The Purple Frog and Development

The rain stopped a while ago. It sat inconspicuous on the mulch and turned its small head towards the distant haze, sensing for the direction of the sea with its ancient amphibian wisdom. It is the sea that came up 150 million years ago separating the great Sahyadri from Madagascar and Seychelles – a time far in the past ruled by the dinosaurs.

It sat confused, its frog brain registering the melancholy of losing out to time and survival. Time spent futilely searching for a female to pass on its genes. The earth beneath its short limbs is shaking as the coffee plantations approach nearer and it is slowly losing its will to look for a new place to hide, a safer home under the warm folds of the soil. It is confused because the rain comes now and then with no certainty that its million year old adaptation is failing to read these days.

Times are changing but its time is up. Dams are coming up, forests are vanishing and the great wheel of destiny is demanding more coffee, more cardamom, more ginger, more crops – development is here.

Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis is a frog species belonging to the Sooglossidae family. It can be found in the Western Ghats in India. Common names for this species are purple frog, Indian purple frog, pignose frog or doughnut frog. It was discovered by and F. Bossyut in October 2003 and was found to be unique for the geographic region.

Scientists have given it the name Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis , from the Sanskrit word for nose ( nasika ); batrachus , meaning frog; and Sahyadri , the name for its mountain home.

Known from only 135 individuals, of which only three are female, the purple frog is thought to be an extremely rare species. The main threat to this elusive frog is the loss of its forest habitat to encroaching agriculture. Within the Western Ghats, over 90 per cent of the forest has been lost, with conversion to coffee, cardamon, ginger and other crop plantations among the most significant agents. The potential for dam developments to inundate vast areas of its habitat also means that the status of the purple frog is extremely precarious. In May 2010, the purple frog has been included in the IUCN Red List .

Western Ghat. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

For a growing country like India, the developmental aspiration is huge and that can toss aside the appeal by the environmentalists and conservationists to save Western Ghats, the home of purple frogs. So much so that when 39 biodiversity hotspots of the Western Ghats were included by UNESCO as World Heritage sites, the Indian state of Karnataka decided to oppose and fight it. For the forest minister of Karnataka it is an emphatic “ No thanks “. While the neighbouring state of Kerala welcomes the UNESCO decision , according to Minister for Forest CP Yogeshwar, development efforts in the area will be hit if these places were declared as World Heritage spots and people living there would face hardship.

The people vs. conservation is the single most important debate for India, a country of 1.2 billion and emerging as a great economic power.

The Western Ghats – which are not true mountains but rather the faulted edge of the Deccan Plateau – are believed to have been formed during the break-up of the super continent of Gondwana some 150 million years ago. The area is one of the world’s “10 Hottest biodiversity hotspots ” and has over 5,000 species of flowering plants, 139 mammal species, 508 bird species and 179 amphibian species; it is likely that many undiscovered species live in the Western Ghats. At least 325 globally threatened species occur in the Western Ghats.

The major hill range starting from the north is the Sahyadhri (The benevolent mountains) range. This range is home to many hill stations such as Matheran, Lonavala-Khandala, Mahabaleshwar, Panchgani, Amboli Ghat, Kudremukh and Kodagu. The range is called Sahyadri in northern Maharashtra, Karnataka and Sahya Parvatam in Kerala. Incidentally, the Speaker of the Karnataka Assembly, KG Bopaiah, who also said it would harm the interests of the people of Kodagu, is a son of the soil.

Environmentalists believe that there are lobbies at work, mainly from the mining industry. The Kudremukh iron ore company used to mine in the region until it was shut down for environmental reasons.

Kudremukh Iron mines. Photo by Sanjay Mangal on Flickr.

Praveen Bhargav, Trustee of Wildlife First, says: “There are mining lobbies – for example the Kudremukh iron ore company is still trying to lobby and restart mining. There are issues concerning roads in which some political leaders are enmeshed. There are timber felling issues and so forth. So these are the underlying motives. It is sad that there is no vision and scientific temper to protect these areas which are fabulous.”

So what is this big furor over losing a small frog? Losing biodiversity is like tearing open a strand of wool of your sweater. Once that happens, it’s a matter of time only before you lose your whole sweater, or your ecosystem. Moreover, because amphibians are particularly sensitive to environmental change, they serve as “canaries in a coal mine”, showing us subtle responses to environmental changes, which humans might not otherwise notice.

The slow collapse of frogs and amphibians globally is being seen as the first sign of a global mass extinction taking place due to human-induced climate change. Unless the Development we are championing is ultimately meant for aliens, it should not be at the cost of life saving balance of Nature.

It raised its snout to smell the air. The air smells strangely pungent, of woodsmoke and diesel. This air does not bring rain. The great Sahyadri looms in the fading lights – for centuries it ensured rain and climatic stability over vast tract of land. For the purple frog or man, the mountains bring lesser and lesser rains now.

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Feature Image credit: Sandesh Kadu r


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