Friday, July 21, 2017

Why do we need to save frogs?

By, Shristi Shrestha

Monsoon brings with it puddles, umbrellas and rain boots. It also welcomes the songs of frogs. Frogs usually do not come up in middle of a conversation when we discuss animal conservation, but these amphibians have some impressive traits that need to be acknowledged. Similarly, once you know the ecological significance of frogs, you will understand that like any other species, frogs are also in dire need of conservation. In my quest to get a more in-depth insight into the lives of frogs, I met one such individual who has dedicated his life to protecting these marvels of nature. Biraj Shrestha is a batrachologist (one who studies amphibians). He is an avid ‘frog lover’ who has been involved in research and conservation of amphibians, especially frogs, since 2012. His efforts have been recognised by various institutions such as the Rufford Small Grants and The Pollination Project Seed Grant among others. Shrestha was recently accorded with the Future Leader of Amphibian Conservation Award in 2017.
Excerpts from my interview with him:
Could you tell us why you decided to take up frog conservation? What it the story behind your passion?
My love for herpetology (study of amphibians) began after my graduation in 2008 as a stay-at-home guy. Thanks to the few TV stations that featured program on herps (amphibians and reptiles), I grew the passion.
Among the programmes I watched the most were Dr Brady Barr’s herping expeditions. He poked his head inside croc burrows, and that left an indelible impression on me.
I began exploring about these species through TV shows, books, the internet, journals and magazines. I even started conversation with the relevant people and so forth. But it was ironical that I used to get jitters holding a specimen as my greatest fear in childhood was none other than spooky reptiles. Geckos, snakes and lizards would scare the life out of me, but frogs were special and their rumbling echoes during rainy nights was music to the ears! Anyways, I overcame the fear with my growing interest on herps, year after year.
I went about pursuing my passion in herpetology, tailored it along with my academics and carried out my university level dissertation at the Manaslu Conservation Area (MCA) on herpetological inventory in 2012. Then I realised that the stream-dwelling frogs, locally known as paha, were being hunted widely by local community as frog meat is considered a local delicacy that would come free of cost. Hunting frogs is also considered a mode of recreation for school children and the youth.
Killing of paha has been rampant in the mountainous of Nepal from time immemorial. This spells grave danger for frogs as population of humans is growing rapidly. Thus, to resolve the situation, I have been trying to educate people to stop such practices as frogs around the world are in real danger due to human activities. The frog’s habitats are being altered, they are contracting diseases, and then there is pollution and climate change.
Why should people care about frogs?
Frogs play multiple ecological roles that ultimately benefit humankind. For example, tadpoles consume rotten leaves, dead animals, fish fecal pellets and other debris; they help keep water clean. They even compete with mosquito larvae for resources. Adult frogs feed on insects such as mosquitoes and flies that transfer disease to humans.
Similarly, frogs are an important food source for many predators like snakes, birds (hawks, eagles), fish and even some mammals (foxes and wild dogs). Thus, its disappearance will disturb the food web and cause negative impact on the ecosystem. Frogs also serve as bio indicators. They have permeable skin that easily absorbs any toxic chemical in their environment. Thus if they are healthy we can be confident that our environment is healthy.
Frogs produce a wide array of skin secretions, many of which have significant potential to improve human health through their use in medicine. Approximately 10% of the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine have resulted from investigations that used frogs.
In Kathmandu, the Newars offer food to frogs in the month of Shrawan and even during Janai Purnima in a ritual called ‘Byan Janakewu’ (feeding the frogs). According to local mythology, it was the frogs who helped catch the demon Ghantakarna.
In rural Nepal, weddings are organised for frogs to appease the rain god. Farmers know that the monsoon has arrived when the frogs start croaking.
In an agricultural country such as Nepal, frogs are the farmers’ best friends. Many harmful insects such as swarming caterpillars (Spodetpera mauritia), rice hispas (Hispa armigera), paddy grasshoppers (Hieroglyphus banianH. orziovraH. nigroreplates) and rice worms (Nymphula depuntatis) damage crops. Frogs eat them and control the spread of pests. Thus, the croaking of frogs is always beneficial from the farmers’s point of view.
What is the present status of frogs in Nepal?
There are 7,529 known amphibian species across the world, of which 6,641 are Anura (frogs and toads), 683 Caudata (newts and salamanders), and 205 are Gymnophiona (caecilians). The total number of recognised species has increased by over 60 per cent since 1985. In Nepal, there are 53 species of amphibians (1 newt, 4 toads, 47 frogs and 1 caecilian).
Over 2,000 amphibian species are listed as endangered. One-third of the population (around 200 species) have already been extinct since 1979. Amphibian studies in Nepal took place more than 100 years ago (Hodgson’s period) but were only limited to preparation of checklists. The studies are fragmentary while mid- and far-west Nepal has not been explored for amphibians.
A total of 11 species of frogs are endemic to Nepal, inclusive of Scutiger nepalensis (Khaptad high altitude toad), Amolops nepalicus (Nepalese cascade frog), Limnonectes nepalensis(Nepalese cricket frog), Limnonectes pierrei (Jhapa frog), Limnonectes teraiensis (Terai cricket frog), Paa ercepeae (Bajhang frog), Paa rarica (Rara frog), Paa rostandi (Mustang frog), Rana chitwanensis (Chitwan frog), Sphaerotheca swani (Swan’s burrowing frog) and Polypedates zed (Nepalese tree frog).
How is the future looking for frogs?
There are various aspects that can be considered as major gaps in Nepal. There is a serious absence of baseline data of amphibians of the whole country. Any research carried out therefore is not substantial to be brought to a valid conclusion. Also, there is a meagre assessment of the threat status nationwide.
There has not been much work done in the past to understand and evaluate the condition of frogs and their habitat and the grim situation thereof. There needs to be an intensive amphibian action plan that incorporates amphibian zoning areas in critical habitats. Moreover, amphibians are not listed under protected wildlife. That makes it impossible for national legal measures to be implemented for their conservation as a whole.
Besides the gaps, there are other substantial threats to frogs in Nepal just like in any other parts of the world. Rapid change in land use–from agricultural and earth-bound to more concrete and constructional structure–has acted as a blow to frog habitats.
There has also been an alarming increase in the use of pesticides in the fields,  and this is affecting amphibians like frogs. Wetlands are drying up rapidly and the ones that are left also have fallen prey to pollution. Rapid deforestation and urbanisation contribute to the decline in frog’s population along with the notorious effects of climate change. Similarly excessive usage of frogs for vivisection is also hurting them.
Is there anything that can be done to save the frogs?
There are many measures that can be taken to create a safe world for frogs. These steps can start with small changes we bring to our daily lifestyle to much complex actions.
We need to rely less on on pesticides, ban disposal of waste in water bodies, use rechargeable batteries as batteries in general contain harmful toxic heavy metals like mercury, lead and cadmium that cause malformation in frogs.
So it’s better if we replaced the batteries with with rechargeable ones as approximately 15 billion batteries are produced each year. Similarly, there should be a regulation on collection of frogs in the mountain regions. Likewise, medical researchers who are using frogs for dissection need to switch to virtual dissection software like Digital Frog 2.5. That would spare the lives of these endangered amphibians.
By making simple and conscious changes to our lifestyle, we can make a difference in the lives of these creatures. After all, we all live in a single macrocosm of ecological interdependence.
Published on July 12th, Wednesday, 2017 12:57 PM

Sunday, June 11, 2017

10 Questions w/h The Eastern Herpetologist, Dr Kalu Ram Rai, Professor, Mechi Multiple Campus, Jhapa, Nepal



Dr Kalu Ram Rai
Prof Dr Kalu Ram Rai from Mechi Multiple Campus, Jhapa, is a name you’d come across when things are concerned about herpetology of Nepal. With nearly three decade long experience in the study of amphibians and reptiles of Nepal, especially in the eastern part of the country, Prof Dr. Rai has made remarkable discovery of three frogs, one caecilian, one turtle and two reptiles new for Nepal. He is the author of ‘Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Nepal’ published in 2013, handful of children’s book on herpetology of Nepal and an honorary member of the non-profits, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Society of Nepal.

I never had the privilege to meet Dr Rai in person but read about his contribution to the herpetology across the country. Let’s hear straightly from him what he plans forth!

Q1. Namaste Dr Rai! What are you up to these days? Any specific research plans in near future?

Namaste, Thank you very much for your nice question! These days I am busy in my own study, reading and writing. In addition, I am looking after the Turtle Rescue and Conservation Centre which is running in the collaboration of ARCO-Nepal and SUMMEF-Nepal  at Budhoholi within the premises of Sukani Martyr’s Memorial Park, at Salbari, Shanischare (Jhapa).   

Q2. What groups of animal excites you the most?

Amphibians and Testudines

Q3. Whom should we call a Herpetologist - one who studies herps or someone who handles it or even someone who breeds it for commercial purpose?

I prefer to call a Herpetologist who does study, research and publish scientific paper on it with some new findings. It should be more academically professional rather than that of commercial purposes.   
Q4. How and when did the love for herpetology evolve in you?

Sorry, I didn’t understand this question clearly!

Q5. Herpetology in Nepal is the least preferred subject and less prioritized even from the academic sector when preliminary collections started very early, during Hodgson’s period (100 years before). What could have caused the delay?

Yes this is an interesting question in context to Nepal. our history of educational development is not long in our country specially, the science education in Nepal that started only 45 years back. So our society is still suffering from different superstition and false concepts. So, we have learnt to love beautiful animal such butterfly and birds, but not herpetofauna  (amphibians and reptiles). Because they may look ugly and disgusted. So, our traditional concepts are responsible to be a least choice subject even in our Universities.  

Q6. You’ve devoted your life as a herpetologist with a doctoral degree, travelling many remotest locations of Nepal. Tell me what places are best for herpetological studies?

Yes  I have completed herpetological research survey journey from east to far-west region of Nepal. I had surveyed the herpetofauna from the Himalayan region to the lowland Terai region. Among the surveyed Districts of Nepal, Ilam is an ideal place for complete herpetological study. Likely, SankhawaSabha District for highland, Dadeldhura District for midland and Bardiya district for lowland district are marked on my priority basis. 

Q7. What was the most significant moment of your career?

The PhD rewarding ceremony of TU convocation was my significant moment in my life.

Q8. Only 53 species of amphibians are documented in the literature. Does this reflect a truer picture of amphibians’ diversity when countries like Panama and Costa Rica, smaller than Nepal harbors hundreds of frogs? Also, isn’t it a high time that we should go for genetics rather than visual based morphological identification?

Yes, why not! If we could afford for such latest technology to identify genetically, it might be done. But so far I know, we could not conduct at microlevel right now. But let’s chap like you initiate it and make possible in your generation.

Q9. What fields of science need to be integrated so as to promote herpetology in Nepal?

Conservation Biology.

Q10.  What suggestion do you have for newbie in this field; pursuing career, research and conservation endeavor?

I would like to say one proverb-‘Where there is will, there is way!’ So if you are really interested in the field of herpetological study, you may have greater and greater opportunity in your life. But you mustn’t be afraid of any hardship and difficulty because you have to overcome so many obstacles during the fieldwork of amphibians and reptiles as they are living not in easily reachable places. Regarding it, you may a little bit feel about fieldwork if you read my book ‘Mero Anusandhan Yatra’. This book always encourage for not to be defeated but to be conqueror.

Dr. KR Rai Khambu
Bhadrapur-8, Campus mode, Jhapa (Nepal)

June 11, 2017  

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Summary - SAVE MANASLU’S FROGS! Research Expedition

‘We’ve made it safe and sound this time’, I said it to my friend on the last day of our expedition while we stopped by in a local hotel at Soti. From here, one could easily get a local bus around to return back in the city. Those of you who have little idea of what I’m talking about, please grab a coffee first and allow me to explain my position. We have recently completed our 21 days (March 1-21) ‘SAVE MANASLU’S FROGS! Research Expedition’ trip to Manaslu Conservation Area, Gorkha district, north western part of Nepal. This expedition was a part of the amphibian research and conservation work I’ve been carrying out in Manaslu since early 2016, ‘Saving Mountain Frogs (Paha) Before It’s Too Late; Conservation Effort at Manaslu Conservation Area, Gorkha District, Nepal’ (http://www.rufford.org/projects/biraj_shrestha).


Taking-measurements-of-an-unidentified-tadpole-at-Yuwang-River
Stream frog (paha) habitat in Manaslu
I worked in the remote landscapes of Manaslu in April-May 2016 for over a month doing amphibian survey, celebrated 8th Annual Save The Frogs Day with local community and did school awareness programs. Then, I revisited Manaslu in September 2016 for follow-up visit but as we reached Tatopani at 8:30 in the morning, a great tragedy struck in the form of landslide. We escaped death by an inch but unluckily a group of Spanish trekkers who were just ahead of us met the terrible accident. Four people died at the spot and multiple injured individuals were flown to hospital via chopper. Well, Manaslu is one of the most dangerous remote montane amphibian habitats in Nepal. The only trekking trail runs through the deep gorge with raging torrent of Budhi Gandaki River below fed by the melt of world’s eighth highest peak, Mt Manaslu (8,163 m asl).

Budhi Gandaki River flowing swiftly
The disastrous earthquake of 2015 whose epicenter Barpak was just beneath the Manaslu has also hugely added vulnerability to the geography and fragile mountains. After we witnessed the landslide on second field visit, I was so traumatized and spent days agonizing whether I should resume my incomplete tasks or not. But call it sheer stupidity or the love of frogs! we geared up, improved morale and set out to achieve the mission of frog conservation in the himalaya. This recent expedition which happened to be my third quest was able through precious donations that came to SAVE THE FROGS! from frog lovers all around the world. Thank you once again for that!
Narrow eroded trail at Tatopani
Our journey began as we headed to Gorkha district from Hetauda in a local bus so as to collect the research permit from Manaslu Conservation Area Project (MCAP) office at Gorkha city. I met the newly appointed project coordinator of MCAP, briefed about our work at Manaslu and obtained the permit. On the next day, we took another four hours bus ride to Arughat, NE from Gorkha and from there another two and half hours bus ride until we reached Soti. This is the point where the vehicular road ends and trekking starts. We stayed the night at Soti, saw a flock of tourists with their guides, mules grazing around and raging Budhi Gandaki River nearby which was the ambience of Manaslu calling, I know!

The mule train
Early morning the following day, we started trekking and let me tell you that it’s a very strenuous everyday 8-10 hours walk with rise in elevation at Manaslu. We travelled a total of 48 kms length rugged trail (dangerous oftentimes!) to enter Jagat and exited through the same route. We started from Soti (579 masl) to Liding, Lapu besi (775 masl) and Machikhola (918 masl). The next day, we started from Machikhola and reached Tatopani (956 masl). I had the jitters when crossing the narrow eroded trail where we witnessed a huge landslide in September 2016. Actually, there are plenty of landslide or rock fall areas in Manaslu circuit after the earthquake.
Landslide sign post installed by MCAP
After Tatopani, we crossed Dovan, Syaulifedi, Thadodhunga, Yarubagar and reached Jagat (1,351 masl). This is the entry place for the Manaslu Conservation Area. Since we led our expedition on the start of spring, we hoped for a pleasant weather in the mountains but you never can tell. It rained cats and dogs in the lower regions from the day we entered Manaslu while the northern areas snowed without stopping until our final day of depart. The temperature was down throughout our expedition with frequent storm and strong winds. Crikey, it was only the pre-monsoon season?
Snowy mountain tops
That unpredictable weather hugely affected our amphibian survey. We walked a transect of 45.6 km from Jagat to Lokpa, Dyang and Prok village doing Visual Encounter Surveys (VES), did stream surveys and 10x10 sq. meters quadrat surveys. However, we didn’t see any adult frog/toad this time nevertheless; we observed egg mass and tadpoles of amphibians.
Local boys helping in stream frog’s survey
Trying to shoot paha egg mass in clumps
We saw clumps of stream frog’s (paha) egg. They were found clinging underneath of rock in small streams. The eggs of toad were found in a different fashion. Toads laid their eggs in a long chain of jelly coated membrane and found floating in stagnant water or less current water. The tadpoles are unidentified and easily observed at bottoms of mountain brooks. We did quadrat study in forests and agricultural lands but didn’t spot any amphibian. Local people said it was the unfavorable weather and coldness that restricted sighting amphibians.
Paha egg mass in clumps
Developed paha tadpoles inside the jelly coated egg mass
Toad eggs in long chain
We kept other tasks like Amphibian Conservation Dissemination Workshop, frog conservation posters distribution, formation of Amphibian Conservation Group (ACG) and ethnozoological study of paha use by local community in Manaslu in parallel with the amphibian survey. We conducted the Amphibian Conservation Dissemination Workshop in Philim (1,431 masl) of Sirdibas VDC, Lokpa (1,910 masl) of Chumchet VDC, Dyang (1,914 masl) of Bihi VDC and Prok village (2,436 masl).
Amphibian Conservation Dissemination Workshop at Philim, Sirdibas

MCAP Office at Philim with Amphibian Conservation Group

Amphibian Conservation Dissemination Workshop at Lokpa, Chumchet
The workshops were attended by local youth, students, teachers, local leaders, villagers, MCAP officials, Mother’s Group and Conservation Area Management Committee (CAMC) members.

Local kid displaying paha conservation poster
Amphibian Conservation Group at Pemathang monastery, Lokpa
Local people were encouraged to stop paha (stream frogs) collection in their villages and vowed to take necessary actions against those, if found guilty. In coordination with local community and MCAP, we supported the formation of Amphibian Conservation Groups in Sirdibas, Chumchet, Bihi and Prok VDCs.

Tourists being a part of our workshop in Dyang, Bihi

Amphibian Conservation Dissemination Workshop at Prok VDC

Locals discussing about paha
On March 21, we returned to Gorkha city where I gave ‘Amphibian Conservation Talk’ at Choice FM, 90.4 MHz and our conservation effort at Manaslu got the media exposure.

URL: http://ujyaaloonline.com/news/72670/paha/

Choice FM 94.0 MHz studio
Snow crest at Prok
Manaslu panorama
Meet the himalayan people
Farmlands of Prok

Thursday, May 4, 2017

9th Annual Save The Frogs Day

Mural Frog Art
Amphibians around the globe are in real danger with some 250 species have gone extinct forever in the last forty years, while one third species of total diversity (over 7500) are seriously threatened with extinction. These historically resilient animals that emerged very long ago (300 million years old) on this planet have been facing so much trouble recently due to human actions knowingly or unknowingly. 

Habitat fragmentation, land use change, pesticides use, over collection for food and pet trade, pollution, dissection classes, climate change, disease and so many other factors either individually or synergistically have challenged the survival of amphibians. Large populations of the general public are still uninformed about the importance of amphibians in ecosystem and the threats they face which have also contributed to the fast decline of these species. That’s why every year on the last Saturday of April, there’s a special day where all the amphibian lovers celebrate ‘International Save The Frogs Day’ in different parts of the world. The reason behind is to educate the uninformed public about amphibians and spread the message of frogs conservation.

Participants of Save The Frogs Day Session I
This year 9th Annual Save The Frogs Day was marked in Nepal on April 28 at Resources Himalaya Foundation (RHF), Sanepa, Lalitpur with financial help of WWF Nepal and support from SAVE THE FROGS! USA and EGH. The frog filled event had wider participation of school kids, university students, conservationists, academicians and professionals. Mr Biraj Shrestha, Research Officer of RHF and SAVE THE FROGS! Task force member was the event coordinator and supported by bunch of volunteers from EGH executed the event plan into action. There were stalls of frog face paint, frog tabling, merch and bake sale and lots of other activities which captivated the visitors.

Froggy volunteers
 ACTIVITIES
 Mural Art - Artists, Mr Karun Dewan and his friend leaded the mural frog art work on a huge white cotton cloth with designs of flowers, mushrooms, plants and amidst was a resting tree frog with a happy face. Later the coloring session was joined by every participant of the event from school kids to students and volunteers. The outcome was splendid.





Face painting - Ms Sabita Gurung with other volunteers represented their artistic frog designs on the body parts of visitors.





Frog Tabling and Merch Sale - This stall was the information centre for amphibians with frog info cards, paha conservation posters, t shirts and other merchandises for sale. All the proceedings go to amphibian conservation endeavors in future.





Photo Exhibition - Total 17 amphibian photographs representing over 8 species were exhibited with their general information and the locality they are known from.



Short Video Clips - In total six
a.       Life history of Frog (02:34)
b.      Disappearing Frogs (03:47)
c.       Frog, Chemical, Water, You (17:28)
d.      The Thin Green Line (Chemical Runoff) -06:36
e.      Amphibian Ark Appeal (04:59)
f.        Disappearing Frogs (03:47)





Bake Sale - Yum! Cream and cherry topping cup cakes designed to resemble like a frog head was at the bake sale. All the proceedings go to amphibian conservation endeavors in future.




Frog Talk & Felicitation - Dr Dinesh Raj Bhuju, General Secretary of RHF highlighted a much neglected fact that people have not actually understood frogs are real friends of human as they help farmers by controlling farm insects and checking the population of vector insects. 

We also had announced the open call for ‘SAVE THE FROGS! Junior Art Competition’ with deadline on April 25. We received a total of 39 submissions from grade III to IX students. The top three were awarded with froggy gift hampers from Dr Kamal Adhikari, Director of RHF. Later our guest of honor, Mr Ugan Manandhar, Deputy Director, WWF Nepal shared his few words about how necessary it has become that we need to think about frogs and not forget these tiny creatures amid the charismatic animals’ conservation only.




Video Message from Dr Kerry Kriger - Ecologist and Founder of SAVE THE FROGS!, US based amphibian conservation nonprofit, Dr Kerry Kriger sent a 12 minute video message specially for the Nepalese people for helping to spread out amphibian conservation message in Nepal through bunch of frog loving leaders who have successfully held Save The Frogs Day in past and greeted the organizers of this year’s event at RHF. He shared the history of Save The Frogs Day and how big it has grown in these years with more than 1000 events held since 2009 involving 60 countries.


Closing Remarks - Prof Dr Ram Chhetri, Chair of RHF had his concluding remarks about how anthropogenic activities have ultimately affected every living thing on this planet including frogs this time. Later, he handed certificates of appreciation to our volunteers whose tireless efforts have brought this event into a froggy fruition. 


Why do we need to save frogs?