The forgotten first lives of India’s fauna

Two juvenile purple frogs rest on wet soil dotted with tiny green leaves.

Prof. Biju said the Rohanixalus is the 20th recognised genus of the family Rhacophoridae that comprises 422 known Old World tree frog species found in Asia and Africa. He said there are eight frog species in this genus Rohanixalus, which are known to inhabit forested as well as human-dominated landscapes right from the northeast, the Andaman islands, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, up to southern China.

“Our discovery of a treefrog member from Andaman Islands is unexpected and again highlights the importance of dedicated faunal surveys and explorations for proper documentation of biodiversity in a mega diverse country like India. This finding also uncovers an interesting new distribution pattern of tree frogs that provides evidence for faunal exchange between Andamans and the Indo-Burma region,” Prof. Biju said.

‘New genus of tree frog discovered, found in Andamans and Northeast India’, The Hindu, November 12, 2020

When researchers make ‘discoveries’ like this – and they make many every year because India encompasses some of the world’s major “biodiversity hotspots” – I always think about whether people living in the same general area as these creatures might already know of their existence, and have different names and identities for them separate from what the scientific literature will now call it. And if this knowledge does exist – if someone already knew about it – and if they have a knowledge-organising system of their own (that is not science) – which could be easily true if they are members of the many tribes of India (the Adivasi) – then the scientific rediscovery of these species somehow creates a moment in history where the latter knowledge, more traditional and almost certainly far older and therefore more knowing, becomes a bit more forgotten by virtue of being treated as if it didn’t exist. The creatures have now been ‘discovered’ by the methods of science and therefore they have been found for the first time (and not ‘rediscovered’). These frogs for example are now temporary subjects of our celebration of the wonder that is science, even as the human knowledge of their existence that ‘lived’ earlier, in the form of tribal words, sounds, smells, experiences and memories, is not part of the conversation whatsoever in this moment – like the frogs have been snatched out of the context in which they have lived all this time, into a different world, a new world that gives them new names and new purposes. The ‘old world’, the first world, continues its quiet subterranean existence, like an entire universe that’s been kept out of sight, or in our collective blindspot, offering up the resources we need for our second world – land, wood, medicines, frogs, lizards, snakes, birds, vacations, wonder – while battling ecological despair and the end of the first.

Featured image: Juvenile purple frogs somewhere in the Western Ghats, 2017. Credit: Nihaljabinedk/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.