In recent times, whenever the word ‘frog’ is mentioned, one name that has been heard time and again is that of Dr. Gururaja KV. He is one of the foremost researchers who has contributed immensely to our understanding of amphibians, be it their diversity, biology or ecology. Not just that, he has to his credit several new species’ descriptions too. We bring you a conversation that Seshadri KS and Vidisha Kulkarni had with Dr. Gururaja KV.
You spent much of your childhood in Shivamogga with the wilderness all around you. Was this time amongst the best days of your life? Tell us some anecdotes.
Yes, my childhood days were indeed amongst the best days of my life. But I must say that my present life is also at its best! I was the youngest of my siblings and that order is directly proportional to notoriety and mischief. However, all that went quiet after I was bed-ridden for about 4 months due to a rheumatic heart condition. My family stood strong behind me. They cheered for every little thing I did; my sisters and brother provided the care, and my parents prayed that I survive. I sustained and survived 4 months of immobilisation, accompanied by excruciating pain. During this time, I forayed into professional chess, star-gazing, and most importantly, bird-watching. My brother was a member of the Mysore Amateur Naturalist group and we went bird-watching to nearby wetlands. I did not have binoculars or a bird field guide. I would simply approach the bird as close as possible and observe the colour, beak, legs, and even the eyes at times. With my observations scribbled in a notebook, I would go the mini-zoo library, where the 10 volumes of Salim Ali and Dillon Ripley’s handbook of the ‘Birds of India and Pakistan’ were kept, and compare my notes. Bird-watching slowly grew into a weekend hobby. By the time I got to pre-university college, I had a group of 4-5 friends with whom I would cycle 12-15 kms around Shivamogga to watch birds.
You have a penchant for quizzes. How did that come about?
Thanks to the wonderful book ‘Pictorial Guide to Birds of the Indian Sub-continent’ that the Karnataka Forest Department used to give away as a prize during Wildlife Week programmes in Shivamogga, I fell in love with quizzes. It was the first week of October in 1990, and I was in my second year of high school. I attended a quiz programme that I was not allowed to participate in as I was still in school. Sitting in the audience, I answered all the unanswered questions from the participants and eventually ended up answering more questions than the winning team did. I had to wait for three more years before I finally won a wildlife quiz programme. However, the Forest Department had stopped giving the pictorial guide as a prize. Hopeful that they would bring back the book as the prize, I participated again, and won the quiz consecutively for the next 4 years, but had no luck with the book. By then, I had started participating in many other quiz programmes too.
Before donning the researcher hat, what are some of the things you tried your hand at? Did those stints lead you to where you are today?
After my 7th grade exams, I was never allowed to sit at home during vacations. My dad nudged me to go out and learn some useful skills. I did everything from motor rewinding to repairing my brother’s radio, tape-recorders and television sets. I worked in a hospital and even as a data entry operator at a computer center. None of these probably led me to where I am today, but I think they helped me in asking questions about every new thing that I try to learn. Working at the hospital to cover my Pre-University tuition fees taught me about patience and compassion, although I was only helping keep track of equipment.
Did your PhD hook you on to frogs? Was it a proverbial ‘frog out of the well’ experience?
I was hooked to frogs even before my PhD, particularly during my masters. It was not like ‘frog out of the well’, but more like how amphibians evolved from fish. Biology fascinated me and birds drove me crazy. But I had no plans to work on my PhD. Fortunately, it all worked well and I ended up with a bachelor’s degree in Botany, Zoology and Chemistry. For my masters, I tried joining the Indian Institute of Science, but the prospect of having to do an integrated PhD lasting up to seven years was difficult to digest. I decided that I did not have the time or money and joined a masters degree in environmental science, as it was the only programme related to the environment, ecology, or birds, offered in Kuvempu University. For the completion of my masters degree, I had to undertake a project for a duration of 4-5 months. I spoke to my supervisor, Prof. S.V. Krishnamurthy, who asked me to make a list of species of birds of the Kuvempu University campus. I found it trivial as I had already been watching birds for over a year and a half and had made a list of 40-50 species of birds and showed it to him. He then asked me to join him to work on frogs. Inquisitiveness got the better of me and I agreed to it.
At his house, he showed me four preserved specimens and said that it was “Nyctibatrachus blah blah..”. All the four of them looked the same to me, but he had different names for them, and I thought that this was it! So my project work for my masters degree (in 1998) was on the feeding pattern of Nyctibatrachus major. I formally described this species in 2014 as Nyctibatrachus kumbara. I worked in the Bhadra Tiger Reserve and in some parts of Kupalli – the backyard of the poet Kuvempu’s home – for my masters’ work.
The first time my supervisor caught a frog and handed it to me, it simply slipped through my hand. It was slimy and took me a few attempts before I could get comfortable. In time, I began to appreciate the world of frogs. Though I was focused on that one particular species for my project, I looked at various other species that would hang around the same place and wonder why they were there and what was their effect on that place, and so on. This led me to take up a PhD on frogs.
In the prestigious Indian Institute of Science, you worked on a spectrum of things. Now you work with an art institution. How does it feel to be a multifaceted researcher?
Research is multifaceted. The interconnections are many. Soon after my PhD thesis submission, my then supervisor took off to the UK. I had nothing to do in Kuvempu University and was clueless about my research career. Fortunately, at that time, Dr. TV Ramachandra started a course on solid waste management. Although my study of frogs had nothing to do with solid waste management, I applied as I had a background in environmental science. Dr. Ramachandra ran a project on the environmental impact assessment of River Sharavati and he was looking for a person with a PhD in landscape dynamics. That’s how I joined the IISc. Over the next two years, I was involved in various fields like mapping, statistics and understanding key field techniques. I worked on the field with a team of researchers from diverse backgrounds, from hydrology to plant taxonomy to butterflies and insects. I attended PhD colloquiums. I listened to talks by Madhav Gadgil, Raghavendra Gadagkar, R Sukumar, Subash Chandran and international researchers like Amotz Zahavi, Walter Hodle. All this opened my mind to the diverse aspects of ecology. When one works with researchers from various fields, you learn to look beyond the species in focus. I now work at Shristi School of Art and Design. I like teaching, so I am very happy doing what I do here. Teaching is great because of the amount one gets to learn during the process. And frogs continue to be at the centre of my discussions.
You were perhaps a quintessential ‘geek’ in your youth. Star-gazing to music and chess – do these facets continue to shape your life?
I am not sure if I was a geek in the literal sense; maybe just a little bit! I did learn the basics of percussion music; although it may not directly relate to frog research, the concepts of pitch, rhythm and base are what connect me to frog bio-acoustics. Even silence conveys a message in frog calls. During my star-gazing sessions with my father and brother, I would ask why stars didn’t fall off the sky. We would then have lengthy conversations ranging from ‘Hiranyagarbha Sukta’ to the theory of relativity. Although I did not always understand them fully, it gave me the ability to add a new dimension to my perception. Patience is what I learnt from hours of gazing at stars or playing chess (sometimes alone), which has had a huge influence on my fieldwork. I need to sit around frogs for many hours to study and observe them. The field of ecology is also not as rosy it appears when it comes to personal behaviour and discipline. You are not what you are today; you are what you have been over the years.
You have described several new species of frogs. Does this bring you joy? To put it simply, is it a special feeling to have described a species to science?
I remember my first ever species description way back in 2001. It was still the age of print and I received a copy of ‘Current Science’ with a frog photograph on the cover page. I was delighted and showed it to my family members. Several people greeted me and greeting cards came home congratulating me on the new species. I was on cloud nine. However, eventually, describing species becomes a mundane task and appears like a collection of stamps. It is not something I want to keep doing. Many a times, we discover a new species when we are not even looking for them. When my friend and colleague CR Naik asked us to listen to a frog call on his mobile phone, we joked that it was of a kingfisher and that he couldn’t identify a common bird. He persisted and showed videos of a frog making that call. It turned out to be a new species which we described last year. Now, the question is, why should the frog call like a bird? These kinds of questions keep me motivated, rather than just describing new species.
What is it like to be working in the Western Ghats with different people — researchers to enthusiastic children?
I want people to talk more about frogs and move away from their infatuation for large charismatic animals like tigers, pandas or elephants. If we want to measure the health of a stream or its quality, frogs are better indicators for that than, say, a tiger. For instance, during my stint at IISc, I worked in a forest called Kathlekan, near Mavinagundi. I would go there from Bangalore, finish field work, and come back. But all the knowledge I gathered from the field could potentially just stay locked up. If anyone should talk about the diversity of species and the issues they face, I felt that it should be the locals. That’s when I started talking to people to tell them what was in their own backyard. I would take photographs, go to canteens and tea stalls, and talk to the people who lived in those areas. When we showed them photographs and videos, they began to interact with us. In a way, those interactions helped me connect with the locals. And, they taught me that without people, no conservation was going to happen. I believe that there has to be a people’s movement. Scientists have to think beyond talking about diversity lists. Children do not have inhibitions in asking questions and I love talking to them. It’s a straightforward interaction. In fact, it is more difficult to convince adults. A simple question like where do frogs go after the monsoon, that children tend to ask, probably motivates a researcher or a scientist like me to find out where these frogs actually go.
You have authored numerous works, and amongst them, The Pictorial Guide to Frogs, the FrogFind app and Mandookavani have been very popular.
There was no reference material earlier, and the few that existed were expensively priced or had little up-to-date information. My pictorial guide was probably user-friendly, easy to carry and had pictures and pictograms. Almost everyone has smart phones these days and that’s why FrogFind was launched 2013. The idea behind Mandookavani was in process for a very long time; it is a result of at least 10 years of information. We wanted to put together a database of frog calls and it ended up as a CD with 75 frog calls. The pictorial guide was published in 2012. It is now 2017 and we need start planning on how to improvise these works and how to provide updated information.
Where do you see amphibian research as a field, heading towards? What hurdles do you face? What is that one thing that needs to change?
The one change required that I can think of is the number of bureaucratic hurdles we face in India. Irrespective of whether one is a scientist or not, we have to file a lot of paperwork. This is ridiculous when it comes to collaborative or individual research. Bureaucracy needs to be simpler, systematic and transparent. That will be the best solution to boost ecological research in India.
How does it feel for your work to be recognised by the government, especially since you received the Karnataka State Biodiversity Award?
Recognition in the field of basic biology is a rare phenomenon. In fact, there is no Nobel Prize for biology. When a state government body like the Karnataka State Biodiversity Authority recognises your work, you are obviously happy, but it its not the ultimate reward. Going out to the field and understanding why frogs do what they do is the best kind of reward, and that, only I can give myself.