Between a thunderstorm and a purple frog!
Arun Kanagavel* and Sethu Parvathy
Conservation Research Group, Kochi, Kerala
Arun Kanagavel is a former EDGE fellow (2013) who worked on generating base-line information of the Critically Endangered Toad-skinned frog Sallywalkerana phrynoderma and enhancing its conservation in the Western Ghats of India. Sethu Parvathy led the social surveys and interactions with stakeholders on the EDGE project and all the other initiatives they have undertaken together.
There have been many a time when Sethu and I have felt that we are trying to pursue initiatives that we are not skilled enough to initiate. We keep failing at re-focussing on mastering a single skill instead of spreading ourselves wafer-thin by pursuing new interests and ideas. The last year, we initiated a habitat restoration initiative outside the protected areas of Munnar, India to improve the habitat of an EDGE species; the Critically Endangered Toad-skinned frog Sallywalkerana phrynoderma. We interned at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, Wayanad (http://www.gbsanctuary.org/) with Suprabha Seshan and it was an enlightening experience to say the least. The Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary is a private reserve where plants of the Western Ghats are studied, conserved and restored on an individual as well as a landscape-level. Rather than immediately getting our hands dirty and learning to restore habitats, we saw the work that the eco-gardeners of the Sanctuary were doing and the importance given to minute details while meeting a greater landscape-level vision. Their humble lifestyle and even more humble personalities further influenced us and we went back aiming to better understand the habitat that needed to be restored and try and protect it from the threats it was facing over a long period of time. The adjoining forests would do the rest of the work.
Fast forward to this year, we began to work on a campaign to improve the appreciation of another EDGE species the Endangered Purple frog Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis and amphibians in general among indigenous communities in the Kerala part of the Western Ghats. The purple frogs were known to numerous generation of several indigenous communities before its formal scientific discovery in 2003. Through our social surveys in the Anamalai Hills of the southern Western Ghats, we learnt that the animal is consumed as food and in traditional medicine for treating skin and breathing-based ailments. In a few communities, whole frogs or parts of their limbs upon dry-burning, are also used as amulets for children when they are scared of thunder and lightning, which leave them sleepless and scared at night. We wanted to try and initiate a more positive relationship between the children and the purple frog wherein the frog could symbolically help reduce their fear of thunderstorms without physically using them. Thereby started the idea to kick-start a book-reading campaign across the range where the frog occurs.
We started to build a story that connected a little girl, a purple frog and a thunderstorm. We had askeleton of a story ready in a few days and Sethu by visualizing it helped plug the glaring holes. We then started to look for illustrators to bring our story to life. As we searched, our long-time mentor and friend Ben Tapley (Curator of Herpetology, ZSL London Zoo), suggested that his colleagues Christopher Michaels and Inez Januszczak could help. After a few emails that we exchanged so that each of us could understand the style of the illustrations in mind. Over a period of three months, Chris and Inez created 14 illustrations. The illustrations were immensely beautiful and depicted the story aptly!
We then worked on improving the language with the help of numerous friends (some of whom were teachers), family (Sethu’s twin sister – Arya took this up as her own) and children and translating it into Malayalam, the local language in Kerala. We reworked the lines multiple times until the resulting material made us feel that the story was appropriate. However, at this point it seemed to lack a soul/flow and seemed like a string of hanging sentences. Then came along our knights, G.S. Kartikeya (a friend from school and fellow comic lover) and Radhika Nair (Radhika aunty actually, Kerala State Institute for Children’s Literature) who breathed the much-needed soul into the story. Anirban Dutta Gupta (Runaway Planet), who documented our restoration work on the Toad-skinned frog (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSvMulXeBGA ) then designed the layout for the book and was painstakingly patient with the multiple revisions we sought every time. The illustrations and the story until then had been independent elements and Anirban really turned this around by fusing them into a single entity. Then came along the printing! Aditya (https://beststudentprojects.com/studio/) helped us do the layout for the printers over three nights wherein we refused to let him sleep after his day-job as a designer of furniture.
We proudly present the book “Between a thunderstorm and a purple frog”. It is still neither close to being perfect nor an award-winning book that reflects the reason why Sethu and I are proud of this book at this point in time. The collective effort that brought so many of us together (not literally), each of us adding to it a bit of our skill and knowledge is reflective of the kind of field nature conservation needs to be and increasingly is. Like the last year, we have again managed to interact with some awesomely skilled people and pick up a few new skills on the way.
Now onwards to the book reading campaigns from July 2017! We will be visiting schools across the range of the purple frog in the Western Ghats and will read out the story to children (5-10 years) while giving each of them a copy of it. If you would like to order copies of the book please contact us on arun.kanagavel.com. By the end of the year we will also have assessed the impact of the campaigns and whether this effort has made any difference at all to the children and the endangered purple frog.
-Arun and Sethu