"Neevu yaaru? Enu madta idira? (Who are you? What are you doing?)" Before they could muster a response, two double-barrel guns poked inside from either side of the jeep.
It was raining heavily in Hosanagara, Shimoga on that day in June, 2006. Having spent close to three hours in the forest, six tired scientists sat huddled together, water dripping from their rain gear, a few of them with their headlamps still strapped on, as their jeep plied down the slippery roads along the Western Ghats. Gururaja KV, who was pursuing his post-doctorate in environmental sciences at the time, was a part of the team responsible for mapping the amphibian diversity in the Sharavathi River Basin in relation to a cumulative impact study of developmental activities in the area by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc).
Seated in the middle, in the front seat of the jeep, Gururaja froze when he saw two guns, aimed and ready to shoot, pointed at the driver and the person sitting next to him. A searching torch beam went over their faces as the two officers in plain clothes barked at them asking all sorts of questions. Thankfully, the driver was calm and seemed to know what to do. He switched on the light inside the jeep and asked Gururaja to show the officers their identity cards. The situation immediately calmed down once they did but they still had to go down to the police station. Apparently, a family living close to the forest had seen them with their torchlights and had alerted the police saying that they had spotted a Naxalite group in the area. The sub-inspector later told them that he had come with a loaded revolver, prepared to take one of them out if necessary.
Earlier in the evening, prior to the rendezvous with the police, during a visual encounter survey (a time-constrained survey where field personnel walk through an area or habitat systematically searching for animals), Gururaja had come across a toad-like species on a tree. Nothing extraordinary, but it was an unusual sighting and he decided to record the call of the amphibian so that he could double-check the species later on. Unlike the family who inferred a team of scientists with torchlights to be Naxalites, Gururaja's intuition proved right. Going through the literature, later that night, he identified the species as the rarely seen Malabar Tree Toad.
Discovered in 1876 by scientist Albert Gunther, the Malabar Tree Toad (Pedostibes tuberculosus) is a species endemic to the Western Ghats, owing to in-situ diversification after dispersing from Eurasia about 65-70 million years ago. Recent studies indicate that the genus Pedostibes has only one species, making the Malabar Tree Toad a unique, deeply divergent, Western Ghats endemic.
So what is so special about the Malabar Tree Toad? As the name suggests, it is an arboreal species, meaning it spends much of its life on a tree. The Malabar Tree Toad is vastly different from the Common Toad that is found elsewhere in the country, explains Gururaja, “Unlike the Common Toad, it is capable of climbing on trees. In fact, the Malabar Tree Toad stays on trees for much of its life, only coming down during the breeding season. If you look at its fingertips, they are all dilated so that they can stay on trees, it is what we call an arboreal morph.”
The Malabar Tree Toad also lays eggs slightly differently. Toads usually lay a string of eggs, whereas the Malabar Tree Toad lays eggs in the form of a clutch, releasing about 30 or 60 eggs, in shallow streams. But this is inferred from limited observation, says Gururaja, “So far we have only made four to five observations of them laying eggs. And, in one of the observations, the toad kept the eggs inside a tree cavity where there was water. We need to record more observations to be sure.”
Endangered or just elusive?
On that night in 2006, luckily, Gururaja had recording equipment with him and was able to publish a small note on the call pattern of the species. Its calling pattern is more like that of an insect’s. Possibly why there is so little reported data on the species. Before Gururaja’s documentation in 2006, the Malabar Tree Toad had only been reported four times in the last 130 years. The species is rarely encountered and little is known about its ecology, population, and distribution. In fact, the Malabar Tree Toad is a species categorised as ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List, owing to severely fragmented habitats. Strangely though, after that chance encounter in 2006, Gururaja started seeing the species more often.
This got the batrachologist wondering, if the species is classified as endangered just because scientists have been unable to document them. Gururaja believes the elusiveness of the species is the reason for its poor documentation. “Whenever I went for my fieldwork in the first week of the monsoon, I would see them in different parts of the Uttara Kannada district, and there were at least 10-15 individuals every single time. Maybe the species has skipped the attention of scientists. After all, it is only during the very small window of the first three weeks of the monsoon that one can see them. No one knows where they disappear after that.”
Mapping Malabar Tree Toad (MMTT)
Gururaja realised that there was a need to map the species – to understand its distribution range, how long it breeds, where it lays eggs and so many other questions that there were no answers to. In 2015, with the help of Gubbi Labs LLP and Earth Watch Institute, a citizen science initiative was launched where anyone who visits the Western Ghats during the monsoon and observes the species can report it – Mapping Malabar Tree Toad (MMMT).
MMTT, nested under the India Biodiversity Portal, allows people with internet access to add to the spatial and temporal distribution data of the Malabar Tree Toad. MMTT also proposes to train and involve local citizen scientists to lead efforts across the Western Ghats region in organising surveys and monitoring to collect data on Malabar Tree Toad.
When MMTT started in 2015, the programme was receiving photographs taken in 2008, in Kudremukh National Park for example. Today, there are about 141 observations under MMTT on the India Biodiversity Portal. “We never had such information, so in a way, citizen science has pushed for the gaps that we have found in the distribution,” says Gururaja.
When you look at all the observations that have come in, the Malabar Tree Toad need not be endangered at all, says Gururaja, “One of the criteria for assessing the status of a species through the IUCN Red List is to look at its geographic range. If you put a convex polygon around all the points where the Malabar Tree Toad has been observed, now it is no longer a species with restricted distribution, it has a large geographic range within the Western Ghats.”
“In conservation, it is equally important if you are able to say that an endangered species can now be delisted to vulnerable or even lower because of our greater understanding of the distribution and ecology of the species.”
Mapping Malabar Tree Toad was started as an initiative with Gubbi Labs LLP and Earth Watch Institute in 2015. Currently, it is being supported by the Habitat Trust Grant.