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They are wriggly, slimy and legless. And Rachunliu Kamei conserves them

Rachunliu with children during a hands-on demonstration

Rachunliu with children during a hands-on demonstration   | Photo Credit: Rachunliu Gaiduwani Kamei

Meet the biologist who’s educating people about slithering caecilians

During the monsoon, when the Northeastern States become the earth’s wettest places, Rachunliu Gaiduwani Kamei dons rubber boots, picks up her favourite spade, and sets out to work. She spends the whole day tirelessly digging the soaked soil, turning over the decaying logs and vegetation in streams, forests, fields and remote villages. She is not hunting for treasure or digging graves, as amused villagers who watch her believe. She is hunting for the wriggly, slimy, legless creatures called caecilians.

“They are some of the least studied vertebrates in the world,” she says. Chun, as the wildlife biologist prefers to be called, has made caecilian research her specialty.

Her work has shed valuable light on these reclusive underground creatures that most of us have never heard about. Chun hadn’t either. “I learnt about caecilians very late in life, when I began my doctoral research at the University of Delhi,” she says.

Why caecilians? The decision was more practical than passionate, Chun recalls. Hardly anyone had studied these amphibians of the Northeast. Being a Rongmei tribal, born and raised in Nagaland, would give her an edge, she realised. Her latest find is a stunning ruby-red, worm-like creature, and it has hogged the limelight internationally. Chun stumbled across the 17cm long sliver while digging near the famous Double Decker Living Root Bridge in Meghalaya’s Nongriat village. In the lab, microscopes revealed it to be a swamp eel, a kind of bony fish that thrives only in marshy soil. They named it Monopterus rongsaw: ‘rongsaw’ means ‘red’ in Khasi.

Local pride

“I prefer to name species in the local language or after the village where we found it,” says Chun. “I want to bring a sense of pride to the local community who live with these animals.”

Conservation is extremely crucial for the caecilians of the Northeast: the non-venomous earthworm-eaters are likened to snakes, and people instinctively kill caecilians when they see them.

As Chun discovered the disturbingly large number of such killings, she realised it was crucial to create public awareness. Travelling with a battery-operated projector (many villages she visited were not even electrified), she took caecilians to local communities in a public outreach project four years ago. She spoke to more than 6,000 students, farmers, bureaucrats and researchers about the worm lookalikes.

She invited villagers to be part of her digging missions, and handed out live, squirming caecilians to children to hold so that people would realise how harmless these almost-blind amphibians are. “We barely know enough about the existing species of caecilians to know how to protect them effectively. But my findings have made me extremely passionate about communicating this biodiversity to the world.”

There have been challenges. Civil strife and curfews prevented Chun from conducting talks at schools in Imphal in Manipur and Tura in Meghalaya, for two successive years. Long hours of digging have given her a back problem, while athlete’s foot is common on field trips.

And it’s not just caecilians. Chun’s surveys have yielded several frog finds, which include two new stream-dwelling torrent frogs from Nagaland in 2010, a new genus of tree-dwelling frogs from four northeastern States in 2016, and four new horned frogs from across the Northeast, a discovery published just this month.

There are many more natural treasures in the Northeast, says Chun. In 2012, when she found the Chikilidae family of caecilians, whose nearest relatives live thousands of miles and an ocean away in Africa, it made news, and National Geographic Society put it in their top 10 scientific discoveries of the year. It’s obvious that slowly but surely, Chun is digging her way to fame.

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 10:12:00 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/they-are-wriggly-slimy-and-legless-and-rachunliu-kamei-conserves-them/article25789793.ece

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