Parashuram Mahadev Lad
Photo Courtesy: Kishor Rithe
P.M. Lad was a legend in his lifetime. A member of the Indian Forest Service, he spent a lifetime defending wildlife and the forests he loved. Kishor Rithe writes about this passionate birder, who visited every Indian state, save for Tripura, to study and enjoy the avians of the Indian subcontinent.
“P.M. Lad is no more.” The message was so stark, so difficult to digest that I actually contemplated dialling his cell number to confirm the news! He was not just close to my heart, but was a man I admired. He taught me much about life and the wildernesses I am sworn to defend. I spoke to him at least once a week, sometimes more often, our conversations ranging from his latest birding trip to conservation issues of national importance. Now he is gone… and I carry both the joy and the burden of being the sole beneficiary of some of the vast field experiences he shared with me. When he went, a vital and very unique repository of knowledge built over years of detailed observations in the field went with him.
After a lifetime of work, I was sad to see how unhappy he was about the state of wildlife conservation in India. In 2017, I found myself at a loss for words when he asked me hard questions about how the Chief Secretary of Madhya Pradesh could endanger Lesser Floricans by imposing a ban of sale of private agricultural lands inside the boundary of the Sailana Sanctuary. This, he knew, would anger the farmers, who owned the land (few use to cultivate, mostly kept untilled). I shared his pain, but hated the fact that he had to confront the unthinkable… that wildlife conservation was floundering in India. I did what I could, for I too wanted to protect this elusive bird species. I wanted to give him the comfort of knowing that the effort to protect what was precious to him would not be abandoned. I introduced him to legal experts and to my close friend Praveen Singh Pardeshi, Additional Chief Secretary, in the Office of the Chief Minister of Maharashtra. But his anger and disappointment with the slide in wildlife governance could not be assuaged because the truth is there was no concrete outcome that he, or I for that matter, could see.
Born in Khedi Sawaligadh, a small village in the Betul district of Madhya Pradesh, Lad saab completed his Bachelors in Mathematics from Nagpur, and was among the first batch of IFS trainees to complete a forestry course at the Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy, Dehradun, in 1959. He was then posted at Harda and Rewa in Madhya Pradesh and over the years served in Bilaspur, Shahdol, Sidhi, Khargon and Dewas. He was also appointed as the Chief Wildlife Warden of Madhya Pradesh, before today’s Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh. When Kanha was in the grip of Naxalites, he handled the situation with great strategic skills. He was universally loved and respected, by villagers and colleagues alike, as he was always prompt to help them out. He often spoke to me about his then boss J.J. Dutta, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Madhya Pradesh, whom he held in high regard. On a request from Mr. Dutta and M.K. Ranjitsinh, he helped set up the Van Vihar National Park in Bhopal, which served as a rescue centre for orphaned wild animals. This was made possible, especially in a crowded city like Bhopal, only due to his exceptional land acquisition skills. Like the late S.R. Choudhury, Field Director of the Simplipal Tiger Reserve, Lad saab too reared an orphaned tiger cub (called Chiku, after whom a visitor gate has been named) until it had to be housed in captivity in Van Vihar.
He was asked to serve as the Director of Project Tiger, and then later as the first Director of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in 1985, but he declined both offers for personal reasons.
Post his retirement in December 1992, he took to photography, acquiring a massive 800 mm. telephoto lens as he went about exploring every important bird habitat in the country, from the deserts of Rajasthan to Kanyakumari in the South and also to the Northeast. When he passed away, he left behind an invaluable archive of more than 50,000 images, most shot before the advent of the digital age.
Inevitably, his passion for avians and his intimate knowledge of bird habitats brought him into contact with the late Dr. Sálim Ali, who would seek Lad saab’s meticulous help to plan his field trips to Madhya Pradesh.
Ever willing to pack his bags and vanish into the wilds without a moment’s hesitation, he would accompany me (the other way round really!) when I suggested we visit Naxal-affected Bastar, where he spent night after night walking with us across forests and agricultural fields in search of the Jerdon’s Courser. When I claimed I had seen a bird that I was certain was the presumed-extinct Forest Owlet in Melghat in 1998, he was the first to arrive and assist us in gathering clinching photographic evidence.
He was a naturalist in the old-fashioned sense of the word and most of his knowledge came from personal observations. Writing in the August 2004 issue of Sanctuary Asia, he opined: “A tiger’s facial markings are unique and this enables individual recognition. Markings are today being used to assist in tiger estimation, even in places where camera trapping is being used. (However, with wild tigers being difficult to photograph, only a few can be counted by this method. I feel that the old pugmark technique is more practical.) As someone who has been used to differentiating tigers on the basis of facial markings and patterns, I can now easily recognise individual birds based on their breast markings, which are prominent in the Forest Owlet.”
His guidance was also helpful to ornithologists such as Dr. Asad R. Rahmani and the late Dr. Ravi Sankaran. He often invited birders to observe the Lesser Florican in Sailana, Sardarpur and Gujarat. He was probably the only birder, who visited all these three habitats continuously for past 30 years during the breeding season. He believed that science knew little of real behaviour of wild birds and that for all the expertise on display, the surface had barely been scratched.
Indignant about the casual attitude of many experts, he would write terse mails to the authorities about researchers using crude methods to capture the Forest Owlet. He vehemently opposed the Government of Maharashtra’s plans to declare the Forest Owlet as its State Bird in 2011. His strongly held view was that a state bird should be one that could be commonly spotted, so that ordinary people, particularly children, could see and learn about it. It also worried him that declaring the Forest Owlet as the State Bird of Maharashtra would trigger a virtual stampede of tourists and birdwatchers which would add to the disturbance that had already been caused by researchers, whose actions had resulted in the bird abandoning its home in the Nandurbar district.
Though his main focus remained birds, he was equally knowledgeable about endangered species such as the central Indian wild buffalo population in Bastar, and the hardground barasingha of Kanha. A life member of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), he was awarded the Vasundhara Sanman in 2013 in Amravati for a lifetime devoted to the service of India’s wilds.
Though a diabetic who was compelled to take an insulin shot every day, he never let such matters deter him from his travels to remote areas, even as he began to visibly age. As recently as 2016, he drove his car and continued birding expeditions, against the advice of family and friends. Lad saab also did the Narmada expedition (Parikrama) to study the flora and fauna along the river Narmada.
P.M. Lad lived life to the fullest.
Photo Courtesy: Kishor Rithe
My last telephonic discussion with him was in November 2017 regarding leopard safaris in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai. Within two months, came the demise of this parindo ka masiha (bird messiah), leaving behind a grieving wife, son, and the entire birding fraternity. I respected him the way I did Dr. Sálim Ali.What a unique man he was. In an effort to get him to pen his memoirs, I urged him to write a book to which he replied saying he had no time, adding: “I would prefer to spend more time in birding and conservation directly in the field.”
Now that I think of it, no book could possibly contain the wildness of his spirit.
Author: Kishor Rithe, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 4, April 2018.