Please tell us about yourself

Within the quiet hush of the Collection Facility at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, amid neat rows of closed boxes and an organised clutter of open boxes, sits a man intently focussed on taxonomy. “How do you know what to conserve or work on, if you do not even know what species the animal is?” he asks with a smile. Varad Giri is passionate about his efforts in identifying, classifying, surveying and mapping the distributions of a host of reptiles and amphibians. The tagline at the end of the article on the Sanctuary Asia website reads ‘And for this, we honour him’ – the honour comes with respect earned through nearly two decades of hard work and enduring gruelling field conditions while meticulously surveying remote areas.

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Highly skilled in his work, Varad has published in innumerable national and international journals, is credited with the rediscovery of the Jeypore Indian gecko after 135 years and has described till date, 30 new species of amphibians and reptiles from India. He is also credited with the discovery of the first Asian species of amphibians that bear live young. Apart from these achievements, he has also inspired world-famous colleagues and students to name two newly discovered species after him – the snake Dendrepahis girii and the gecko Cnemaspis girii. Having trained and worked at the iconic Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) for over ten years, he has brought his skills to NCBS, where he currently works as a post-doctoral fellow.

What do you do?

Giri did his Masters in Zoology from Shivaji University and PhD in Herpetology from North Orissa University.

Giri’s current work not only includes the establishment and organisation of the herpetology section in the Collections Facility here; he is also actively working to revise and create morphological keys for identifying reptiles and amphibians. “Morphological taxonomy as a field has not evolved as much as other fields of biology in India. I think it is important to update this field by describing variations in old characters, and investigating new characters; for example, microscopy of stained tissue and skeletal traits for species identification in herpetology. I am also trying to develop keys that will allow even people with no background in the life sciences to identify reptiles and amphibians atleast to the Genus level”. Through the online courses he has conducted and networking sites like Facebook, Giri has collected a group of amateur herpetologists who often help with his work. His enthusiasm for the work he does is infectious, and Giri inspires others to follow his example in this field.

What does Giri envision for the field of herpetology in India? “I hope to see more interest in this field. Amateurs in the field of ecology are often swayed by and attracted to charismatic species such as tigers as prospective study organisms. Not many realise that there are a huge number of equally important small and less charismatic species like amphibians and reptiles to work on. In 2015, we are still struggling to document this diversity. We still don’t know how many amphibians and reptiles are there in the Indian subcontinent”, says Giri. A case in point is the fact that in the last 10 years, more than a 100 new species of amphibians and reptiles have been described from India. Giri is optimistic about the future of herpetology in India as people are slowly, but surely awakening to the fact that amphibians and reptiles are ecologically important. However, this area of research often  entails unconventional working conditions – for example, geckos are nocturnal and very well camouflaged, which makes capturing them  a challenge; and caecilians live predominantly underground and need to be dug up to be studied.

Finally, when asked how winning this award is likely to affect his work, Giri replies, “It will definitely help with my dealings with the forest department, for this is quite a prestigious award. Now, I can convince locals and forest department workers that what they casually dismiss as a ‘chipkali’ (lizard) is an important part of an area’s ecosystem”. On a more personal level, Giri feels that the award is an essential form of encouragement for him. “The recognition is important, both to me personally for having my work acknowledged, and also for future generations of researchers who will see that their work has a chance to be recognised”, he adds.

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

At 33, Varad Giri still carries with him an excitement for snakes, which he first nursed as a Masters Student in Zoology at Sivaji University in Kolhapur. After finishing his Masters, Giri jumped jobs before latching on to a job at BNHS to learn about snakes. “On weekdays, I am out in the forests. If anyone catches this virus for stalking the forest, it never leaves you. It will pull you out of your bed and home,” he says. When Giri went to see a girl to get married, he was puzzled by a gecko on the wall and before the proceedings could start, had pocketed it. He remains a bachelor. In jeans and a variety of T-shirts, having imprints of snakes, Giri got us together at the open-air bamboo auditorium to explain the search technique for reptiles. “Just do not pick up stones and boulders carelessly as it could be risky. Sometimes reptiles rest under them and could attack when disturbed. Lift the stones with care with the open-end looking away from you to keep the line of attack away from you. Again, when you place the stone back, do not drop it but put it soflty in place. Please treat snakes with some compassion. This is called the direct search method,” he explained. A crowd of 35 to 40 split into groups and went about upturning stones and scraping dead tree trunks to find reptiles. They were told to pack the specimens in plastic bags or plastic boxes. Giri lead the force looking down into rock crevices and raising boulders to have a peep. In the evening, there were rounds of discussions over the catch, apart from slide shows on reptiles with most of the photographs having been taken by him. On the first day, the groups did spot, with Giri in attendance, a blind snake, brown in colour with its eyes covered with scales, a whitish two-tail spider hard to note on the trunk of a teak tree, a skink, a Brook’s Gecko (Hemidactylus brookii; pal in Marathi) and rock agamid (sarda in Marathi). It was the first time one learnt the difference between geckos and agamids with Giri going into some interesting basics. With the specimens firmly held in his palm, one could look at them closely. Indian geckos have flat bodies with the skin being transparent and granular. The geckos have vertical pupils and can slither across the ceiling of a room owing to the digits or pads provided with lamelle (plates) on the toes to assist in climbing. In `The Book of Indian Reptiles and Amphibians’, J.C. Daniel writes: “In Indian geckos, this feature shows maximum development in the genus Hemidactylus. These have, on the surface of the toe-lamellae, a mat of setae (hair-like structures) each ending in a pair of spoon-like cups less than a micro in width. These can be observed under an electron microscope. In its absence, Varad fitted two camera lenses to get a near look at the gecko and one was impressed by the clarity. There are numerous theories explaining the walking behaviour of the geckos with none being the last word. In sharp contrast, the agamids have rounded pupils, overlapping scales and no pads. “As among other lizards, the shape of the body is indicative of the habit, arboreal forms are flattened laterally and ground-dwelling forms are flattened dorsoventrally. The types of scales on the body and their arrangement are good aids for distinguishing between species,” writes Daniel. The toughest part was to come when Giri invited one to handle the specimens. Centuries of secular and non-secular literature have never been kind to reptiles. Every ugly habit has been assigned to them with the added rule of them being venomous when only a few are. In zoology classes, reptiles sit outside classrooms and for most of us fear precedes any rational comprehension. One escaped the physical handling the first day but on the second day one got to hold an agamid and a gecko with some calm. The ones caught by the groups bit hard but there was no venom in them. Roaming the Semadoh range, some saw a black scorpion being released from a matchbox by a forest guard and every one was keen on a repeat performance. It took a stick for the guard to pick up the scorpion as it ran over the stick before being packed into a matchbox. All the specimens were released after study though, till the end, Giri was upset in not being able to see a snake. “One reason could be the temperature extremes in Satpuda and Melghat. At present, the temperature on the forest floor is around 7 degrees, and in summer, could shoot up to 45 degrees making it hard for snakes. In the Western Ghats, the temperature ranges around 30 degrees making it easier to watch and catch reptiles,” Giri said even as he hoped till the last moment for some snake sighting. “Perhaps, the best time in the Satpuda range is early June or July,” he added with a drop of disappointment. Some time ago, Giri and some friends of his searched an area in the Western Ghats for three days and nights and were about to give up when he came up with a catch of a rare ambhibian, a caecilian, styled Gegeneophis danieli.

Perhaps, the defining moment came at one of the evening talk sessions, when the college crowd expressed their deep desire to see a tiger forgetting the fact of having come to Melghat on an herpetological survey. “Will we be able to see a tiger?” a lady asked. They were not enthused by the Melghat forest or Giri’s emotion for snakes.