Summer is here, and monsoon winds are already blowing. In a matter of weeks, we in Goa will hopefully hear a familiar sound – the croaking of frogs in the fields and forests as they call to each other during their mating season.
Some of you may remember last year’s campaign to Save the Frog. Recently there has been some lively debate about this. There are sceptics who question if the frog should even be considered as truly endangered: after all, don’t they lay tens of thousands of eggs, and don’t humans consume barely a fraction of this? So what is the fuss all about? Surely the frog as a species must be regenerating, procreating, “somewhere out there”.
Another argument put forth is that frog meat is an excellent form of protein, and in fact we should be considering frog farming, not for preservation of the species, but as a source of meat.
So let us look at the facts:
1. Frog populations are declining, not only in Goa, and India, but all over the world, at an unprecedented rate. Consider this: At least 100 amphibian species have completely disappeared, become extinct, since 1980. This is NOT normal in evolutionary history: amphibians generally go extinct at a rate of only one species every 250 years! Or, to put it another way, frogs are disappearing at a more rapid rate than creatures have ever done in the past 65 million years! So obviously something is going terribly wrong here.
2. Frogs are extremely sensitive bio-indicators, environmental litmus paper, if you will, of environmental stress. This is due to several unique traits they possess, namely that most frogs require suitable habitat in both terrestrial and aquatic environments, and they have permeable skin that can easily absorb toxic chemicals. These traits make them especially susceptible to environmental disturbances, and therefore accurate bio-indicators.
3. Frogs form a vital link in the food chain. Tadpoles keep waterways clean by feeding on algae. Frogs also serve as a food source for a diverse range of natural predators. Thus the disturbance of frog populations disturbs an intricate food web, and results in negative impacts that cascade through the ecosystem.
4. Adult frogs eat large quantities of insects, many of which are disease vectors that can transmit debilitating and fatal illnesses to humans. A very good example, relevant to us here in Goa, is malaria. We all have either first- or second-hand experience of this illness. It has either afflicted us personally, or a relative, friend or acquaintance. Do we really want to remove this natural sentinel from our health defences?
5. Whenever a frog species disappears, so does any promise it holds for improving the advance of human medicine. It has been estimated that upto 10% of Nobel prizes in physiology and medicine have resulted from research involving frogs.
6. Although proponents in favour of frog meat may wax eloquent about its succulence, and its nutritional value, bear in mind that precisely due to the trait mentioned above (that their skin easily absorbs toxic chemicals), frog meat carries very high concentrations of pesticides, which can be harmful to humans.
7. In fact, in a vicious cycle, the decline in frog populations has led to an increase in insects that harm crops, which in turn has led to increase in pesticide use, which further drops the frog populations. This is a trend not only in India but in other South Asian countries like Bangladesh and in several South-East Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.
8. Most of the frog legs served as gastronomic delicacies in the restaurants of Europe come from Asian bullfrogs. The frog-infested swamps and fields of India, Bangladesh and Indonesia have become a battleground between ecologists and epicurists; the former like frogs in the mud, the latter like them with white wine. In satisfying the mainly French and Belgian appetite for frog legs, Indonesia has already driven most of its frogs to the brink of extinction. The thriving trade has not only been devastating to the species themselves but also to the environment they help control. On humane, hygienic and environmental grounds it is hopping madness to eat frogs. Ecological issues like these have to take precedence over eating pleasures.
9. Frogs are killed in the most unsanitary and inhumane manner. A lot of the time they have their legs cut off while still alive. The limbless torsos are left to die slowly and painfully.
10. Hunting, killing, serving and consuming of the India bullfrog has been banned by the Government of India since 1985 under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. The penalty is a prison term of over 4 years, and a fine of over Rs 25,000. The jail term is almost as long as the term for the killing of a tiger. Until the ban, India was France’s biggest supplier of frogs. India banned the trade not only due to the exposure of the cruelty, but also because the cost of importing pesticides (due to the vicious cycle caused by declining frog populations leading to unprecedented insect pest numbers) was greater than the export earning of frog’s legs. India’s trade peaked in 1981, when 4,368 tonnes of frog legs were exported, earning about 9.3 million US dollars. Bangladesh imposed a temporary ban, until 1992, for the same reasons, namely the ecological toll. There is pressure being brought to bear on Indonesia (currently the world’s largest supplier) by organisations such as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) to ban the trade as well.
11. In both India and Bangladesh, however, illegal poaching and trade are rampant. This is taking its ecological toll.
It is well known that frog hunting goes unabated every monsoon season in Goa. It is almost a seasonal activity, a “tradition” for some, a lucrative trade for others. Visitors to Goa from central India have remarked upon the relative drop in frog numbers here, evidenced by their sightings and mating calls, as compared to central India (where frog eating is not the norm). The contrast is staggering.
Yet all is not doom and gloom. Last year, Wildgoa, an environmental and ecological awareness group headed by noted environmentalist Clinton Vaz, took up the Save the Frog campaign. Last year was also the International Year of the Frog. Thanks to the awareness created by Wildgoa, there has been stricter vigilance on the part of the Forest Department, and 3 offenders were arrested. This had never happened before.
Volunteers also managed to persuade some offenders to release their catch when they were caught in the act.
Buoyed by this, Wildgoa plans an even more concerted campaign this year. A meeting was held recently to discuss this. Measures include:
1. Reducing use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, in favour of organic farming methods
2. Publicising testimonials from former frog catchers and consumers. There are already quite a few examples of people in Goa that liked eating frogs but lost their appetite once they learnt that the species was threatened / against the law / meat contained pesticide residues.
3. Meeting and speaking with restaurant owners. Dialogue could prove effective. Perhaps one could even televise such a debate, so that the public can listen to both sides, and decide for themselves.
4. Spreading awareness through various means, ranging from bumper stickers to T-shirts, to talking to school and college students and arranging activities for them, to street theatre, to film screenings.
To anyone who is still not convinced, and would like to discuss this further, do write in to firstname.lastname@example.org and join the debate.
To those of you who have suggestions, and wish to volunteer or otherwise support the Save the Frog campaign, do write in to the above email address.
If frogs die, we die. It’s as simple as that.
Today, 28th April, 2009 is International Save the Frog Day. Visit www.savethefrogs.com