Panaji, India (AFP) July 28, 2010
At night during the annual monsoon rains, hundreds of tropical villages in rural Goa come alive with the cacophony of croaking bullfrogs calling for mates after months in hibernation.
But while lucky amphibians manage to attract a female consort, an unfortunate few fall prey to poachers who follow the distinctive mating calls to zero in on what they call "jumping chicken".
Gearing up for a frog hunt is like preparing for a covert military mission: you choose a moonless night, wear camouflage to blend in with the surroundings, carry a powerful torch to stun the target and a knife for a quick, silent kill. "We use the torch beam to stun the frog once we spot it from a distance," said one Goan frog hunter, who asked for his name not to be used for fear of prosecution.
"Then all we have to do is walk up to it from its blindside, pick the frog up and tuck it into a sack which we carry along. It's as easy as that."
"Jumping chicken", as frogs' legs are known locally in the Indian resort state, are a delicacy, as in France, where they have become a symbol of the country's cuisine.
The Goa version is served either shallow fried, in minced cutlets or cooked in a thick curry. Costs range from 80 to 100 rupees (1.7 to 2.1 dollars), depending on the number of legs or the girth of the cooked limbs.
"Jumping chicken is seasonal, therefore rare, which makes it all the more alluring," said one restaurateur, who runs an eatery in a north Goa village, where the contraband meat is only served to the most trusted of customers.
"It's spicy and tastes great with feni (a Goan liquor made from coconut or cashews) or beer when it's raining cats and dogs outdoors," he added, also requesting anonymity.
The restaurant also sells an assortment of banned wild game meat, including deer, porcupine and wild boar.
Goans -- famed for their love of meat -- developed a taste for lean frog flesh when catching the amphibians was legal.
The large Indian Bullfrog and Jerdon's Bullfrog, which are found in wetlands throughout the Indian subcontinent, were popular because of their fleshy legs.
But the Indian government designated them a protected species in 1985, amid concern over falling numbers.
Now, any individual or restaurant caught catching, killing, selling, serving or eating frog meat runs the risk of a 25,000 rupee fine, a jail term of up to three years or both.
Both types of frog also feature on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of endangered species, although the wildlife body says numbers are stable and the main risk comes from loss of their natural habitat.
In one big haul this year, Goa state's forest department seized about 60 frogs from one poacher as he headed home from what he thought was a profitable night's hunting.
Many of the poachers are white-collar workers, swapping a day behind the desk for a night scouring Goa's marshes and forests.
"There have been no cases within protected forests, but all cases registered this year fall in semi-urban areas and villages," said Goa's deputy conservator of forests, Devendra Dalai.
"Every year we step up protection to monitor activity outside notified forest areas, especially agricultural fields where frogs are abundant. Within forest areas, checks are regularly done."
Local environment groups have been working to raise awareness of the issue, highlighting the place frogs have in maintaining a region's ecological balance.
They warn that their disappearance could lead to an increase in diseases like malaria, as mosquitoes and mosquito larvae are a main source of food for tadpoles and frogs.
A decline in numbers could lead to an increase in the use of pesticides by farmers, with the extra cost of food production passed on to the consumer.
The prevalence of snakes, too, could rise as they search for other sources of food, like rats, which live near human settlements.
Restaurant-goers, though, are undeterred by the warnings or the threat of prosecution, taking a risk for a taste of the exotic. For restaurateurs, the illicit trade provides a boost to takings.
Danger, though, is everywhere. Strangers, suspected policemen or forest department officials all face subtle questions about their identity before the dish is served.
"Its an occupational hazard," said the restaurant owner. "We can't just about let anyone in."
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