are 'yucky', I beg you, check out the super cool Indrella ampulla. A snail that dazzles the onlooker with its sheer beauty and exquisite looks…You will definitely fall in love with this cutey-crawley.
Here's an interesting article on Snails of Karnataka by Aravind Madhyastha:
I had my first sighting of the endangered Wild dog/ Dhole (Cuon Alpinus) while we were frogging at Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. To the tourist who marvels at seeing a tiger, I say 'Have you seen a Dhole hunt?' A superbly coordinated hunting strategy turns these mere dogs into cold-blooded killers, where they single out a particularly succulent and delicious-looking Spotted deer/Chital (Axis axis), chase it while ripping off pieces of flesh from the prey. Weary from the chase and the consequent loss of blood, the poor deer collapses whereupon the pack descends upon it like, well a pack of fighting dogs. I did not quite witness all this action, but I was part of a case of mistaken identity in the buffer area. Now such cases, especially in the forest, can turn out to be lethal. Imagine someone identifying a venomous Bamboo pit viper as a harmless Green keelback!
Keerthi and I were accompanied by forest guards and a forest watcher as we scanned the area for frogs. Eventually we came to an open patch with short grass surrounded by forest along its circumference, which had earlier housed an entire village. One of the forest guards was telling us the story of a tiger he had seen the previous evening, and pointed to a clearing, "That’s where I saw the tiger". In hindsight, I wonder whether some individuals engaged in wildlife-related activities, especially tourism, speak about tigers and other megafauna to 'sell' better, if you know what I mean. We had by now turned our attention back to the jumping Fejarvaryas in the field and were trying desperately to catch those pesky frogs that have a knack for disappearing into the slushy grasses, when the second forest guard cried out, "Tiger! Tiger!" Surprised, excited, we looked up. Sure enough, in the far distance at the edge of the field, was a four-legged creature trotting in our direction. As it came closer, the guard shouted out, "Look look tiger!!!" (loud enough that the supposed tiger could have heard him- perhaps he was expecting a reply). However, something seemed amiss. Tigers do not walk with a spring in their step. Neither do they have bushy tails. What they do have are stripes. And a bulky body (remember Jim Corbett's 'Maneaters of Kumaon'). Realization dawned upon us- this is a much cooler animal! It is a Dhole!!! Woohoo!!! Excited and joyous, I stood there and saw the creature continue walking towards us. Irrespective of all the science I had read, watching a carnivore walk towards me aroused a deep hidden primal human instinct inside me. An instinct that screamed, "RUN!" Of course, I did not turn tail and embarrass myself. The dhole decided it was close enough to get a good look at the intruders, and seeing us wretched humans, threw up its nose in mortal disdain and made its way into the safety of the forest.
As dusk descended upon us, we gazed awestruck at the disappearing figure, while flocks of Malabar parakeets streaked brilliant blue across the darkening skies, hoping against hope that one day, we would secure the planet for the magnificent species it harbors.
With a smile plastered forever across its face, begging eyes that could bring a 5-month old babe to shame, squirming when intrusive objects are run across its inner thighs, and a grace that could befit a ballerina, a frog is more human than genetics let on. Okay, perhaps not the flies, though I have a hunch that if we looked at human history closer, we would find ancestors smacking their lips, barbequing flies gossiping over a crackling bonfire.
My trip to Kerala volunteering on the project ‘Evaluation and Assessment of the Chytrid Fungus in Amphibian Populations in the Western Ghats’ gave me an opportunity to observe these characters more closely than ever. The chytrid fungus is a deadly fungus that has been known to wipe out frog populations across the world, similar to numerous epidemics that have been assailing human populations since centuries on end. Here are some of the interesting characters from the frog world that we encountered:
Pseudophilautus: This frog was the ultimate metrosexual Casanova- dark yet not quite, with a sprinkling of gold and silver rogue shining out from its underbelly, and perfectly shaped yellow finger-pads, singing its vocal sacs out, forever a ladies man.
Euphlyctis (Skittering Frog): This frog was the mischief-maker, the boy who rings the doorbell and is too slippery to get your hands on and give a good thrashing. To be fair, the frog does secrete a slimy substance to facilitate escape once caught. In frog world, he would most certainly be god, what with its ability to literally walk on water (more like skittering, but if exageration didn’t make god, what did?)
Fejervarya: The mdoern insurgent. Expertly camouflaged until you almost step on them, hiding around human habiatation as well as in forests, and wearing the scars of battle in the form of a missing limb or two, these frogs could teach a lesson or two to rebels. Or to the police. Or maybe both.
Indirana: These are the daredevils, rock-climbing is in their blood and with a fashionable coma-shaped tattoo across their ears, they are ready to take on the world.
Hylarana temporalis: This is the frog athlete. Lithe limbed and forever on the alert, this guy is a long-jump champion- always one step ahead of pesky predators(or in this case desperate biologists)
Raorchestes akroparallagi: This frog is the flirtatious lover- hidden behind curtains of green, forever calling out to you, as your befuddled brain searches desperately for the source. It sounds suspiciously like a Gumnaan, and I was in the midst of an intense personal debate over ‘Flirty Frog vs Freaky Frog’ when I remembered the innocent charm that reflected off it under the flickering torchlight. Flirty Frog tugs at your heartstrings, every single time.
Rhacophorus malabaricus: Much has been said about the endemic Malabar Gliding Frog. A celebrity without the tantrums, forever ready to pose for the camera, and escaping in a specially designed glider when the pressure becomes too much to handle, the Malabar Gliding Frog is India’s next Superstar.
Hoplobatrachus tigerinus: The bizarre American- complete with a ridiculous yellow and blue garb during the mating season (Britons would likely nod in agreement at ‘bizarre’) and (if I wanted to poke fun at the slightly over healthy) endowed with all the obesity that would warrant the frog dropping dead of heart disease. (I take back the obesity remark, seeing that people in glass houses aren’t in any position to throw stones at others). Contrary to its American association, the frog is known as the Indian Bullfrog (which actually makes more sense - gold rings adorning every finger, t-shirts with cheesy pick-up lines, tomato red pants and scissor-shaped earings plus a diet of buttery pav bhaji, cheese-burst pizzas and rasagollas: here’s your quintessential urban Indian)
Clinotarsus curtipes: If I had to have a crush in the frog world, it would be on the Bicolored Frog. He’s the James Bond of the frog world- the Sean Connery one mind you, not the insipid charm of Pierce Brosnan or senior citizen Daniel Craig. Sitting tall, dignified, wearing a cream & black suit with a speckling of white and orange to match his uber cool personality, this fellow hops across a velvet chocolate carpet of leaves, next to gurlging stream beds. You almost expect him to swish around on his toes like a ballerina or to do a Cowboy gun swivel. Unlike the Hylarana though, he was rather unsuccessful at escaping from us wretched science-people.
Next time we are in the Ghats, lets ask the driver to use those car brakes coz squishing frogs certainly ain’t cool. Neither is encroaching illegally on their land, driving them towards batracho-suicidal tendencies. Besides, homicide is a punishable offence inviting insect invasions, subsequent starvation and death.
P.S: Keerthi, you were right after all :P
(with edits from Keerthi Krutha)
Ramblings on wildlife sharing spaces with non-wild humans