The joy one gets from this nature study is very difficult to explain
Lying flat on a stream bed, only Ramesh Badiger’s face peeks out of the water. This forest guard, at the Kali Tiger Reserve (KTR) in Uttara Kannada district, watches in rapt attention as a Kumbara night frog lays eggs. In the pitch darkness of the Western Ghats, the 44 mm-long endemic female frog will lay hundreds of eggs over the next two-and-a-half hours, while the male knits a protective layer around them.
For the next 28 days, Ramesh repeats the same exercise, making note of how the eggs transform into larvae. In another three to four months, he will watch the tadpoles finally grow into frogs. “The entire reproduction process of frog is transparent. The most fascinating development is seeing the starting of the heartbeat,” he beams.
Ramesh has been monitoring tens of species of frogs in the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats for the last decade. The data he has excavated from several water bodies about amphibians is as valuable gold, according to experts.
Ramesh (32), Parashuram Bajantri (31) and Parasappa Jajappagol (32), all forest guards at KTR, have gone beyond their call of duty in studying orchids, grasslands, frogs, snakes and other species. This has not only enriched the scientific world, but also helped conserve the flora and fauna of these forests.
In fact, Parashuram’s inquisitiveness resulted in the discovery of a new species — Ghatiana Dvivarna — the 75th species of crab in the Western Ghats.
None of the three guards come from science backgrounds. Parasappa has obtained a pre-university Diploma in Education (DEd) and hails from Kanasageri village in Belagavi. Parashuram has completed a BA DEd degree and is a native of Jamkhandi, Bagalkot. And Ramesh, who hails from Jambagi village in Belagavi, has a BA distance degree.
A decade ago, when they landed government jobs, the three did not just consider it a means of eking out a living, but a platform to repay a debt to nature.
The trio were inspired by another forest guard from the same range, C R Naik, to take up the study of natural history. “We were inspired by the kind of knowledge he possessed. We started training under him,” says Ramesh. Soon, observing the forest became an addiction, and living without it becoming impossible.
“The joy one gets from this nature study is very difficult to explain,” he adds.
Batrachologist Gururaja K V, who has worked closely with Ramesh and Parashuram, says the forest is an open library and it takes people with special zeal, passion and patience to study it. “The two forest guards have made the best use of the facilities by making observations that are invaluable in the annals of science journals,” he says.
He adds that it was their observations that helped him better understand the Malabar tree toad, which had remained an enigma to the scientific world for the last 150 years.
Varada Giri, a scientist who helped Parashuram publish a paper on Ghatiana Dvivarna in the Brazilian journal Nauplius, admires the initiative of the forest guards.
“Initially, they had some trouble in pronouncing scientific names and in identifying the characters and taxonomies. Within two years, all of them have picked up scientific observation,” he says.
The department only played a catalyst role, says KTR field director Maria Christu Raj. The three did their research without compromising on their day job. “Conservation cannot take place without understanding their surroundings. In this regard, the guards have done exemplary work,” he says.
He mentions Parasappa, in particular, who conserves several orchids. Parasappa has identified and conserved more than 52 out of 80 species in KTR. The conservation of orchids is important as they play the role of indicating the health of the forest.
“The kind of satisfaction I get after replanting orchids and watching them grow is immeasurable,” Parasappa says.
Parasappa has also started an orchid nursery at an anti-poaching camp in the reserve. The nursery helps researchers better understand orchids and their patterns of pollination, disbursal of seeds and where they take root.
According to Christu Raj, the greatest achievement of Parasappa is his study of grasslands. There are over 52 species of grass in the KTR, out of which 75% are not consumed by herbivores.
“Grasslands are vital for a vibrant forest cover and Parasappa has been studying the flowering patterns of grass as well,” he says. By conserving these species and cultivating them in larger areas, human-animal conflict can be prevented, Christu Raj explains.
In addition to research, Ramesh and Parashuram have been rescuing snakes in the human habitations of the reserve. This helps the guards to build better bonds with locals.
Witness to their extraordinary motivation, C R Naik says, “The three have acquired so much knowledge about the forest now that they have become a resource for others. They interact with locals, students and others explaining various aspects of the forest.”
Their research has also made a strong case for a wildlife research and training centre being set up at the reserve, says Omkar Pai, a wildlife educator at KTR. “Under the trying circumstances, without taking into consideration the heavy rains, these guards have collected data and are conducting analysis now,” he adds.
Forest watchers, most of whom are hired on a contract basis, say they were also inspired by the trio and are studying the mysteries of the forest.