Photograph by Rachunliu G. Kamei.
Proud of his simple origins, Sathyabhama Das Biju, universally known as S.D. Biju, is one of the world's foremost amphibian experts. For all the recognition (IUCN/ASG Sabin Award, 2008) and degrees, (PhDs in 'Plant Systematics' from Calicut University, and 'Amphibian Systematics, Molecular Phylogeny and Conservation of Western Ghats Frogs' from VUB, Brussels, Belgium), and his instant positivity, Biju seems burdened by the dark future that looms over amphibians. He met Bittu Sahgal in Mumbai and spoke about his mission to study amphibians, and how to conserve them in an era of climate change.
So who really is S.D. Biju?
(Smiles) A simple man, born in a small village called Kadakkal, in the Kollam District of Kerala, who grew up bathing cows and feeding chickens, a life that taught me more about nature than all the school books I ever read.
That was yesterday. And today?
I am part of the faculty in the Department of Environmental Biology, University of Delhi, where I conduct research and teach. And, yes, I am also leading a nationwide expedition to rediscover the lost amphibians of India.
What really is the situation with amphibians in India?
Well, to put it straight, we are facing the possibility that we could lose all our frogs within a span of a few years unless urgent steps are taken to arrest their decline right away. If they go, it would not only be a biodiversity tragedy but would almost certainly prove disastrous to India's food security.
What would you say is the 'smoking gun' that has led to frog die-offs that we hear of around the world? UV-B exposure, pesticides, habitat loss... disease?
Yes, those are all of major concern today for biologists and conservationists. Amphibians are the most threatened group of vertebrates in the world. Almost half are in decline for one reason or another. Amphibians as a group, have the highest number of critically endangered species (18 out of 55 species in India) - one in three species is threatened with extinction. Globally frog die-offs have been attributed to UV radiation and several other reasons including the Chytrid fungus (Sanctuary Vol. XXX No.1 February 2010 ). But in India the primary cause is habitat destruction. It is really very serious. If we do not halt and reverse this trend, as I said, our country could witnesses the total loss of all its amphibians.
Photograph by S.D. Biju.
That sounds really ominous. Apart from lobbying to change policy, what could ordinary Sanctuary readers do to help prevent this?
A lot. First of all they should explore their own neighbourhoods, where they will discover a surprising diversity of amphibians. Then they could try and preserve damp areas and other habitats that amphibians love. We can work to enhance the quality and quantity of such spaces by not paving areas around them and by avoiding the use of pesticides. This will also benefit us because keeping our cities natural improves our own health and happiness.
Biju, I'd like Sanctuary readers to know what makes you tick. Who, for instance, were your earliest influences and who would you say has had the most profound influence in your life?
Though I was never ever a bird specialist or birdwatcher, Dr. Sálim Ali influenced me in my early days. But the people who really influenced my life are Ernst Mayr and E.O. Wilson, especially when I started working on systematics seriously, which began with conventional (classical) taxonomy and later went the way of integrated systematics with molecular phylogeny.
At your fascinating talk on 'Lost Amphibians' you suggested that as many as 50 species of amphibians have gone 'missing' from between 16 years and 169 years. How do you hope to find them?
The list actually evolved as a consensus document by eight Indian amphibian taxonomists. It's not just my list. Because India has the maximum number of missing species, we launched 'Lost! Amphibians of India (LAI)'. About 25 species have not been seen for over 50 years, some for over 100 years. The LAI initiative is ambitious and has received great response from civil society with over 230 members registering as volunteers. We have already conducted 12 specific searches and another 18 will be conducted within the next two months.
And have you found any of these?
Yes we have. A few. But sadly they are all from highly-vulnerable habitats and a shadow hangs over their future. However, we have to work hard to locate several more lost species. We will announce the discoveries in October 2011. If we are able to locate at least 30 species, that would be a great achievement for Indian amphibian research and conservation. Of course, we really do not know whether all these 'Lost! Amphibians' are even surviving in the wild or whether they have been permanently lost to us.
Photograph by S.D. Biju.
Could Sanctuary readers participate directly in the hunt?
Yes. It would be a great pleasure to include more and more people directly or indirectly. Practically we cannot take all members on search expeditions into the forest, but by networking members and making them part of the discussion, everyone can help. We are currently working in the Western Ghats and in the central Indian region, having finished our Northeast search. Anyone interested can contact the initiative and get involved by visiting https://www.facebook.com/pages/Lost-Amphibians-of-India/126212394110450.
I guess DNA science plays a major role in your research now? Will advances in DNA science render Mendel's original discoveries more, or less, relevant today? Will we, for instance, see new strides in our understanding of frog speciation?
Yes Bittu, frankly speaking the molecular approach and its application in biodiversity documentation have tremendous impact especially in amphibian systematics, because of the extreme difficulty in morphological identification. Classical approaches in discovering and describing life forms have some limitations especially for groups like amphibians. If you look deep into Indian biodiversity documentation you will see that many species are undiscovered and several are becoming extinct even before they are described. Imagine that. They go extinct even before they are named! This 'nameless extinction' is a matter of shame. I believe molecular approaches in systematics have a great relevance in accurate identification of our species.
What about the Mirik Lake studies you undertook in Darjeeling... are people also eating frogs to death?
Yes, it is so sad. Not only in Mirik in Darjeeling but also in many parts of Northeast India, people consume frogs as a delicacy. I have seen local markets in northeastern states with live and half dead animals in various sizes for sale in markets every single day. In the southern part of India especially in Kerala some local hotels sell frog dishes. It is really meaningless as frog meat does not have any medicinal property to cure diseases as some presume. We have many other options to take meat from domestic sources. Eating wild species must be stopped.
Photography by S.D. Biju.
During your talk in Mumbai you said that many more amphibian species are yet to be discovered and described. Why is India taking its biodiversity and its documentation so lightly?
Frankly this is largely because of our attitude. Indian wildlife interest is usually centred around large and charismatic animals. Currently we have evidence based on published work, extraordinary numbers of new species have been scientifically described. In my understanding this is not only the case with amphibians but also with other groups (like fishes) - you can expect results, if you look deep enough and long enough. India's biodiversity is underestimated and many more species have to be discovered and documented before they become extinct.
Your mission brings to mind the great Humayun Abdulali. Do you think his role in frog protection seems to have been forgotten?
Perhaps not! His great contribution was what led to the ban of frog-leg export from India. Many of his natural history observations and distribution records are still very valid and useful for current research. But in a way you are right - many of our conservationists are not giving him the recognition that is his due. Of course, domestic consumption of frog meat continues and this is really a serious threat to species survival in many parts of India.
So what next Biju? What are your future research plans?
A big question. I have been working in this field for over two decades and have extensively surveyed India for amphibians. I look back with satisfaction that my work has already recognised over 100 new species and described 48 new species - in fact 14 new species will be published within a month, six new genera and one new family. I look at all this from a different angle. My ultimate intention is to motivate new researchers in this field who can complete the discoveries and propose their own conservation measures. If my work could influence even a small community in this country I would be very glad.
Photograph by S.D. Biju.
Any message for our youth? How can they help us save the frogs and wetlands?
Be curious. Be aware. Conservation of India's biodiversity, particularly frogs, can start at home or in school as I mentioned above. We can only succeed in saving amphibians if young people are involved. Our youth can help conserve amphibians best by fighting to retain the large and small tracts of wetlands in urban areas and towns. Even natural-state back gardens can play a vital role and should be left unpaved. Frogs love natural backyards and will help keep insect populations down (and thus help control diseases such as malaria) in neighbourhoods.
Biju you can count on the fact that the entire Sanctuary family, with its half a million Kids for Tigers, will work with you towards this end.
Thank you Bittu. I dream of large numbers of young naturalists, holding field guides in their hands, and going about identifying frogs as they would birds and butterflies. And I hope that sooner rather than later they would move into conservation action. It may not be easy, but I am dreaming.
by Bittu Sahgal, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXI No. 4, August 2011.