Where it rains snakes and frogs

Written by Vaishali Rawat @vaishalirawat95

She freezes, narrows her eyes and calmly whispers: “Okay, don’t freak out.”

A warning of this nature isn’t usually welcome here, as we stand knee deep in a swift running stream that floods a pouring rainforest canopy in the Western Ghats. It is the onset of monsoons, our feet are dug inside a muddy sand bed, and there’s no mobile network.

Wading through the freshwater swamps. Photo courtesy: Vaishali Rawat

Venetia, my stream wading companion and guide, had noticed a small wolf spider resting on my palm as we made our way through the rainforests of Agumbe in Karnataka, India. Past experiences probably taught her that people don’t react well to surprise spider encounters in the middle of a stream flooding a pouring rainforest, hence the measured warning. But this arachnid is harmless, and so we gently leave the creature on a leaf; it hops  on and floats away.

This seems like a good time to mention that we were not, in fact, stranded in the middle of a forest, but exploring the biodiversity and landscapes around the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) in the Karnataka state of southern India.

A Malabar Pit Viper in the Agumbe forests. Photo: Pradeep Hegde

This permanent research station sits as a humble stone and wooden establishment in the middle of the Someshwara Wildlife Sanctuary and Agumbe Forest Reserve. These forests constitute a small patch of the thriving biodiversity hotspot of India – the Western Ghats. In 2005, the ARRS was established by renowned herpetologist Romulus Whitaker, with the vision of enabling long-term study and conservation of rainforests, through ecological research, outreach programs and local partnerships. Today the research station functions as a support base for scientists conducting studies of rainforest ecology and flora and fauna, and the staff also works closely with the local communities. Venetia, who is a staff member here along with several others are responsible for the daily functioning of ARRS.

Rom Whitaker hosting an educational workshop with school children at ARRS. Photo: ARRS website

What’s in a rainforest?

In a rainforest, everything is always wet.

That may sound obvious, and yes, the constant patter of raindrops and occasional lightning thundering through the jungles are certainly characteristic of the region. But on the physical plane of human existence, a rainforest is also characterized by the water you spilt on your shirt that will not naturally dry by bedtime, your raincoat that will remain moist hours after you have returned from an hour of wading through the newly flooded streams of the freshwater swamps, the small leeches latched to your fingers and toes, and the warmth of your feet soaked up with water filling your hiking boots.

Situated at an elevation of 650m in the central Western Ghats, Agumbe is a distinctive tract of moist evergreen forest contiguous with Kudremukh National Park, and receives incredibly high levels of precipitation – an annual rainfall of 7000mm. These forests also boast of almost enchanting freshwater swamps composed of the tree genus Myristica – trees whose thick roots sprawl throughout the muddy forest floor, truncating its streams and towering its canopies.

A stream runs behind ARRS. Photo: Vaishali Rawat

The Western Ghats are a fascinating biodiversity hotspot, especially for herpetologists(amphibian and reptile specialists), and the Agumbe region too supports forests constitute species of reptilian and amphibian life – of which many are still undiscovered. To date, at the 4.5-acre site of ARRS, 32 mammals, 45reptiles, 31 amphibians, 202 birds, 130 butterflies and numerous plant species have been recorded.

As we tried to find our footing through the streams, Venetia’s second piece of advice was to be careful of what you’re grabbing for support, to make sure it is indeed a branch and not a snake!

One of the most fascinating of the snakes found here is perhaps the Malabar Pit Viper, which gets its name from the pits located between its eye and nostril, giving these predators their infrared heat sensing vision. We were lucky to see two individuals hanging around the research station (On the treetops… pun intended).

The star reptile of ARRS, of course, is the King Cobra. When Whitaker first began exploring the region’s people and ecology, he was fascinated by the reverence people had for this snake, which prompted him to establish a research station here. ARRS also initiated a first of its kind radio-telemetry project for the King Cobra, which has thrown up some fascinating insights into the behaviour of this snake.

King Cobras represented on a shrine. Photo: ARRS website

During the monsoon, rainforests are a fantastic place to go looking for endemic frogs. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a sleeping garden lizard or two.

A sleeping garden lizard. Photo: Vaishali Rawat

If you now find yourself sold on experiencing the rainforest, hop on an overnight bus from the bustling metropolis of Bangalore towards Agumbe. The bus will drop you at an edge of the highway, and you will need to walk about a kilometre in a pouring jungle before you reach the station. Be careful while navigating your way, though – make sure that the branch you’re grabbing on for support while crossing through muddy waters is not actually a snake.

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