Sunday, 04 March 2018
First introduced to the country in the 1980s, eco tourism is by no means new to Sri Lankans. With the conclusion of the civil war in 2010, eco tours rose to fame at a rapid pace. Sri Lanka is popular for a range of eco tours, such as, bird watching, leopard watching, turtle watching, whale and dolphin watching and safaris. However, there exists a lesser known eco tour, with greater potential for revenue generation, namely, frog watching.
Currently, the only frog watching tour in the country is conducted by Jetwing St Andrew’s, Nuwara Eliya. The tour, which starts at 7 pm, serves to quench one’s thirst for knowledge and adventure. At night time the frog watchers enter the artificial wetland created by St Andrew’s and then a climb to a higher altitude in the adjoining woodland area, in the teeth chattering cold, to detect some of the endangered and evasive frog species in the world.
Why frog watching?
Frogs are a group of amphibians who dominated the earth in late Carboniferous to early Permian periods, who existed at the time of dinosaurs and was spread around the world during the Miocene period.
“Currently, there are 119 species of frogs in Sri Lanka, belonging to five different categories. This includes 82 species of shrub and tree frogs, 13 species of water frogs, 10 species of narrow mouthed frogs, seven species of true toads, three species of true frogs and a species of robust frog. Further, 103 of the local species are endemic to the country. ,” says Naturalist of Jetwing St Andrew’s, Ishanda Senevirathna.
According to Senevirathna , six of the endemic frog species can be detected in the wetland, with a total of 10 species spotted in the urban areas of Nuwara Eliya. Some of the highlights of the tour include the spotting of the mountain hour glass tree frog with its luminous yellow belly and the hour glass mark on the back, known to be one of the most beautiful frog species in the country. Mountain frog, one of the most difficult species to be spotted due to its shyness and swiftness of speed is also found in this wetland. Further, small eared shrub frog, one of the smallest geneses in the world, can be spotted in this tour. This species is endemic to Sri Lanka and is listed as a critically endangered species in the National Red List Category.
Currently, frogs in Nuwara Eliya are under threat as a result of habitat loss and fragmentation, urbanization, pesticides used in agriculture and invasive parasitic species. Due to the sensitivity of their semi permeable skin, frogs are an indicator of environment change. However, this same strength in them turns into their biggest weakness, where pollution and global warming is now threatening their existence.
“This is one aspect where we can harness the potential of frog watching tours, where the tours can serve to educate the people, on the importance of conserving these species, by introducing them to the different species and their behaviour patterns,” Senevirathna said.
Senevirathna added that in an initial assessment conducted on the internet, using a sample of 100 hotel guests from 28 nationalities, it was found that there is a demand to observe the newly discovered and endemic species of frogs in their natural habitat. A second survey conducted using a sample of 200 guests from 24 nationalities staying at three Jetwing Hotels, including Nuwara Eliya, Yala and Galle, indicated that 62.2 per cent of the guests have an interest in frogs and 59.3 per cent wants to participate in the tour. The survey further indicated that 50 per cent of the participants had a very poor knowledge on frogs.
“We have rich frog diversity in Sri Lanka, therefore, we can definitely promote frog watching as a distinctive nature tour. Promoting such in-house excursions similar to frog watching, will minimize wildlife pressure on national parks, and encourage observation and education,” Senevirathna said. He added that he hopes frog watching will become a unique ecotourism activity, which will benefit the local community via livelihood generation, which in turn would contribute to locals conserving the frog diversity in their respective area.
According to Herpétologist, Kelum Manamendra-Arachchi, Sri Lanka has a high species diversity in frogs and 99 per cent of the endemic frogs in the country are found in the wet zone. “Of this, shrub frogs show a large number of species in the South West quarter of the country. Also, there are about 25 to 30 species to be discovered, therefore, frog watching programs have a greater potential in the country,” he said.
Frog-friendly gardens is one concept put forward as a method the community can help conserve these endangered species, especially, as a solution to habitat loss. The main features of a frog-friendly garden include the presence of a variety of native plants, shady areas, small pond with shade and water plants, moist areas provided by logs and ground cover plants, and the absence of cats, dogs, tortoises and predatory birds.
Speaking of the importance of frog friendly gardens, Ornithologist and Environmentalist, Professor Emeritus, Sarath Kotagama said, frog friendly gardens can be used to strategically manoeuvre farmers towards environment friendly practices.
“Pesticides used in the hill country are washed along the rivers to the sea, damaging the entire eco system. However, agriculture is the livelihood of the farmers of the hill country. Therefore, if the concept of frog friendly gardens can be introduced to locals in the area, where a systems of gardens with these frogs can be maintained and frog tours conducted, this will help people realize that by conserving they can earn a livelihood,” he said.
Prof. Kotagama emphasized on how nature should be used to address the issues in society. “For example, frogs can be used to control breeding of mosquitoes. The tadpoles are very carnivorous,” he said.
Adding to this, Environmentalist and Attorney at Law, Jagath Gunawardana said, conserving frogs will lead to conserving of dragon flies, and other aquatic species and fauna.
At the same time, it is important to have a code of conduct to ensure that frog watching does not disturb the behaviour pattern of the frogs. Speaking on the subject, Gunawardana said, since frog watching is a relatively new area, it is crucial that a set of ethical standards be imposed at the initial stages, rather than bringing them in later.
“Frog watching can be conducted in hotels, home gardens and national parks. Therefore, it is important not to disturb the frogs and other animals if this is in a national park. Also, it is important not to step on frogs, since it is carried out at night. A red light should be used to observe the frogs,” he said. He added that a special set of standards are needed to carry out frog watching in national parks, since it is not allowed at the moment.
Also, according to section 31A of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, capturing, keeping or disturbing of amphibians are prohibited and only observing them in the natural habitat is allowed.
Ishanda Senevirathna recently launched a photographic guide on several frog species found in Nuwara Eliya, called ‘Peeping frogs of Nuwara Eliya’, possibly the first guide of this kind in the country. The guide contains basic anatomical, physiological and embryological details on frogs, including, frog families in Sri Lanka and the frog’s life cycle in detail.
It also contains suggestions for conservation methods of these species, mainly focusing on frog friendly gardening methods. Then the guide elaborates on frog watching and ethics to observe in the process, with guest experiences of the frog watching tour at Jetwing St Andrew’s. The guide concludes with pictorial descriptions of several species of frogs found in Nuwara Eliya, including montane hour glass tree frog, montane frog, half webbed pug snout frog, small eared shrub frog, Horton Plains shrub frog, Schmarda’s shrub frog, leaf nesting shrub frog and common house toad.
The simple style followed in the guide would convert even laymen into a frog enthusiast.
Pix: Ishanda Senevirathna