Amboli Herping camp - A Biodiversity Marvel

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August 3rd 2018
Published: October 8th 2018
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What is herping ? It's the act of searching for reptiles or amphibians. Its derived the same way as Herpetology which is the study of amphibians and replies ("herpein" in Greek means "to creep"). Sounds boring ? You will be surprised by how exciting it can be.

How did I come about this ? Well my friend from pre-university college, Ashwin had visited the Amboli Herping camp the previous year and had posted some amazing shots of green vine snakes, frogs and so on which caught my attention since I love macro photography. I had inquired about the same the previous year too but had not been able to make the trip. This year I decided that before I moved to US, I had to do this and asked Nitin to join me. He agreed and both of us equipped with our DSLRs got ready to check out Amboli.

Getting to Amboli was not that difficult. We booked a bus to Belgaum from Bangalore. From there we had to take another bus to Sawantwadi which would drop us at Amboli. When we reached the Belgaum bus station, we realized that we had just missed the bus to
Wild Turmeric Wild Turmeric Wild Turmeric

Found only in Asia and used in herbal medicines
Sawantwadi and the next one was in about 3 hours. We got the next bus and reached Amboli at around 1 PM. Rajesh who was one of the organizers took us in his car to our accommodation which was barely 200m from the bus stand. The room was a neat two sharing one with its own bathroom. Our expectations were not that high and we were pleasantly surprised and happy. We freshened up and then went to have lunch at around 2 PM. Lunch was at a local eatery which was managed by a local family. The way the organizers had started this enterprise is that they had made sure that for each of the amenities they provide would be through a different set of locals so that this generates revenue for multiple folks in the area. So while one local family would benefit from the accommodations, another would benefit from the serving food and so on. I was really impressed the way they had thought this through and had not been just trying to turn a huge profit themselves. We got thalis which included chapatis, curry, rasam, rice and dessert which was delicious. We also met two more people

I know. I know. I invaded their privacy.
who were going to join us for the whole camp.

That evening we set out for our first trail - Mahadevgad Road Trail. The whole camp was planned to work like this. We would go along a few trails daily and our guides would observe and show us any of the reptiles or amphibians they would notice. They were well aware of how to spot them in the natural habitat since they had been doing this from a long time now and were also equipped with the knowledge of the biodiversity and the habitats. As we started out we were a bit confused to see a guy who was similar to Rajesh but different in some ways. We then realized that it was his brother Rakesh who was leading us. Along with Rakesh, Anish also joined us. There was another group which was being led by Kaka and Rajesh and they were coming in a different route so that both the groups could talk to each other and cover a larger area (Larger area meant more chances of spotting fauna). Our first catch was a pair of mating grasshoppers. As we started clicking shots, Rajesh told me
Skittering frogSkittering frogSkittering frog

Even a slight movement and they immediately plunge deep into the water
that its generally better to get macro shots from the level of the objects which is by almost kneeling down. That was totally true and something I had not realized before. All along the way we got to see Wild Turmeric (Curcuma aromatica) flowers. It is supposed to have medicinal properties and hence, used in making herbal medicines. Further ahead we met with the other group and took a detour into a field. There we found an orchid flower called Fox Brush Orchid or the Cat's tail Orchid. Its scientific name is Aerides maculosa. It is endemic to the Indian subcontinent and is really pretty. As we were photographing this someone shouted out that they had found a frog. As we went near the pond most of the people were at, we saw this huge brown frog at one of the corners just away from the water. That was the Indian Bullfrog (Hoplobatrachus tigerinus) which is found mostly in the Indian Subcontinent near freshwater and aquatic habitats. It sat there lazily being a great subject to photograph not caring who came and took its photos. In the same pond we could also see a few frogs which came up to
Camouflage at its bestCamouflage at its bestCamouflage at its best

The crab spider enjoying its dinner after successfully capturing the fly
the surface and at any slight hint of anyone moving near them, used to go back inside. We could only see their eyes and a portion of the head above the surface of water. These were the Skittering frogs aka Indian Skipper frog. Their biological name is Euphlyctis cyanophlyctis and they are common in South and Southeast Asia. As we moved ahead I noticed a small frog near a tiny stream. It was light brown in colour and for a while it sat down on a rock. When I asked Rakesh about it, he told us that it is called Minervarya sahyadris or Fejervarya sahyadris. It has two biological names since there is a dispute with regard to the genus Minervarya. This is another frog which is endemic to Western Ghats and has been classified as an endangered species since it is threatened by habitat loss. Moving on we found some white mushrooms which looked like small umbrellas on the ground. Again taking shots from the same level as the mushrooms gave me a much better shot. I kept searching for random things to take macro shots of and in one of the cases I got a fly on a
Catch of the tripCatch of the tripCatch of the trip

A green vine snake feasting on the common garden lizard
white inflorescence (group of tiny flowers bunched into a pattern). But when I looked clearly I saw that it was actually a crab spider pulling its food (the fly) away. The crab spider was camouflaged so well that it was not easy to spot it. No wonder the pitiable fly became its victim. Another beautiful orange mushroom and we thought we were done with the first trail. But the trail decided to serve us a dessert and we got to know that Kaka's group found a green vine snake eating a common garden lizard. The lizard was very big for the snake's mouth but it was in no hurry and kept pulling its food into its mouth slowly. This was supposed to be a really rare sight which most of the guides had never seen themselves and all of us were excited beyond words. As far as I and Nitin were concerned the first trail itself had made our trip worthwhile.

Snacks was served at Nisarg resort in Amboli and consisted of tea and pakodas. After resting for a while we started out for the night trail. One would think a night trail would be boring and
Amboli Leaping FrogAmboli Leaping FrogAmboli Leaping Frog

Endemic to Western Ghats
you would barely get to see stuff. That was also our thinking since we were carrying the torches and it had also started drizzling. Boy were we wrong !!!! En route to the botanical garden we found a few frogs and the Boulenger's Indian gecko. The gecko was very colourful and unique. Even though with these our hopes were up slightly, what came after we entered the Botanical Garden was nothing less than spectacular. It started with the Malabar gliding frog or the Malabar flying frog (Rhacophorus malabaricus) which was sitting on a tree. It was a fine specimen having a green body, yellow body and red webbings. These frogs stay on the top of trees and leave their foam like eggs in such a way that they can drop into a water body where the tadpoles grow. As we were trying to get good shots we also saw a cicada eating a frog on a nearby tree. Cicadas are insects which make a lot of noise. This one though was pretty silent enjoying its dinner. Did you know that cicadas have been featured in literature since Homer's Iliad and are a part of number of myths ? Next up
A great poserA great poserA great poser

A really colourful caterpillar hanging in mid air
was the Amboli leaping frog, Indirana chiravasi. As the name pretty much indicates, this is a frog endemic to the Western Ghats. Since this was on an elevated platform, I got really got shots of it. Once we were content, Kaka, Nitin and I were slowly walking towards the rest of the group who were ahead when Kaka noticed a snake on a tree. It was a beautiful green snake with a dark pattern at the top. He told us that it is the Malabar Pit Viper (Trimeresurus malabaricus). It is a mildly venomous species whose poison is not fatal but would causes moderate pain and swelling which subsides in a few days. It comes in various colours (morphs) and this one was a green morph. The other group had found a juvenile version of the same but of the brown morph. As we were coming to terms with seeing snakes we also saw a number of other insects including a colourful centipede with green body and orange legs and a hundred legged centipede or Scutigera coleoptrata. I also found a Tiger beetle while I was trying to capture a shot of the Amboli leaping frog. It was a very
Hitler bugHitler bugHitler bug

Can't say they named it wrong
unique purple insect with a distinctive pattern on its body. As we headed back to get dinner, we could not believe the experience we had had. Never had I thought that night life in a forest could be so vivid and exciting.

Expectations were set that the morning trail would not be as exciting as the night ones. A number of the animals were nocturnal in nature and would only come out at night. We started on another trail and the first thing we found was a colourful caterpillar hanging in front of us. It had white spikes over its black body and tiny orange feet. Further ahead, Rakesh showed us the Saptarangi fruit whose botanical name is Salacia Oblonga. He told us that it is a medicinal plant which is used to treat diabetes and is mostly found in India and Sri Lanka. We also saw the Hitler bug which had an uncanny resemblance to ........ Aneesh pointed out the Brahminy skink (Mabuya carinata) to us on a tree and also told us that it is very sensitive to motion. True to his words, as we started going a bit forward it went back to the
Blue Tree CrabBlue Tree CrabBlue Tree Crab

A recently discovered species endemic to Amboli
hole in the tree. On the same tree we also noticed the Tiger centipede which was bright orange in colour with black bands in between. All the while both Aneesh and Rakesh kept telling us how they started this camp. All of them have other jobs during the other parts of the year since the camp is feasible only during the monsoons. Few years back they had learned about this exciting field of study from a few researchers who had visited Amboli and then few of them had become very knowledgeable in the field. They are even pursuing their Phds on the subject. While doing this they had also realized that it would be a fascinating subject to everyone and had decided to arrange the camps through partnerships with the locals so that it would also help their livelihood. It had grown ever since. Due to their intimate knowledge of the habitats and the animals, they could spread awareness and ensure that people do not unethically disturb them. I was really surprised to see them telling us the biological names of so many of the species (that being one of the main reasons I had not pursued Biology). Further ahead,

One of my favourite flowers and never ceases to amaze
Nitin noticed a grasshopper standing (or sitting - don't really know the difference) regally on a leaf. From there we entered into the forest and started seeing various varieties of fungus on the way. Aneesh knew them very well and told us the names too which included Dead man's fingers (really justified the name), cup cake mushroom and the golf ball or puff ball mushroom. One of the exciting things of the morning was the sighting of the Blue tree crab (Ghatiana atropurpurea). This is a recently discovered new species of crab found only in Amboli. It is extremely sensitive to movement and lives in the holes of trees. Near the crab was another Malabar Pit Viper which was also a green morph. As the morning trail ended, we stopped near a pond to capture some purple lotus flowers which were really beautiful. To my surprise I also found an insect right at the middle of the flower which made it even more beautiful. Ever since I had seen a photo of a vibrant lotus on a Navneet notebook cover in school (Navneet is a company which makes school books), I had been fascinated by the vividness of lotuses and
Malabar Pit ViperMalabar Pit ViperMalabar Pit Viper

Green morph
this just furthered my fascination.

Lunch consisted of a special delicacy of rice bread (Akki rotti in Kannada though the dough is made using a different variety of grain) along with the rice and other curries which were again really tasty. For the evening the plan was to visit a plateau nearby where a number of the Amboli toad or Tiger toads reside. That got cancelled though and we were called to Nisarg restaurant since Kaka had found a Montane Trinket snake (Coelognathus helena monticollaris) nearby and was planning to release it in the wild away from roads. It is a non venomous constrictor species found mostly in Central Asia. Its bites are still very painful because of the inward pointing teeth. As we went back to our rooms after capturing a few photos, Kaka came to our room again showing another cute tiny snake which he had found in the middle of the road. It was the Pied Belly shieldtail or the Beddome's black shieldtail (Melanophidium punctatum). This is a shieldtail species endemic to Western Ghats. He told us that these snakes generally live below the ground and are very rarely seen out. The beauty of
I can play the celloI can play the celloI can play the cello

Malabar gliding frog
this one was that it showed off a rainbow of colours on its body when light shone on it. He then safely took it away to release it back away from the roads. For the evening we decided to go to the botanical garden again. As we walked to an empty pond, Aneesh noticed a Beddome's or Nilgiri keelback slithering around. Its biological name is Amphiesma beddomei and it is a species found exclusively in Western Ghats. As we tried to take a few shots from above, it slid into a hole. We moved ahead and found Kaka's group looking at another Malabar Pit Viper of green morph. One of the other locals also found a Bombay shieldtail, Uropeltis macrolepis (a cousin of Beddome's shieldtail) below a rock. It is also an earth snake and as the name suggests it is endemic to southern India. As we were searching more, Aneesh was looking at a tree bark and on close inspection we realized it was the Kolhapur Day Gecko (Cnemaspis kolhapurensis). It was completely camouflaged and only when it moved could we actually realize that there was a lizard there. The day was slowly fading and the activity in the
How you doin ? How you doin ? How you doin ?

A green vine snake in full spledour
garden was increasing as we ambled along. Aneesh told us that he could clearly hear the Amboli Bush frog (Pseudophilautus amboli) but he was not able to locate any since they are supposed to be very well camouflaged. But finally after about 20 minutes, he excitedly called us and we could not but help asking him how he even found it. It was light green with a black-brown at its front and perfectly gelled with the mosses growing on the tree. This species is considered critically endangered since its found only in Amboli and its habitat is being threatened due to urbanization and tourism. Next one was a very surprising find. I noticed something of maroon colour sitting on a tree and took its photo discreetly since I was scared it might fly and bite me. Our guides had gone ahead and when we asked them what it was, they told us that it was a cicada moult. The cicadas post development shed their skins and leave the moult on a plant as they emerge as adults and it was eerily similar to the insect itself. As we again went near the well where we had previously found the Malabar
Cat SnakeCat SnakeCat Snake

This guy/gal gave us a display of his/her prowess by revealing the fang.
Gliding frog, Rakesh found another one this time sitting on a branch holding it like it was a cello. We also saw an Ornate narrow-mouthed frog. Its biological name is Microhyla ornata and it is mostly found in South Asia. We then decided to head back and while on the way to our rooms, we hit the jackpot. One by one new species of animals kept getting visible on our path like models doing a rampwalk. It started with a red crab trying to cross the road. It was really cute and as it was crossing the road, we asked a car to stop to allow it to move to safety. Further ahead was a Bush cricket sitting prominently on a rusted fence. Then we found the Indian common tree frog (Polypedates maculatus). What was surprising with this one was that though the name says common, it is so because it is common in Kerala but not in Amboli. Then finally to cap it off we also saw a Cat snake. This snake is found throughout India and its venom is neurotoxic. It was menacingly sticking its tongue out and even showed off its fangs in the process. After such
Amboli Bush FrogAmboli Bush FrogAmboli Bush Frog

Another rare frog species found only in Western Ghats
an eventful evening, we happily went to have dinner.

The final main trail would be the night trail. It was pitch dark and Rajesh dropped us off at the starting point since it was about 2-3 kms from our location. The plan was that we would walk from there searching for the reptiles and amphibians. It did not live up to the expectations we had after the previous sessions but still had a few notable moments. First was when I found a huge caterpillar feasting on a leaf. It was very large and Rakesh told us that it is a moth's caterpillar. After that we got word that the other group (Kaka's group) were further ahead and moved there. So we started searching on the side of the road there and initially found a pink crab which was another of the newly discovered crab species in Amboli called Ghtiana Splendida. It got its name because of the splendid pink colour. It is mostly active during the monsoons and is also very sensitive to movements near it. Near it were also Eggs of the wrinkled frog (Nyctibatrachus petraeus). These frogs lay their eggs on leaves and the eggs
Ghatiana SplendidaGhatiana SplendidaGhatiana Splendida

Called so because of the splendid pink colour
are so transparent that you can see the tadpoles within them. We found one more Malabar pit viper, a really long green vine snake giving a seductive pose and a few tarantulas which were partially hidden.

Two of the folks in our group left the next morning as we went out for our final trail. I noted down all the botanical names of all the fauna I had been able to capture by quizzing Rakesh about them during the breakfast. It would otherwise have been really tough to find out the names. We again went to the botanical garden specifically the empty pond area. Rakesh had heard from others that there might be a Bicoloured frog and though we initially did not notice it, he was able to locate it. Also called the Malabar frog (Clinotarsus curtipes), it was one of the most colourful frogs we had seen throughout the trip. It had an orange and black mix and it slowly crept into a crevice as it started to drizzle. This frog is also endemic to Western Ghats. Further up I saw a Common Garden Lizard running along the edge of the pond. I could not stop
Eggs of wrinkled frogEggs of wrinkled frogEggs of wrinkled frog

Can clearly see the tadpoles inside
thinking about how closely this resembles a dinosaur albeit a tiny one. As this scuttled towards a pillar, Nitin noticed that there was the huge Indian Bullfrog parked beside one of the pillars. And as we were capturing that, Aneesh noticed a cream morph Malabar Pit Viper on a tree trunk. By then the drizzle turned up its intensity and we could see the pit viper trying to hide itself from the water droplets. As we did not have any rain protection gear for the cameras, we decided to head back. On the way we saw a Slug (different from a snail since it does not have shells), a beautiful mushroom with water droplets on it, a yellow Signature Spider (called so because of the unique pattern in its web) and an Indian Yellow Tit. Since we were free for the rest of the day, we debated through our lunch as to what our next steps should be. We learned that none of the waterfalls would have much water since it had not rained much. The rest of the places of attraction would have too many people since they are touristy places. So we finally decided to head over to
Bicouloured FrogBicouloured FrogBicouloured Frog

Amazing colours
the plateau itself which we had missed the previous day. Rajesh drove us there and Aneesh and Rakesh joined us too. The whole ride was very refreshing as the weather was slightly overcast and the views were really pretty. We also got to learn a lot about the place. As we reached the plateau we were appalled to see that a large cover of trees had been removed. Though this was a forest area, somehow someone had gotten permission to deforest the area without thinking what the consequences would be for the place. Feeling sad we climbed up a small hill to reach the plateau area which was covered with black clay soil giving it a unique view. The view was the trademark western ghats view with a beautiful expanse of greenery around. The fog reduced the visibility and at one point in time we could barely see 100 m ahead of us. We saw a number of Amboli toads/Tiger toads there as expected. There was a template further ahead and a well just beside it. The well had a few skittering frogs and Rajesh even found an eel beneath a rock. We just roamed around the place talking about random things whiling away time. There was also a small pond at the top and we took in the great views. Then slowly we walked back feeling sad that we would be heading back in some time. On the way we stopped at a river and managed to spot the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher which is endemic across the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Once we reached our rooms, we picked up our items and bid farewell to the amazing guides for making it such a special experience.

Even now while i write this after almost 3-4 months, I feel the nostalgia setting in. This experience was such an eye opener for me that I hope I continue doing similar trips going forward. Something to note is the way it was organized. Taking the help of the locals, making sure it is not just for profit but more an awareness program which enables the locals to earn their livelihood and making sure that the biodiversity is not affected by this is something everyone can learn from. It is also deplorable the way habitat destruction is not at all thought of when urbanization occurs. Every city or town needs
Tiger toadTiger toadTiger toad

Also called the amboli toad, we found a lot of them on the plateau. They get the name from the tiger like stripes
to prosper but at what cost ? If we endanger all beings other than us, what are we other than selfish beings who live at the cost of others ? I really hope such initiatives spread awareness and make sure that people understand the effects of corruption and rampant urbanization without paying heed to the forests.

Now to some positive stuff. Amboli is a heaven for biodiversity. Under normal circumstances, people like me would rarely get a chance to experience this. Not only did I get a chance to further my macro photography interest, I also got to learn a whole lot of things about the world of reptiles and amphibians. Another great plus was that I got to experience the Amboli culture and hospitality. The food was great (though the non-veg folks loved it even more), the folks hospitable and the place, out of the world. Thanks to Anish, Kaka, Rajesh and Rakesh for the amazing weekend.

For anyone who is interested here is their link to contact them.

Additional photos below
Photos: 59, Displayed: 39


Fox Brush OrchidFox Brush Orchid
Fox Brush Orchid

Aerides Maculosa, the orchid endemic to the Indian subcontinent with a yellow beetle on it
Fejevarya SahradrisFejevarya Sahradris
Fejevarya Sahradris

Another rare endemic species of Western Ghats
Malabar Pit ViperMalabar Pit Viper
Malabar Pit Viper

A green morph with intricate patterns
What are you looking at ?What are you looking at ?
What are you looking at ?

Amboli leaping frog
Saptrangi/Salacia FruitSaptrangi/Salacia Fruit
Saptrangi/Salacia Fruit

Supposed to be really healthy and used in traditional medicines

Thinking .....
Dead Man's FingerDead Man's Finger
Dead Man's Finger

Makes me remember Pirates of caribbean
Cup cake MushroomCup cake Mushroom
Cup cake Mushroom

Do not mistake it and eat it

Taking its time
Montane Trinket SnakeMontane Trinket Snake
Montane Trinket Snake

A non venomous constrictor species
Pied Belly ShieldtailPied Belly Shieldtail
Pied Belly Shieldtail

The rainbow like glow with light shining on its skin is really cool

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