Written by Barkha Subba
This incident took place during one of my field visits to North Sikkim.
North Sikkim is truly a land of wonder and mysticism. The tropical forests and alpine highlands gives way to cold deserts and majestic peaks, hosting a gamut of life forms, landscapes, and folklores. The untrodden forests hold the lure of finding the Mayel-Lyang (Shangrila), and the snow-covered peaks, the possibility of sighting a Yeti or a flying monk.
Amid all the real, imagined and unimaginable possibilities, I couldn’t sleep that night.One question haunted me all night- will I find the elusive Snow toad?
We set off on our journey before dawn. Our team consisted of four of my friends who were eager to experience Sikkim in its most raw form- all nails and claws and yak dung and flowers. And of course, our driver, Nima, in whose hands rested our lives. We were packed like sardines into a jeep, busily chewing on crushed and hardened homemade corn flakes. It was a typical monsoon morning: black clouds shrouded the mountains and the mist whispered of the arrival of the rains.
Once we gained some altitude it became incredibly sunny,windy, and cold. We crawled along National Highway 31A: quite a euphemism considering that the terra firma under the tyres resembled slushy paddy fields – without the paddy. The road was just broad enough for the four tyres of an army vehicle but one could easily drop off the edge into the mighty Teesta river.
We crossed many landslides and majestic waterfalls. We passed by Hemlock (Tsuga sp.) dominant habitats to Fir (Abies sp.) rich landscapes, from the bustling colors of alpine flora to the cold desert and finally reached the Gurudongmar Lake, at an elevation of 5200 m.
Holy flags fluttered around the lake and people with solemn faces were circumambulating the sacred lake.It didn’t seem right to be looking for frogs under the rocks! But the joy of finding a snow toad accompanied by a few tadpoles wiped away my guilt.
Finding the snow toad was not my only task; I also had four empty bottles to fill with the lake’s holy water for four families in Lachen and Thangu. It is believed that if you drink the water of Gurudongmar, you will be blessed with a child. I fulfilled my duty of getting the holy water. I hope the water keeps its promise too.
As we drove down to the tiny hamlet of Thangu, at an elevation of about 3700 m, we were mesmerized by the sight of the spectacular Chopta valley. Carpets of primroses (Primula sp.) gave way to dwarf rhododendron in full bloom. The entire landscape was dotted by four feet high white stupas, the Sikkim Rhubarb (Rheum nobile) plants.
By this time, our driver was well aware of the animal of my interest and kept a watchful eye around. As we were driving down, Nima suddenly exclaimed *“Paa! Paa!” and hit the brake.
There, crossing the road was a snow toad. It was fatter and bigger than any snow toad I had encountered. I picked it up to look at its webbings and count its toes and fingers to be sure that it was a snow toad.I decided to save it from becoming a road kill by placing it on a rock,in the river nearby, thinking it was probably headed there. But as I did so, the dejection that took over the frog’s demeanor was so apparent that I had to step back and look at the bigger picture. I was not used to frogs behaving like this. What I knew from my field experience was this: frogs drink water all day and all night, just so they can pee on your hand if you catch them, and if you put them down even for a second to smell the pee on your hand, they will jump high and far, and disappear into thin air like a magician.
But this frog had lost its will to pee on my hand and jump away. This behavior bothered me. I looked at the frog closely. It bore a passive aggressive expression that said – “I know you mean well, but why did you do that to me, without my permission!”. I knew that look too well: like the permafrost, it used to be my permaface during my adolescent days. To recognize that expression on a frog gave me instant arrhythmia, my heart skipped a beat, tears welled up in my eyes and I had the uncontrollable urge to sneeze.
But then my thinking mind spoke to me- “Look at the frog. She is abnormally fat, with yellow adipose showing through her translucent belly skin.
When is a frog fat?
When it’s ready to go for hibernation.
Where does the snow toad hibernate?
Under loose soil.
So, may be that frog was heading away from the river. Duh! ”
After this epiphany, I picked up the unhappy frog, put it on the other side of the road, where it was headed in the first place. Lo and behold! If you had my eyes you would have seen it smiling. The frog, in its lazy way, climbed up the side of the road, lodged itself comfortably in a small hole and went about burying itself.
Lesson of the day- if you see a frog crossing a road, the frog is definitely not a chicken, the frog is going somewhere…important.
Note: The frog mentioned here is Boulenger’s Lazy Toad (Scutiger boulengeri), a high elevation frog found between 2500m asl to 5400m asl in the Eastern Himalaya. Though it is a frog, it is commonly known as a Snow“toad”, because its rough skin resembles that of a toad.
*The local word for a frog.
About the Author
Born in the lap of the Himalaya, Barkha Subba is essentially a mountain girl. A researcher in the field of Conservation Science, she has a keen interest in Himalayan flora and fauna. Travelling, photography, finding and studying frogs, and documenting stories of ethnic people are her passions. Presently, she is pursuing her PhD at ATREE (2009 Batch), Bangalore, India. Her work focuses on the diversity, distribution and community composition of high altitude frogs in the Eastern Himalaya.