The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, March 09, 2015


Frogs farewell spawns curse   

Back in the early 1980s a fresh young undergraduate loved wandering through the paddy that was an integral part of the Malang Teachers’ College campus.
On her walks Dwi Listyorini (right)monitored the crops thriving in the fertile East Java valley dusted with rich volcanic ash, for this is three-harvests-a-year farmland with some of the world’s finest soils; she marvelled at the color transformations of the ripening rice and admired the graceful white herons soaring in to feed in the shallows.
Above all she enjoyed hearing the frogs call after rain:  “I loved their song,” she recalled, “it was beautiful, a natural thing. They sounded so happy and made me feel happy too.”
But Dwi wasn’t just a romanticist.  There’s a sharp edge to this smart lady. As a biology student she needed specimens to dissect, so it was easy to pop a jolly gargling frog into her bag then slice it on a laboratory bench.  One less among the millions wouldn’t make a difference.
Then the world slipped into overdrive.  Indonesians lusted for higher education and the government eventually responded.  The college became the Malang State University [UM].  Student Dwi became Dr Al-Jabari after winning a doctoral scholarship to study genes at the Tokyo Metropolitan University and marrying a Palestinian computer expert.
On her return she found new classrooms had sprouted where grains once grew. Ponds had been drained.  Parking lots, a tennis court, even a swimming pool had been installed.
Trees she remembered for their grace and shade had disappeared.  So had the wandering streams, now disciplined to follow straight lines, by-passing buildings and channelled under roads.  The rice bowl had been caked with concrete.
Also gone were the frogs – or almost all. The 45-hectare campus chorus is now jack hammers and shovels scraping aggregate as UM races to meet the demand for more teaching space.  More than 30,000 students are enrolled in eight faculties.
“In 1995 we had seven species of frog on campus,” Dr Al-Jabari said.  “In the last survey published in The Journal of Tropical Life Science my students discovered only three varieties.  The others have disappeared through pollution and loss of habitat.
“It seems as though we’ve been cursed for what we’re doing to the environment.  Now we have to buy our frogs.”

The biotechnical laboratory that Dr Al-Jabari heads needs about 100 frogs a semester for student dissection.  They cost between Rp 10,000 [US 80 cents] to Rp 15,000 [US$1.20] each and they come from the village of Sambigede, about an hour’s drive west of Malang.  
The shelves of her top floor laboratory glisten with jars of partly dissected amphibians, their pop eyes peering blindly through a soup of preservatives at the sterile world of science, webbed fingers clawing the glass.
 “Indonesia is rich in frogs,” said Dr Al-Jabari who also lectures on vertebrate biodiversity and conservation.  “Although there are only 42 species in Java there are more than 400 others across the archipelago.”
That sounds significant, but world-wide there are twelve times as many – some authorities claim the ratio is 15 times more. This year the discovery in Sulawesi by an international research team of a previously unknown fanged frog was announced.
The find has excited natural science because this species gives birth to live young, by-passing the egg-laying favored by its relatives.
“Frogs are good indicator species for the health of the environment. Their skins are moist and permeable so they are sensitive to pollutants,” said Dr Al-Jabari.
“There are stories of developmental abnormalities among tadpoles exposed to chemicals.  Around the globe there have been reports of declining numbers.
Biology student Siti Lutvaniyah seeks signs of frogs on UM campus

“Few children respect frogs and boys like kicking them.   They think they’re slimy and disgusting. There’s a belief that frog urine is poisonous. Indonesian culture doesn’t have the relationship with frogs that’s found in the West, as in nursery rhymes and Kermit.”
Kermit the Frog was the most famous of the late American television puppeteer Jim Henson’s Muppet creations, first appearing in 1955 and still internationally popular.
His song, It’s not easy being Green has become an anthem for conservationists.
Dr Al-Jabari’s suggestions for campus development include fewer single-level buildings to allow more green areas, and underground car parks.
“As scientists we have a responsibility to tell the truth about frogs,” she said. “We need to get back to nature.  Where frogs thrive the environment is clean – that’s the proof. In my garden at home there’s always a frog.”

Frog Factory
Supplier of amphibians to UM is Ibu Risman, and it’s just a tiny slice of her business in Sambigede,. The serious money comes from her frog abattoir, slaughtering and processing 200 kilos of the little creatures every three days for human consumption overseas.
The amphibians are delivered in sacks and cut up soon after arrival.  It takes about twelve frogs to make a kilo.
In a covered yard alongside her house three women squat on the floor.  One beheads, another skins, pulling the leather off like a glove, while the third yanks out the stomach and trims what’s left with a pair of scissors. 
As they die the twitching frogs spread-eagle their bodies, exposing a white tummy. Nothing is wasted – the heads and guts are used to feed fish and the skin is said to make a tasty cracker.
The frog legs are packed in ice and trucked to the city of Kediri where they are reprocessed for export.

While awaiting their fate the croakers stay silent, as though they know resistance is useless.  Occasionally one leaps away, hiding behind plastic buckets and Styrofoam boxes. But the killer trio are deadly efficient and soon have the escapee in hand and ready for the knife.
Local men collect the frogs at night while wandering the paddy with spotlights strapped to their foreheads.  A good session might yield one hunter five kilos of frogs.  Ibu Risman also buys snakes paying Rp 44,000 [US$ 3.50] a kilo.
Most are Enhydris plumbea, the rice paddy snake endemic to South Asia and not listed as endangered. They are killed for their skin and blood, which is used in traditional medicines along with the intestines.  Occasionally the hunters bring in big pythons which get sold as pets.
Indonesia is reported to be the world’s largest exporter of frogs for human consumption selling 5,000 tonnes a year, mainly to France, Belgium and the US. Although the food is haram [forbidden] to Muslims, frog leg soup known as swikee can be found in many restaurants in Indonesia serving Chinese food.
The good anecdotal evidence – at least from this one village – is that frog numbers aren’t declining.  The species is Hylarana erythraea, the Green paddy frog.
“I’ve been in this business since 1973 and there’s no shortage,” said Ibu Risman. “We can keep up with demand.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 9 March 2015)
Since this story was published Dr Al-Jabari has pointed out that  she teaches animal development using frogs and heads a Genetic Regulation laboratory - not a Biotechnical Laboratory.

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