Please tell us about yourself

As a young boy growing up in Kochi, Sandeep Varma was fascinated with the different colours of frogs, their unique vocalization techniques, and the fact that they are environmental barometers. Among the vertebrates on our planet, frogs are the most diverse, with over 6,700 recorded species.

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

Although Sandeep acquired a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2009, his heart lay in the study of amphibians and reptiles. In 2012, he obtained a master’s degree in conservation biology from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, in the UK. His thesis was centred on research on the reproductive ecology of the Anamalai gliding frogs of the Western Ghats. He studied their behaviour in changing environments as a way of understanding climate change.

Tell us about your career path

After his Master’s, Sandeep joined the Madras Crocodile Bank in Chennai. This is Asia’s largest reptile zoo, not in size, but in species diversity. Being the centre’s Education Officer taught him a lot, not only about frogs but reptiles as well. His day would start with cleaning enclosures and feeding juvenile turtles and crocs, followed by his most important job—interacting with the visitors to the zoo. Always passionate on the subject of reptile awareness, Sandeep was eager to share his knowledge with visitors. Talking about giant crocs, gliding frogs, and busting myths about snakes became his raison d’être.

Living in the zoo allowed this knowledge-seeker unlimited access to their library. He also had an opportunity to attend conferences, including one organized by the Zoological Society of London and the Central Zoo Authority of India.

All the knowledge he acquired motivated Sandeep to learn more about the wilderness and its inhabitants. His focus slowly expanded from amphibians and reptiles to their habitat and all the wildlife it supports.

How does your work benefit the community?

As an ardent conservationist, Sandeep has worn many hats and worked in numerous research environments. He has helped the Indian Institute of Science catalogue its amphibian specimens for their museum. He became a naturalist at Orange County, Kabini which gave him the added opportunity to spot and study big mammals. He trained and was certified by the Karnataka eco-tourism department as a naturalist. His training involved learning to interpret the behaviour of wild animals, which in turn he used to educate local tourists about their environment. Research comes at a price, he says, recalling one scary incident in the forests around Munnar, when he was charged by wild elephants in the dark.

Next stop for Sandeep is Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he has a teaching job and opportunity to explore a different environment. Spreading the message of conservation and encouraging the dissemination of knowledge on herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles) are at the core of what makes this biologist tick.