Young Kerala researcher in the limelight for unearthing endemic frog species

Sandeep Das
Sandeep Das is a research scholar from Kerala Forest Institute.

Ace photographer and research scholar, young Sandeep Das, is drawing a lot of attention to himself, but for all the right reasons.

The research scholar from Kerala Forest Institute is in the limelight for showcasing the less known richness and vastness of Kerala’s biodiversity across several public forums through his photo-features and talks. His efforts in this domain have earned for him accolades from world forums. With his focus of research on frogs and reptiles of the Western Ghats, Sandeep is going full throttle on his pet passion.

Apart from his topics of research, his interests lie in the vast, unexplored terrain of Kerala’s biodiversity. It’s no small wonder then that he has turned his attention to studying the minutest details of the little known facts of the life and habit of frogs and reptiles. Research findings apart, it’s his vast collection of pictures of these living beings that has caught world attention. His painstaking camera focus in pursuing the flight path of a honey bee hovering over picturesque Neelakurinji blossoms fetched for him the first prize in the state government’s wild photography contest.

At present, Sandeep Das is into the final phase of his research guided by Dr P.S. Easa of the Kerala Forest Institute.

Sandeep went into learning mode right from the year 2010. All the honours that came his way were for his disclosures about a rare species of frog, the Purple Frog also known as the Indian Purple Frog or pig-nosed Purple Frog, endemic to the Western Ghats. To the locals, the species is popular as “Mahabali thavala” and “pathala thavala”.

The Purple Frog or Nasikabatrachus Sahyadrensis, is rounded, bloated and quite robust unlike several other of its kindred species. The frog which lives perpetually in the earth’s belly, surfaces only once a year. The species was first discovered and their samples collected from Idukki district by S.D.Biju of the Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute in Palode and Dr Franky Bossuyt from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in 2003. These rarely found frogs have been classified under the “Living Fossil” category of species that date back to pre-historic times. Research also says the frogs are ample proof that the Indian and African subcontinents were once a single entity.

The frogs come up to the surface only once a year, especially during the monsoons, for mating. Sandeep has captured on camera several of these female species bearing the males on the back. In fact, Sandeep and his team have done extensive research into their living habits and existential hazards. The study fetched Sandeep an Edge of Existence fellowship offered by the London Zoological Society.

Clicking a picture of the Purple Frog was no cake walk for him, says Sandeep who waited patiently for years to click a perfect shot, for they are rarely sighted. Wildlife photography calls for patience of the rarest kind, for there are no chances for retakes in this category.

In their effort to preserve the natural habitat of these rare species, Sandeep and team carried their cause to several venues where they spoke about their findings. Sad to say, several such frogs get crushed by vehicles, especially cars, during the monsoon. To avoid this, the team undertook classes and campaigns to educate cab drivers of this potential natural tragedy.

To instill a renewed interest in the species, Sandeep started addressing them as “Mahabali thavala”. They are also called “pathala thavala” for their proclivity for underground dwelling. He also presented a request to the state government to have the species recognized as a formal state symbol.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has marked the Purple Frog red in its list of endangered and threatened species.

Sandeep Das did his graduation in zoology from St Aloysius College, Thrissur and his post-graduation from Farook College, Kozhikode. Right from childhood, his leaning towards animals was well noticed. However, his father was against keeping or caging pets at home as he believed it was not right to keep animals or birds as captives.

The young lad soon grew up into a keen bird-watcher. However, his interest in observing frogs and was instilled in him by his vet friend Anil Zachariah during his PG days.

Sandeep and team have discovered 15 new frog species during the course of their research. “Research is thrilling, but fraught with hazards too”, says Sandeep. As a lot of research needs to be done at night, they pose untold risks, especially if the spots are vulnerable to wildlife attacks. He recalls a few occasions when the team found itself in the line of elephants and tigers. Sandeep says they are deeply indebted to the forest staff not only for their immense support, but also for their rescue efforts on many an occasion. As for the Forest Research Institute, there couldn’t be a better place that offers research facilities in biodiversity, says the scholar.

A wildlife reserve is not just the prerogative of huge animals like elephants, tigers, leopards, boars and deers. It’s also got to be home to tinier species like frogs and reptiles. This domain, into which only a few have ventured, also needs to be protected and preserved. Sandeep is also a member and trainer of the Kerala State Forest Department’s Snake Rescue program.

To date, there are more than 170 species of frogs, says Sandeep Das who shares pictures of his finds, especially of rare species, on his facebook and Instagram accounts. Once the main research is done, he intends to go for post doctoral studies which he plans to combine with other academic pursuits.

(Retired English professor Shanmugha Das and Shanti Das are his parents. Wife, Vinaya Das too is into research. The couple has a two-year-old daughter Anvita Das. His younger brother Sudeep Das works in Dubai.)

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