Thumbelina and her frog prince
When Shillong will rediscover its Xmas frog
Winter is not the best time to spot a colony of frogs puff their lungs out and croak throatily for a mate. An exception, however, can surely be made for the ‘Xmas frog’ who will star in and as Thumbelina—a short film about a frog in search of its mate. The Xmas frog, which was discovered on Christmas eve in 1970 in the Malki forest of Shillong in Meghalaya, will step out from the desolate bog of obscurity on 25 December and claim it’s spot in the limelight with the film—made in the lines of a little-frog-in-a-big-city adventure.
Made by Ashwika Kapur, 28, a Kolkata-based wildlife filmmaker, Thumbelina is the culmination of a torpid monsoon spent in Shillong, chasing these elusive frogs, whose fully grown adult measures only one third of your thumb. “They’re really very tiny. One was just a dot when I saw it first—a baby frog was sitting inside a raindrop," says Kapur. She still wonders how she managed to film this fleeting wonder of an amphibian. Their balloon-like vocal sacs would shrivel back every time her camera trained its lenses on them.
The film captures a very real struggle of this species of frogs in the capital city of Meghalaya. Marked as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the skewed sex ratio of Xmas frogs means that the males are far more abundant, while their bigger, more hardworking, female counterparts have to navigate many hurdles to find the best possible mate for themselves.
Found only in Shillong with a distribution range of less than 100 sq. km of forest area, Xmas frogs boast a provenance of 3-10 million years and are thus believed to be older than human beings. Brown in colour, with an ‘X’ mark on their dorsal side, this particular species of bush frog does not grow more than 2 cm in size. They are never tadpoles when they hatch—the Xmas frogs head straight to the froglet stage, after four weeks of incubation. While such zoological details are bound to excite a herpetologist, what fascinated Kapur was the almost subliminal presence of the frog in the urban ecology of Shillong. The loud and shrill tik tik tik drone of the Xmas frog is a ubiquitous phenomenon in the city during the monsoon. “You can hear it behind bushes, behind cafeterias, and even while you are talking a walk down Nehu (North-Eastern Hill University)," says Kapur. But when as an experiment, she’d asked the locals about the source of the sound, most thought it was perhaps an insect.
The significance of these frogs couldn’t keep the conservationist within Kapur from ignoring their dwindling numbers . “Frogs have permeable, porous skin, which is extremely sensitive to changes and toxins in the environment. So basically, they are bio-indicators; they are the frontline soldiers of the environment...the first creatures to sense all the nasty stuff in the environment," she says. “The habitat of the Xmas frog is getting lost even before people can be told that hey, you’ve got something in your backyard which, by the way, is massively prehistoric and, perhaps, really special."
However, since a frog may not readily appeal to people as a mascot inspiring the saving of a habitat, Kapur made Thumbelina. The film, first screened at the second Kolkata International Wildlife and Environment Film Festival earlier this month, found an immediate connect especially due to its protagonist and her struggles.
At a certain level Thumbelina was a film that was waiting to happen. The moment that sparked off the process was when Kapur—who won a Green Oscar in 2014 for a documentary on a New Zealand night parrot—came across a scientific paper from 1971, titled Philautus Shillongensis: A new frog (Ranidae) from Meghalaya, India. “I read through it and when I came to the end, I found my grandfather’s name in the acknowledgments," says Kapur whose grandfather, A.P. Kapur (former director of the Zoological Survey of India in the 1970s) was responsible for facilitating the first leg of research on the Xmas frog. He’d passed away when she was 10 years old.
“It is bizarrely heart-warming to see how my path constantly seems to cross his," says Kapur, whose first pet was a duck when she was two-and-a-half years old, followed by a veritable menagerie, housed in a 10th floor apartment, comprising pigeons, white mice, rabbits,a flightless maina, a tailless squirrel,a guinea pig, and a chicken.
“Although Shillong is known as the city of music, no one knows the frog calling from their backyard," says Abhijit Das, who is leading a research group on Xmas frogs as part of a project with the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. This is exactly what Thumbelina will correct. “Now, whenever there is a tik tik sound, they will know Thumbelina is calling."
Thumbelina will get an online premiere on 25 December on YouTube.