|CERES No. 109 (FAO Ceres, 1986, 50 p.)|
A conflict between ecological and economic interests has arisen over the humble Indian frog. For many months now, ecologists of the Federal Republic of Germany have been telling their countrymen that leaving bullfrogs in their native fields augurs well for the ecology of the Asian countries exporting frogs' legs. The West German National Environmental Foundation, based in Frankfurt, is trying to persuade food shops and restaurants to drop frogs' legs from their menus. German ecologists have also been carrying their campaign across the Atlantic, to the United States, which imported 3 212 tons of frogs' legs in 1983, about six times the average annual imports into the Federal Republic of Germany.
It takes at least 20 to 25 frogs to produce a kilo of frogs' legs, which fetches up to $85 on the US market. For India, which exports more than 3 000 tons of frogs' legs annually to the United States and Western Europe, this implies the killing of 9 000 tons of frogs a year. Indians traditionally worshipped frogs as harbingers of prosperity and plentiful rain, and killing them used to be considered a crime. But in the face of widespread poverty and unemployment, such traditions are rapidly fading. Frog trapping has emerged as a lucrative occupation. Favoured hunting grounds for Indian frogs are the areas surrounding Calcutta, Hyderabad, and Cochin, where unemployment is high and jobless youth need little encouragement to catch frogs which yield high returns.
Western Europe and the United States are the largest outlets for Indian frogs' legs, though, of late, Canada, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Japan are growing markets.
But while the economy may benefit from the export of frogs' legs, the deficit side of these transactions will include insect damage to agricultural crops, more money being spent on pesticides, pollution of the environment by non-specific pesticides, and, more important, spread of malaria. This is the view of Dr G. M. Oza, a member of the commission of ecology of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). By feeding on a host of insects that continuously threaten agricultural crops, frogs play a prominent role in maintaining the ecological cycle and the food supply pattern. An adult frog devours its own weight in insects every day. It has been estimated that over a period of 90 days, 9 000 tons of frogs would swallow about 810 000 tons of food, including insects. Thus the killing of so many frogs will con tribute to an increase in the insect population, which in turn will lead to a steady decline in crops.
Field studies conducted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) have established that crop losses in India are more pronounced during the period between May and 7 August - the peak breeding season of frogs. As a consequence of these findings, the Government of India has banned frog trapping during these months. To restrict the slaughter of wild frogs, captive breeding is being encouraged.
But it is not only the extent of the slaughter that is disturbing to the conservationists, it is the method of killing. And this is what gives their cause its emotional appeal. The trappers' normal practice is to kill frogs on capture and sever their hind legs and despatch them to the processing plant. At times, however, legs are removed in more violent fashion - the frog is chopped in two across the torso while still alive. Sometimes they are also skinned and the hides used to make small leather goods.
Further ammunition for the save-the-frog argument comes from Australian researcher Michael Tyler, an eminent authority on frogs and frog behaviour. He has discovered that certain abnormalities in frogs can be traced to specific water pollutants, often as far back as tadpole stage. But what Tyler adds to the conservationists' cause is this: frogs can serve as a highly sensitive early warning system.
Land clearance, mining wastes, pesticides, and weed control measures have been found to exert an adverse effect on the healthy growth of frog species. According to Tyler, natural abnormalities in the frog usually vary between 0.5 and 12 per cent. Any percentage beyond this is a certain indication of aquatic contamination. "One day it may be possible to suggest the nature of pollutants in an area just from the examination of abnormal frogs," Tyler says. "But what we lack is sufficient data to exploit this unique environmental monitoring system."