On the outset, the wild, wet flora of the Western Ghats that oppressively surrounds the visual senses is an unending canvas of green monotone. The only aspect of the forest that breaks the monotony is the spectrum of strange sounds it emanates. You hear bird songs, drones of insects and startlingly eerie whistles whose source or distance it is impossible to determine. If the landscape seemed dense in the dry months, the onset of monsoons heralds an outbreak of greenery of epic proportions. The tropical rainforests on these ancient mountains – older than the Himalayas, make a formidable wall arresting the monsoon winds blowing into the land, soaking up the clouds, causing endless rain that lashes and drizzles alternatively for months.
Not all greenery here is pure plant material, though. Little green coils of reptilian scales rest under leaves, furtively eyeing potential prey. Patches of shiny green frogs can be tucked into forks of branches, barely the size of a budding leaf. Don’t blame yourself if you don’t notice any of this; with all that meticulous camouflage, you’re meant not to. Moreover, it’s hard to resist the aroma of strong coffee wafting from the homestead while you are in the middle of the glorious downpour, the protective raincoats barely keeping the dampness out. Harder even, to quicken your step towards the kitchen when beady little eyes of muddy frogs emerge out of the slush, quickly darting away from your feet at every step, discouraging you from going on a wild frog chase.
As night descends, there is a distinct shift in your sensory experience: the sounds of the jungle now overpower all other senses. The torrent of water, the creaks of branches and the croaks of frogs wrap around you along with the darkness. The frogs have woken up from stupor and now offer ballads of love under the cloud-masked sky that could be hiding the moon somewhere. If you hear a trrr-eee-p, trrr-rrreeep, treeeeep on loop, you have just heard the announcement of the presence of a unique tree frog found only in the Western Ghats – the Malabar Gliding Frog (Racophorus malabaricus). As if flying squirrels and flying snakes flitting the high canopies weren’t mysterious enough, you now have gliding frogs adding to the drama of the jungle.
Where are the croaks coming from? How far and deep inside the jungle? What is this secretive creature that, like all its cohabitants in this dark forest, prefers to be heard and not seen? You’d be stumped to know that its singing perch could be a rolled-up plantain leaf leaning into the kitchen window or a waist-level branch of the hibiscus bush near the front porch that you brushed past in the afternoon. The tiny size – an adult is barely 10 cm long (and yet, the Malabar Gliding Frog is one of the largest in the family of tree frogs), and the vivid green of its back helps it to be hidden in plain sight.
Yet the intensity of the moment must be seen to be believed. The desperate croaks of yearning… the mad scrambling, literally, on top of other rival frogs to reach the muse of their romantic songs…falling off the high perch with the webbed feet spread out…parachuting down with an odd display of a ballerina’s grace, on top of the partner in a final union…it could very well seem like a theatre of the absurd… except the frogs are dead serious. Seizing their rare chances to procreate, leaving behind foamy nests of eggs dangling over puddles, away from the reach of predators, while staying safe from overactive serpents themselves is an extreme adventure, no less. Add to it, the battle against pesticides and logging of forests, the urgency to add new generations of gliding frogs, in this small shrinking corner of the planet they call home, is very real.