Synonymous with monsoons in India, frogs and toads are now listed as endangered species due to rampant habitat destruction and over-harvesting
Monsoon magic may not be enough to sustain our country’s needs this year and that is reason enough for admonishing the government for a bout of drought. The weatherman is the next whipping boy who is responsible for mild movement of monsoon. If that is not enough, well-to-do city folks also wallow in weather reports as pastime. But rustic folk, who value the need for copious rains, do not join the blame game; instead perform Jalabhisheka prayers and even indulge in quixotic amphibian matrimony to appease the rains gods. It is they who need the monsoons most to grow their crops.
Tiny towns like Rajpipla in Gujarat, Nasik in Maharashtra, Berhampur in Odisha and the city of Varanasi observed frog rituals recently. Many villages in Assam witnessed frog nuptials with full marriage mantras followed by feasting. The modus operandi is to ‘apprehend’ a pair of frogs and enforce wedlock ceremony by a priest smearing vermilion accompanied by song, dance and music. All this is achieved by religious fervour desperate for divine interventions so that the monsoon arrives soon.
These earthly alliances of frogs started in June, July and now it is August yet no profound rains are visible in the Indian horizon, excepting for erratic showers and little floods. Amidst all these forlorn frog festivals across the country, is there an error incorporated innocently? A frog was married to a toad; two toads were made to tie the knot and only in a few cases, actual frogs were passionately wedded. It’s obvious that impromptu weddings did not distinguish the difference between a frog and a toad.
Frogs and toads are amphibians distinct in certain ways; however, most of us find it difficult to tell them apart. Frogs occur in water bodies, as they are equipped for aquatic living. Toads prefer terrestrial habitats and take to water only when overcome by a seasonal urge to mate. Frogs have thin skin with smooth texture and toad’s skin is thicker and drier with warts. These warts are glands filled with mild poison to help defend the toads by making them unpalatable to predators. While toads have stubby legs for walking and no webbed feet, frogs are agile with muscular hind legs, with webbed feet that are custom-made for swimming and leaping.
Frog legs were a delicacy in many parts of our country, especially in Kerala, served at toddy shops as ‘jumping chicken’ and also exported. When environmentalists raised a hue and cry, India banned export of frog legs in 1987 as it was a significant contributor to the decline and extinction of amphibian populations. N.R. Radhakrishnan, a company executive in Delhi recalls: “In my younger days at Palakkad in Kerala, during the monsoon, I used to see villagers with gunny bags and hurricane lanterns scouring the night for fat frogs. They usually targeted pools, ponds and water bodies like paddy fields to find frogs. After a night out in the countryside and bagging loads of croaking frogs, the villagers made a tidy profit by selling them. That was the situation in the early 1970s and today we scarcely see any frogs in the fields.”
Sanjay Molur, specialist of Amphibian Network of South Asia based in Coimbatore, says, “Batrachology is the study of frogs and toads which are one of the most endangered species. Nearly one-third of 6,500-odd species across the globe are on the brink of extinction and India having 330 species is in similar position, with 30 per cent under threat. The factors affecting amphibians are majorly due to human activities like water pollution, rampant usage of pesticides, habitat destruction and harvesting for food and pets.”
Mr. Molur also says that there is no scientific evidence that frog marriages make rain though these traditions are in place for decades. While frogs and toads do not incite rain, rains provoke frogs and toads into mating mode and temptation by timbre is initiated by loud croaking instead. Even though amphibians are associated with the monsoon, nowadays, we do not see any frogs in our big cities. In reality frogs and toads can be excellent eradicators of mosquito larvae that breed in water, thereby controlling difficult diseases like malaria and dengue.
India consumes over 200 tonnes of anti-malarial drugs annually costing crores of rupees and even if a little of this is spent on saving frogs, they can be efficient at controlling dangerous vectors like mosquitoes.