Published: 16th June 2021
Meet Sandeep Das, the PhD scholar who popularised the purple 'Mahabali' frog in Kerala
Sandeep Das is pursuing his PhD in amphibians and reptiles. His aim is to bring attention to those animals that are often overlooked by speaking about what sets them apart
Nasikabatrachus Sahyadrensis or the purple frog can be found only in a particular part of the Western Ghats which include a number of locations in Kerala and a single spot in Tamil Nadu. Currently, the species is considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list due to threats from, and consumption and harvesting by, local communities. Until 2003, the frogs were unidentified by science, save for a few names people in the regions had locally given them.
“When I started working with the purple frog, I knew that it was a bizarre looking animal,” says Sandeep Das who has been pursuing his PhD on several aspects of amphibians and reptiles in the Eravikulam National Park, Munnar. “It is not the kind of animal that you find cute or traditionally consider so majestic that you want to conserve them. My team and I have been trying to find ways to familiarise the general public with this species. It is more widely distributed in Kerala and should be considered as a mascot of sorts.”
Currently doing his research at the Kerala Forest Research Institute, Sandeep became a fellow of the Zoological Society of London’s Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) programme in 2017. EDGE takes into consideration the evolutionary distinctiveness of different species and their threatened status on IUCN. Out of 8000 such species on the list, the purple frog is number three.
“Just keep your eyes open,” Sandeep tells me, about how to stay aware about smaller animals that aren’t often represented on our wildlife campaigns. “A few years ago, I attended a conference about conservation in Madagascar. They country is famous for their lemur population, one that can be found interacting freely with the locals of the area. I came to understand that for conservation policies to change, locals need to be aware of the animal and support them.”
So over the next few days, Sandeep was deep in thought about how to do the same for the purple frog. The curious thing about the species is that they live underground for almost all their lives, only coming out to breed and lay eggs before going back. It reminded the researcher of one of Kerala’s greatest cultural icons: Mahabali, who would visit the people of Kerala on the month of Thiruvonam before disappearing underground again.
So Sandeep began a campaign about the ‘Mahabali frog’ during Onam in 2017. “In those days, when I’d interact with college students, they knew very little about the animal. Now when I talk about the Mahabali frog, at least 30 per cent of people are aware of them. I also submitted a request to the Kerala Forest Department to make them our state animal. And the media began discussing it widely because an amphibian has never been recognised like this before in the country.”
In 2019-20, Sandeep received the EDGE Fellow Award. He first discovered this interest for rare animals through birdwatching. As an undergraduate student in Thrissur, he discovered a love for rare migrant birds that he would find in the wetlands. Under the guidance of a friend and photographer, he began to document the unique species that he found, taking particular joy in finding smaller animals that were often overlooked.
Large-scaled pit viper
“While I was doing my master's degree, I met Dr Anil Zachariah, a veterinarian who studies amphibians in South India, who opened up a whole new world for me,” says Sandeep, “In the same forests where people would watch elephants and bears walk during the day, a whole world of animals would rear their heads during the night. The fact that I could work and photograph these creatures who shone in the darkness of the night was enthralling for me.”
Ever since, Sandeep has been promoting the case for ‘lesser rare animals’ through scientific articles, beautiful photographs and continuous research. Of late, he has also surveyed the Western Ghats to understand the distribution of Purple Frogs. His aim is to make them a flagship species for Kerala. He says, “Larger animals are already getting a lot of attention. I’m trying to bring these rare, disappearing species into the light, quite literally.”