You don’t have to be a scientist to discover a new species or educate people about their natural wealth or create livelihoods for tribes in remote places.

Meet Sanjay Sondhi, the man who has done all of this and more.

Lalitha Krishnan
Jan 29 · 13 min read

Nature Conservation and Livelihoods Ep #8

Heart of Conservation. Your podcast from the Himalaya

Show notes: (edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re listening to Ep#8 of Heart of Conservation. Your podcast from the Himalaya. I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan, bringing you stories from the wild. Stay tuned for interesting interviews and exciting stories that keep you connected to our natural world.

(Listen on SoundCloud, Google podcast, Apple podcasts or Spotify).

My guest today Sanjay Sondhi, is a man responsible for discovering a new species — the Bompu Litter Frog. This frog discovered by Sanjay was previously unknown to science. Sanjay is well known for his expertise on moths and butterflies and conducts workshops for the same. His nature column, Doon watch, in Hindustan Times and a column called Urban Nature Watch published in TERI’s monthly magazine are both very popular reads. He has researched and authored an impressive number of field guides on butterflies, lizards, and amphibians, and is involved in conservation and livelihood projects in the western and eastern Himalaya.

Sanjay is a trustee with the Titli Trust. He is an IIT grad with 20 + years in the corporate world. Now, he’s dedicating his time to the natural world as a full time practicing conservationist. I spoke to him over Skype.

Welcome to Heart of Conservation Podcast Sanjay. I’m so thrilled to be talking to you today.

Sanjay Sondhi: Likewise*

Lalitha Krishnan: Sanjay when did you decide you’ve had enough of the corporate world and decided to take the road less travelled?

Sanjay Sondhi: Lalitha, in my case, actually, I had taken this decision quite some time ago. In fact, while I was doing my engineering from IIT, Kanpur, midway through my engineering I decided that I wanted to look at a different career and not necessarily engineering. But I finished my engineering; I got my degree, then I spend two years evaluating options for a full-time career in wildlife. At that point in time, virtually the only option that seemed to be viable was getting into the Indian forest service — there were very few active NGOs at that point in time — or doing research in places like Wildlife Institute of India. I spent two years trying to figure out if I wanted to do that, you know. I came to the conclusion, that I would not lie to be in government service and I wanted to be “a free bird” while I was doing what I was passionate about. Then I took the decision that I am going to continue to work… that I enjoyed my work — it’s not that I did not enjoy my work — early 40s I am going to quit and spend half my life in the corporate world and the second half doing conservation. That’s effectively what I did. Early 40s I called it a day and now I’m doing this full time

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re very brave, I must say. This decision — have you been happy with it?

Sanjay Sondhi: Yeah, it’s now been 10 years. I quit in 2008. Absolutely no regrets. I’ve enjoyed every moment of it. Absolutely.

Lalitha Krishnan: Sanjay you were in Pune earlier. What brought you to Doon?

Sanjay Sondhi: In my last job, I was based in Pune but my wife, Anchal, who is an environmentalist and is also very passionate about nature… both of us felt we didn’t want to live in the big cities. We said, “let’s get out of these “urban landscapes.” Both our parents’ live in Delhi and surrounding areas. Obviously, both of us had a very strong link and passion with the Himalayas and Dehradun seemed like a good place because my son was still in school so I had to educate him. So from a point of view of proximity to the hills, great wildlife, compared to the big urban cities, we choose Dehradun. But we have no links otherwise to Dehradun. We just said, “OK, let’s go to Dehradun.”

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s true. It’s close enough to escape and close enough to go back to the bigger cities if you want to. OK, Sanjay. You conduct workshops on butterflies and moths regularly. I love the fact that you’re doing this locally. Especially, for all of us who are here. It’s a great opportunity to learn about our natural wealth. When did you start this?

Sanjay Sondhi: I am not a trained scientist. My love affair with nature began when I was a young child. My grandparents had a home in Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh and I think from the age of three or four, I used to spend every summer-spend 21/2 months in Dalhousie. Basically, wandering the wild. Wander all over the forest and stuff like that. But my formal introduction into wildlife, creatures, species…actually happened in a nature club in IIT Kanpur.

I started off with an interest in birds. I did bird watching for a period of time. Then I got into butterflies, snakes, lizards, frogs…everything that moved, effectively. So butterflies and moths were somewhere along this journey. Butterflies started earlier and moths came later. But I also like studying things that aren’t well studied. Lesser know fauna is of greater interest to me than mammals and large wildlife. That’s why I pursued this line.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. What’s the best season in the Doon valley or Uttarakhand to go butterflies watching?

Sanjay Sondhi: If you talk of the Doon valley, if you talk of lower altitudes — and when I say lower altitudes I mean less than a 1000mtrs — then, there are two peaks of activity. One is the summers or the pre-monsoon: April-June and the other is post- monsoon which is Sept-November. This is the Doon valley. If you come higher up…if you come to Mussoorie for e.g., the peak activity season is April, May, and June. Post monsoon, it becomes too cold and the number of species decreases significantly.

Lalitha Krishnan: Does Uttarakhand have any signature species that we should be looking out for? Or were they there and not there anymore?

Sanjay Sondhi: You know, I wrote this book on Butterflies of Uttarakhand. The book has exactly 500 species. Interestingly, out of those 500 species, about 62 species have not been recorded in Uttarakhand for 50 years or more.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s unbelievable. I mean, that’s a large number of species…

Sanjay Sondhi: You know, almost, I would say, 15% of those species were seen at some point in time in the last century and a half but aren’t seen now. The reasons are obvious you know: habit degradation, unbridled development, climate change…

Lalitha Krishnan: I was going to ask you about that. We keep learning people saying that butterflies are indicators of climate change or the state of their habitats? Yeah, tell us?

Sanjay Sondhi: You’re right. In fact, butterflies are a really good, bio-indicator- indicator of the health of the ecosystem. The reason it is so is that like most other insects, butterflies are first, cold-blooded. They are very sensitive to ambient conditions, which is temperature and humidity. And the butterfly life cycle which is from egg to larva, to pupae to the adult butterfly — the early stages which are the caterpillars — they are also very selective. You have butterfly species where the caterpillars can be either monophagous or oligophagous or polyphagous. Which means that there are some species which will only feed on a single plant species. That’s called monophagous. There are some that will feed on a small selection, which is oligophagous. And then, there are some that are generalists and can feed on a variety of plants. Effectively, if you are cutting down a forest and plant species are disappearing and plant diversity is reducing, it’s going to have a very, very direct impact on butterfly diversity. So if you have habitat destruction and if you have climate change impacting plants, then it has a very direct link and impacts both the diversity as well as the density of butterflies.

Lalitha Krishnan: We need to spread the word about that.

Sanjay Sondhi: In fact, one of the things I often get very upset about is…we hear of deforestation happening in the name of development everywhere and the solutions that the powers-to-be propose is that we’ll plant trees elsewhere to compensate for biodiversity…

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes…

Sanjay Sondhi: Which is ridiculous right? If you plant trees all you will have is monoculture plantations. And monoculture plantations do nothing for biodiversity. Monoculture plantations from a biodiversity point are detrimental to the health of an ecosystem.

Lalitha Krishnan: I guess, one thing you could do locally is to encourage people to grow plants…at least have butterfly gardens.

Sanjay Sondhi: Not only grow plants…I do this all the time…not only grow plants, I tell them to grow plants that are native.

Lalitha Krishnan: Native, that’s what I mean. OK. Everyone in the conservation field in the northeast states knows you? Tell us about your work over there?

Sanjay Sondhi: So, basically if you look at India, there are two biodiversity hotspots. One is the Himalayan region and the Western Ghats. In the Himalayan region, people also look at, what is called the Indo-Malayan region which is the hills of north-east India. That part of the country has got the most number of birds, the most number of butterflies, the most number of virtually, every faunal group.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, I went to Arunachal and I was blown away, I have never seen forests like that.

Sanjay Sondhi: So I decided very early, I wanted to spend some time there. Over the last decade or so, I have been making four-five trips a year to Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland primarily. In most of the places, what I do is I select or prioritize a habitat or landscape that I want to work in. I do biodiversity assessments in that area and using the information from these biodiversity assessments, we work with local communities on a conservation and livelihood programmes where we tell the locals, “You should be conserving your natural resources. You conserve your natural resources and we’ll help you earn an alternate livelihood that is sustainable. Which is, largely, nature-linked tourism”. So I’ve been doing this in the Garo Hills, in Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and few other locations in Nagaland, as well.

Lalitha Krishnan: You must be at home there now and know every natural habitat.

Sanjay Sondhi: I have many city folks asking me, “Is it safe?” I tell them, “Look I made 60 visits in the last decade and nothing ever happened to me. So, it’s really quite safe.

Lalitha Krishnan: What do they think is unsafe? I don’t get it. The air in Delhi is not safe…

Sanjay Sondhi: It’s incredible. The questions I get asked! I don’t know how to respond.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s funny. Sanjay you’ve made such a huge discovery. Tell us about it. Were you looking for frogs in particular when you discovered the Bombu Litter frog?

Sanjay Sondhi: Oh no. Absolutely not. I did a five-year assessment of butterflies and moths. It was a project that I was doing across, what is called, the Kameng Protected Area Complex. This is basically a 4000sq k.m. area which was from Pakke Tiger Reserve all the way to Eaglenest including Sessa Orchid Wildlife Sanctuary. So during one of these visits, while I was studying butterflies and moths, I was in a place called Bombu and for 4 days in a row, it just rained. It used to rain day and night. So if it’s raining you know, there’s no activity of butterflies and there are very limited moths as well. So the only other thing, I could do is look for frogs. So, that’s what I did. I went out at night looking for frogs to photograph and I found this particular frog which had blue-eyes. I had never heard of a blue-eyed frog from India before. I photographed it and I wondered if it is something new. Fortunately, we had collected permits so I collected just one specimen but I took readings and records of numerous other individuals that I found there. And when I came back to Dehradun and started investigating, I found out that the frog genus was called Leptobrachium and there are just two species of that genus known from India. The, I had to look at all the other species that are known from the rest of the oriental region, viz China, Philippines, Vietnam and stuff like that. And sure enough, it turned out to be a new species. So I collaborated with a French-scientist called Ann Mary Oler and together we published this paper describing it as a new species in India and of the world of course.

Lalitha Krishnan: Such an incredible thing. Amazing, really. I don’t know anyone else who has discovered something new. So tell me, were they vocal? The frogs? You said you went out…did you hear them, did you know where to look? How does one go out looking for frogs in the night? I have never done that before. Sorry if I sound ignorant.

Sanjay Sondhi: Actually, there are two ways to search for frogs. One is, obviously, if you’re there and they’re breeding the males will be calling. In this particular case, this male was calling. But, it was hidden in the leaf litter. It took me almost 20 minutes to find it. I could hear the call but I could see the frog. Then, of course, I had to hunt for it and I did eventually find it. And of course, the second way to look for frogs is through eyeshine. So, if you actually shine a torch at a frog, their eyes shine and hence you can locate them. But this frog was located because of its call.

Lalitha Krishnan: It was calling to be discovered. Sanjay is it true that if you discover a new species you have the right to name it or have I got it wrong?

Sanjay Sondhi: Yes, it’s correct. If you find a new species, you do get to name it but you can’t name it after yourself. OK? That’s part of the rules. There’s an international body, which is called ICZN, which International Convention for Zoological Nomenclature and they have their rules in terms of what you can do and can’t do.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK

Sanjay Sondhi: You can’t name it after yourself and what I decided is that I wanted to name it after the locality that it was found in.

Lalitha Krishnan: That makes sense.

Sanjay Sondhi: Yeah, so the locals take pride…saying, “wow” you know? Bompu is the location where it was found and I named it after that locality. And hence, it’s called the Bompu Litter Frog.

Lalitha Krishnan: What does your discovery mean for science?

Sanjay Sondhi: Well, the fact is that it just continues to showcase and indicate that there are so many species, we are still to discover. And instead of going out and finding out what else is out there, you know with habitat loss, we are losing species at a rate that is incredible. You keep hearing numbers being touted by (I)UCN about the fact that 30% — in the case of amphibians, they believe 30% of global species will be extinct in the next decade. It just reinforces the fact that………………(lost in Skype transmission). We can only do that if we protect our habitats and ecosystems.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. How were your efforts recognized? Do you think this has helped you further your conservation efforts?

Sanjay Sondhi: I think so. I think that the Eaglenest landscape per se, you know–a friend of mine, Ramana Athreya had discovered a new bird species called Bugun liocichla. Subsequent to that,t I discovered this frog. And, subsequent to that, we have not discovered new species, but we’ve had numerous records of butterflies and moths which were extremely rare and new records for India. And all of this has helped in multiple ways. Number one, it has highlighted the conservation importance of that landscape. Number two, it has made the local folks realize that this is a landscape that needs to be protected. Number three; it has given a boost to tourism. I mean there are two tribes in Eaglenest. The Sherdukpen tribe and the Bugun tribe who are running community-based and eco-tourism based projects and are earning a livelihood from it. Now, the livelihood has become so important that the Bugun tribe has actually donated a large tract of community land to make a community conservation reserve, where some of these species reside. It has helped even the locals realize the importance of their own lands.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK Sanjay, do you mind sharing a conservation word/term that’s significant for you. It could be anything.

Sanjay Sondhi: OK. I think for me, there are two words that are really really important. And they go together. it’s not a fancy word — it’s ‘conservation’ and ‘livelihoods’. I believe the only way to conserve landscapes, species, flora, and fauna is to involve the people that live in that landscape. And the only way we can get them to conserve it is if we incentivize conservation by offering them a livelihood that incentivizes conservation. if they are actually earning money from saving their forests, that’s probably the best way to link conservation and livelihood.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great. Thank you very much, Sanjay. Count me in for your next workshop which is in May, right?.

Sanjay Sondhi: Thanks Lalitha. The Devalsari Titli Utsav- (we) just announced the dates. 9–12 May. Thanks.

Lalitha Krishnan: You can read more about Sanjay Sondhi on the http://www.titlitrust.org. Hope you’re enjoying the conservations about conservation. I would love some feedback. If you know someone who’s doing some interesting work or whose work should be showcased, do write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. And stay tuned for news view and updates from the world of conservation by subscribing to Heart of Conservation. Your podcast from the Himalaya.

*Apologies to Sanjay for not hearing the response during the recording.

Photos: courtesy Sanjay Sondhi

Birdsong by hillside residents

Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the podcast and show notes belong solely to the guest featured in the episode, and not necessarily to the host of this podcast/blog or the guest’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.


Originally published at earthymatters.blog on January 29, 2019.

Lalitha Krishnan

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I live in the Himalayan foothills and love to document life - wild or otherwise.https://www.instagram.com/lalithainsta/ https://earthymatters013.wordpress.com/