How Kerala’s herping community made frogs and snakes a tourist attraction

Herping, or the practice of searching for rare reptiles and amphibians to observe or photograph them, is growing in popularity in Munnar.
Frog found during herping
Frog found during herping
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In an era before the Wild Life Protection Act was passed in 1972, frog-catching was a popular activity in Kerala, so much so that it necessitated frog catchers’ associations. However, since then, frogs have become rare, many ranging from endangered to critically endangered. Since the export of frog legs was banned and the animals came under the protection of the Act, the practice of going out into fields and marshy lands, holding paraffin lamps in hand, diminished.

Decades after the time of Petromax lamps, Arun A, a youngster from Kozhikode district, started spending his spare time in the hills of Munnar in search of rare species of amphibians and reptiles. He is one among a growing population that is interested in herping, a term used by herpetologists that indicates going out in search of reptiles and amphibians. This interest is held not only with researchers and academicians, but with a wide variety of people.

The spirit of herping today is different from the frog-hunters of the past; today, people go out at night in search of amphibians and reptiles in the spirit of enjoying their beauty and conserving them. "I work at a bank. But since my childhood, I was interested in watching frogs. I used to go to the fields at night with my grandfather, and enjoy watching them. Since then, I have been against harming them. That interest continues even now. My hobby is looking for rare species," says Arun.

Photo: Hadlee Renjith

Herping as tourism

Resplendent Experiences, a tour company named after Raorchestes resplendens or the resplendent shrub frog, offers herping tours in Munnar. The organisation was started by Hadlee Renjith, who has an immense passion for reptiles and amphibians. Renjith is also a Kerala Forest Department-approved snake rescuer.

"The trend (for herping) has picked up in Kerala. Since the last two years, we get a lot of enthusiasts coming here for herping. The season lasts from the end of May to October. Frogs are easily spotted during monsoon," Renjith says.

He shares that most people who approach him are interested in seeing the resplendent shrub frog. This frog is a critically endangered species, and is very difficult to spot. Renjith recalls that he was discouraged from naming his tour company Resplendent, but he says that the name turned out to be a huge success.

Photo: Sebinster Francis

Apart from seeking the resplendent shrub frog, Renjith says that his guests have started showing an interest in looking for specific species of reptiles and amphibians. "Most guests are also interested in snakes. A popular species is Trimeresurus macrolepis, commonly known as the large-scaled green pit viper. But we don’t promise to show people that snake, as it is not easy to spot,” he adds.

Many people also go herping for lizards, other reptiles and also rare spiders, among other species.

"Mainly, it is people who are interested in finding rare species, and photographers, who come to Resplendent Experiences. We usually do tours with an eight-member team in the evenings, which lasts from 6.30 am to 12 am. We need at least three days to spot a few of the reptiles and amphibians, and there are some people who are willing to stay here for more than 15 days,” Renjith says.

Photo: Hadlee Renjith

Many species of reptiles are nocturnal. The guides who go along with herping enthusiasts during the tours ensure that photographers are able to get their shots at night, while also keeping in mind the safety of the animals. "We just watch or click photographs without causing them any disturbance, or harming them," Renjith says.

Need for conservation

Another tour agency that provides herping experiences in Munnar is Route 49 Adventures & Offbeat Experiences. The organisation is run by Sebinster Francis, who is also a professional photographer and a trained snake rescuer. According to him, the interest of herping picked up among domestic tourists only a few years ago. "Earlier, we just had international clients. People from across India are now showing interest in herping," Sebinster says.

Photo: Hadlee Renjith

He also says that, just like bigger mammals, little creatures like frogs, snakes and insects are beautiful, and in dire need of conservation. "These days, people have the awareness that not just tigers or the Nilgiri Tahr, but these beautiful creatures have to be protected too. We (the staff at Route 49) attended a few classes by renowned naturalists David Raju  and Surya Ramachandran. That is how we got the awareness," he added. Sebinster aims at raising awareness on the conservation of reptiles and amphibians through his organisation.

Photo: Sebinster Francis

The Western Ghats are home to a plethora of frogs, many of which are endemic to the region. Scientists say that there are still many species that are still undetected. However, conservation efforts are minimal, and a large section of people is unaware of the dwindling reptile and amphibian population. For this reason, Sebinster points out that education on the conservation of these species must begin at the school-level. “Many species like the galaxy frog are found only in Munnar. Our children should be aware of our environment,” he says.

Growing popularity

Sebinster echoes Renjith’s view that, over the past few years, herping is becoming increasingly popular in Kerala. Many VIPs also come to Munnar to click photographs of rare frogs and other creatures that they find on their tours. Sebinster adds that most of his guests are professional and amateur photographers, and that he has noticed the growth of macro (extreme close-up) photography as a hobby.

Melanobatrachus indicus (Galaxy frog, an endangered species) Photo: Sebinster Francis

"These photographers come with their family. Children are also interested in watching these small beings," he says.

According to the tour organisers, a herper will not be able to see all the species that they would want to see in just one day; they would have to stay with the tour agencies for at least three days. This makes it difficult for enthusiasts to visit Munnar on a regular basis, but many people like Arun manage to find the time to have a glance at their favourite frogs.

Photo: Sebinster Francis

"A new frog was discovered two years ago, Astrobatrachus kurichiyana, which was named after the Kurichya tribe of Wayanad. Though I made many trips to see it, I couldn't. Raorchestes Resplendens is another one I would like to see," Arun says.

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