Saving Matheran's tiny residents

Updated: 29 December, 2019 08:08 IST | Abhishek Mande Bhot | Mumbai

Four young men from Badlapur want you to first see, and then help them conserve the rare microfauna of the forests of Matheran.

Ants by Mandar Ghumare
Ants by Mandar Ghumare

Aniket Thopate, Shashank Raul, Mandar Ghumare and Viraj Ghaisas have been photographing the forests of Matheran for six years now. The 25-year-olds have known each other since school but their real bond comes from their love of nature. "We live in Badlapur, from where Matheran is easily accessible. We had been visiting the hill station since we were children but our interest in the region's biodiversity grew only over the last few years," Thopate says. "Mandar and Shashank were snake rescuers and eventually Viraj and I got interested in it too. Over the years, our area of interest expanded from snakes to other creatures."

None of them have a formal education in biology or conservation. None, with the exception of Thopate, have trained in photography either. Yet, the four are the go-to team for everything related to the biodiversity of Matheran. "Over the years, we've taught ourselves by reading research papers by credible biologists, studying the various species closely and looking up the Internet," Thopate says.

The Frog by Aniket Thopate
The Frog by Aniket Thopate

It's this single-minded pursuit of learning more about the creatures, plants and fungi in their neighbourhood that's made the four popular among researchers and the local municipal council alike. "We guided a team of scientists from Gujarat who wanted to study the various species of orchids that grow in Matheran. We're also working with our municipality to document the biodiversity of the region," he says.

Over the years, Thopate and team has documented and photographed several species of serpents, amphibians, plants, fungi and plant parasites in the region. He says, "Most people visiting Matheran don't realise that what they see is just a fraction of the region's biodiversity. Matheran has over 200 sq km of forest area that is home to the barking deer, mongoose, palm civets, several species of owls and frogs and the critically endangered giant squirrel. Local tribes have told us that we even have even seen fungi that glows in the dark."

Chameleon by Viraj Ghaisas
Chameleon by Viraj Ghaisas

Thopate says that the forests of Matheran experience a phenomenon that's not dissimilar to the Christmas Island red crab migration. "At a particular time in the monsoon, there are thousands of frogs that migrate from different parts of the forest to a particular cave to hibernate for the rest of the year. It's not common in a country like India. And yet no one seems to have heard of it," he says.

It's reasons like these that made Thopate, Raul, Ghumare and Ghaisas turn to activisim. "We have protected reserves for the tiger, rhino and elephant. But little is being done for the microfauna of our country. These little toads, fungi and reptiles are all important to the biodiversity of the region," Thopate says. They've presented their proposal before a photography magazine's panel that has shortlisted their project for the final round.

Dragonfly by Shashank Raul
Dragonfly by Shashank Raul

They're also educating the local municipal council and working with the tribes of the region. But they understand that the topic can be, well, dry when they have to explain it to a first timer. "So we've decided to show the magic that exists in the forests of Matheran," he says. Conveniently, their six years of photography has come handy, like when they made a presentation for the magazine. At the moment they're curating their five-year research into a book or a digital project. "The moment we show what it is that we're trying to save, people will be more invested in joining in. We don't want the forests of Matheran to face the same fate as Aarey. That's really the end goal."

(From left) Anket Thopate, Shashank Raul, Mandar Ghumare and Viraj Ghaisas
(From left) Anket Thopate, Shashank Raul, Mandar Ghumare and Viraj Ghaisas

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First Published: 29 December, 2019 07:49 IST

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