Have You Seen This? Tapping Into The Memory Of Islanders To Uncover An Invasion
Asks Nitya Prakash Mohanty as he winds his way through the villages of the Andaman Islands in an effort to find the origins of a bullfrog invasion.
Photo: Yogesh Patrikar.
Human beings are seldom without fear. And wildlife researchers are no exception. For all the apparent bravado of living in elephant country, or weathering sub-zero temperatures, or handling venomous snakes on call, we are a fearful people. Some of us fear not getting research permits, some dread statistical analyses, some lose sleep over publications and some harbour the pandemic phobia of the early morning alarm. I have way too many fears to list out, the previously mentioned ones notwithstanding. Even though I work in the forests of the Andaman Islands, where giant centipedes and pit vipers are the least of one’s problems, I dread dealing with one species in particular – humans.
While humans living in or around wildlife reserves are seen as a problem in many cases and as a hindrance to preservation of the wild, they are undeniably a source of immense knowledge. Tapping into their collective memory can yield unimaginable insights. Historical events, where alternative modes of inquiry are not effective, can be reconstructed by sifting through an avalanche of fading memories. Hence, the prevalence of questionnaire surveys as a tool in ecological research.
I was downright unhappy when I learned that talking to people was the only way to learn what I wanted so desperately to learn about – the invasion of the Indian bullfrog in the Andaman Islands.
A frog to reckon with
The Indian bullfrog is the largest frog in India and has a reputation of eating anything and everything it can swallow. Its prey includes insects, fishes, frogs, snakes, birds and even small mammals. The bullfrog’s appetite is only matched by its breeding abilities; a female spawns up to 20,000 eggs at a time. Once exploited for its meaty legs and exported by the tonne, the bullfrog is now a protected species under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972.
Working on invasive species in the Andaman Islands, initially I had no interest in this frog found far away on the Indian mainland. And then in 2013, the bullfrog was reported for the first time in a scientific journal from a few villages of the Andaman archipelago.
The Indian bullfrog does not occur naturally in the Andaman Islands according to literature from past surveys. Yet, they had surfaced in a few villages in recent years. Nothing more than the fact, that these bullfrogs were somehow introduced, was known to the scientific community. Thankfully, there were people outside the scientific community, the residents of the Islands, who could possibly answer – when, how, why and from where the bullfrogs were introduced. I yielded before the Gods of socio-ecological methodology and set out to interview strangers.
Photo: Ashwini V. Mohan.
So, I listened and listened to the Tirkeys, Mandals, Kirkatas, Haldars and Armugams of Laxmipur, Shivpur, Kalipur, Rampur, Sitapur, and yes you guessed it right, Laxmanpur. Villages of Karmatang-10, Austin -2, Mohanpur-5 and Diglipur-9 all featured on my datasheets. And wherever my colleagues and I went, we were presented with data; valuable data indeed. No sooner than we shared images of the bullfrog, farmers, plantation workers, and pond owners offered us an outpouring of information, emotions and exclamations. They would talk about its arrival, spread, and apparent negative and positive impacts with fervour. The more they shared, the better we understood. Soon enough, one thing was evident. The bullfrog’s occurrence in the Islands was not as restricted as we had once thought. This was undoubtedly an invasion… a recent one.
Interviews followed interviews, with people readily sharing beverages and wisdom. The accidental release of a few frogs in a village, the initial craze of bullfrog meat and its trade, the contamination of fish fingerlings with bullfrog tadpoles, the loss of chicks and ducklings to bullfrogs, and the observed predators of bullfrogs, all constituted critical information. A few celebrated the bullfrog’s habit of feeding on the otherwise dreaded giant centipede. Some remarked on the frog’s mating habits, and many on the rapid spread of the bullfrog in the Islands. As more information flowed in, we narrowed down on a couple of modes of introduction and spread of the frog. We also began to list the many ways in which the bullfrog might cause economic and ecological impacts. My fear of people had started giving way to a newfound interest in their accounts.
It was apparent that the bullfrog had arrived on the Islands accidentally, but repeatedly, through the aqua-cultural trade. The trade of live fish fingerlings from the mainland, where the bullfrog occurs naturally, seemed to have provided a perfect setup for a few frog tadpoles and eggs to be shipped unnoticed. After setting foot on the Islands, the frog spread rapidly to human-dominated areas of the archipelago in an invasion beginning around 2008. This spread was spurred on by their intentional release for food, and also accidental inter-island spread, on account of aquaculture.
Not so wise
The insights though, were not without the absurd. The enjoyable interviews were not without the terrible. And welcoming villagers were sometimes in the company of incomprehensible alcoholics. Some of the stories were entrenched in mysticism, some digressed so much from the bullfrogs that we ended up debating the meaning of life, and still other anecdotes bordered on animal rights violations. A loving mother of a three-year-old once recounted forcing a common toad to smoke a beedi, as a child. Well, we all have complicated relationships with amphibians, I presume. A particularly challenging aspect of interviewing farmers during the harvest season was turning down their home-made rice beer or handiya. At the end of a day of harvesting rice under the unforgiving sun, the farmers would agree to an interview, but not without serving us the customary drink first. I delegated the duty of accepting the drink to my field assistant, Bipin. No wonder he still works with me after three years. Many an interview had to be discarded as you may imagine. For a time, I considered adding a parameter to the data denoting the amount of alcohol consumed by the interviewee, in an attempt to not lose interviews. Fortunately, the harvest season ended and we were left with completely acceptable interviews amounting to over half a thousand.
In any event, the ones that made it to the datasheet were well worth the effort. Eventually we had a much clearer picture than the one we had when we started out. As much as we may loathe the fact, understanding nature in all its complexity takes time; we still have a lot of interviews left ahead of us. The story of the bullfrog’s invasion is just starting to take form and may be clouded with conflicting accounts in the months to come. But I am still happy to go to a village, knock on a door and hold up a photograph of the bullfrog to ask, “Have you seen this?”
Author: Nitya Prakash Mohanty, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 8, August 2016.