Home People In Remembrance Dr. Sálim Moizuddin Abdul Ali – (1896-1987)

Dr. Sálim Moizuddin Abdul Ali – (1896-1987)

Dr. Sálim Moizuddin Abdul Ali – (1896-1987)

Dr. Salim Ali
Photo Courtesy: V. Santharammns.

Indian ornithology and field biology stand on the shoulders of giants such as Dr. Sálim Ali writes Bittu Sahgal. The grand old bird man of India loved nature, but was never sentimental about it. He admired wild animals, but was a shikari. He was a conservationist, but advocated ‘wise use’ not ‘no use’. In an age when ornithology was obsessed with physical measurements (what does it look like, when does it arrive and depart), he would ask “Why? Why does this bird do that and that bird not do this? What are the environmental factors that determine bird behaviour?” His many surveys remain the gold standard for India. No one ornithologist has had this kind of impact on bird studies, even long after the Old Man has gone.

I sat for 10 full days over a period of a month, doing interview after interview with Dr. Sálim Ali at the studios of All India Radio at Backbay Reclamation, Churchgate. The interviews covered a range of topics, vast periods of his life, friends such as Professor Lehousen, Lok Wan Tho, S. Dillon Ripley, the early days in the 1930s in Dehradun, with his wife Tehmina, his dreams and disappointments and, of course, his ambitions for that venerable institution, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), into which he poured not just his life, but his soul as well.

I requested the officers concerned to let me have a copy of the recordings so that I could sit with the ‘Old Man’ and edit them down into a listenable radio talk show series. They refused: “All this is copyright AIR and no one is allowed to take the tapes out.”

A month passed, then six, then a year. I demanded to know what exactly was the fate of the interviews. I was stonewalled. And then, a peon, at AIR blandly informed me: “Woh tapes? Woh to mil he nahi rahe. (Those tapes? Those tapes we cannot even find.)” To date no officer from All India Radio has had the strength of character to apologise to the world for losing this oral history. And I still pray that someone, somehow will wake up one morning in that moribund organisation and ask: “Yeh kiske tapes hain? (Whose tapes are these?)” and thus unearth what would surely be an autobiography of a man who must go down in history as one of the most productive, likeable and knowledgeable naturalists  to have walked the Indian subcontinent.

Dr. Sálim Ali was an amalgam of so many interests. Few people know that along with his nephew, Zafar Futehally and a host of very active Indian and foreign conservationists, Sálim Ali actually helped usher in Project Tiger and helped craft its “save the ecosystem to save the tiger” philosophy. He was also one of the architects of the modern Keoladeo National Park and a key factor in the shift in focus for ornithology from morphology to ethology.

Apart from all this he had a piquant sense of humour, charisma and vision. This was a man who gave India’s fledgling conservation movement soul and solidity.

The first time I met the ‘Old Man’ – Dr. Sálim Moizuddin Abdul Ali – was at his home in Bandra in 1972 when I was assigned to interview him for the Indian Express newspaper. He lived in a beautiful, green bungalow and I had to literally find my way to him through rooms that presented an obstacle course of boxes, tables and books. Even on his table, books were piled thick and high and he toyed with me as I sat opposite him, sometimes peering out from the left of the tower of books and sometimes from the right.

“When was the first time you really got interested in birds?” I asked, fully aware of his tryst with the Yellow-throated Sparrow. After giving me a thoughtful look, he replied: “Around the age of puberty, I think.” It took me a full 10 seconds to recover, by which time he added with the famous twinkle in his eye: “But you probably wanted to know about the feathered bipeds.”

Dr. Sálim Ali seen with young proteges who he always encouraged and mentored throughout his life. Photo Courtesy: BNHS.

Nor surprisingly, I fell in love with Dr. Sálim Ali the day I met him. In subsequent years, he was always a constant in my life. He helped focus my mind once I had decided to start Sanctuary. He provided me with the necessary respect for truth in science. He also taught me that little good would come of book knowledge or laboratory work, without simultaneously understanding how birds, or tigers, or elephants behaved in the wild and what they needed to survive.

The Old Man was gifted. I do not refer here to his knowledge of birds, but his infectious warmth, sense of humour and utter zest for life. I recall him laughing aloud in pure delight at my home, as we watched underwater sequences of a Torrent Duck swimming against a swift current, in one of David Attenborough’s ‘Trials of Life’ episodes. On another occasion we had stopped for a moment so (the lovely looking) Dr. Maya Alagh could give my post-jaundice eyes a quick once-over and the Old Man remarked: “If that’s your doctor, it is little wonder you chose to take so long to get well.”

He was an enthusiastic hunter in his day and when he brought down a sparrow with an air gun he had been presented at the age of 10, he discovered it had a yellow streak under its neck. This led him to the BNHS, where he approached the then Secretary, W.S. Millard, to find out why some sparrows had the yellow spot and others did not. This simple query, the Old Man later stated, was the trigger for his life-long fascination with birds and their species variation.

His parents died when he was just a young boy and his maternal uncle, Amiruddin Tyabji, brought him up. His was a shikar family and, as might be expected, young Sálim indulged in the sport throughout his life, until it was banned in India. Those who knew him in the early days confirm he had a really rough time thanks to unemployment and a series of doors that kept shutting in his face en route to a career with birds. Family pressures nudged him in the direction of business and, had he made a success of this, the world might well have been denied one of its most brilliant field naturalists. In 1919, he and his young wife Tehmina were dispatched off to Burma to oversee the family’s mining and timber interests. Sálim, of course, preferred to spend most of his time tramping wild forests. The business suffered and he was forced to return to India. He wanted to join the Zoological Survey of India, but had no post-graduate degree and was therefore refused and had to be content working as a guide at the Prince of Wales Museum.

But birds were his life and he managed to obtain passage to travel to Germany to be trained by the famous ornithologist, Professor Stresemann. Even this opened no doors for him on his return to India. Jobs for such esoteric things as ‘bird studies’ were non-existent.


Unwilling to do anything else with his life, however, he offered his services pro bono to the BNHS in exchange for just enough money for travel and  provisions. He never looked back. He not only knew his birds, but had learned all he needed to know about ‘modern’ classification and morphology in Germany. He soon became one of the world’s leading experts on the birds of the Indian subcontinent and the BNHS bird collections began to swell thanks to this intrepid traveller. They must surely have been heavenly days for the young couple who visited almost every remote wilderness over two decades. When Tehmina died in 1939, Sálim was devastated and sought refuge by plunging himself even more deeply into the world of birds.

Soon after India gained Independence from the British, Sálim Ali took charge of the venerable institution and guided its destiny until the day he died. He used his friendship with Jawaharlal Nehru to shore up the finances of the BNHS. This task was further consolidated when he approached Mrs. Indira Gandhi who had the highest respect for him and even ordered the cancellation of the controversial Silent Valley Dam after the Old Man’s voice was added to widespread protests against this project, which threatened one of the nation’s most valuable rainforests.

The Old Man had friends in every continent and he can be seen with S. Dillon Ripley of the Smithsonian Institution who is seated to the extreme right. Photo Courtesy: Smithsonian Archives.

Awards followed him easily, but he wore his crowns lightly. As the President of the BNHS, he attended every meeting until he was just too unwell to do so and in the process of fighting for the wildernesses and birds he loved, he won a Padma Shree and a Padma Vibhushan from the Indian Government. As many as three Honorary Doctorates came his way and he was even appointed a Member of the Rajya Sabha (the Upper House) in 1985.

His books are still the gold standard for ornithology in India, as much for their pin-point accuracy as the pithy imagery of habits, calls and physical descriptions, which he used to painstakingly transcribe on his typewriter, from his field notes.

He died in 1987 of prostate cancer, but even the pain and tedious medical routine could not douse his incredible sense of humour. While wheeling him out of radiation at the Jaslok Hospital, he gestured to me to bend my head close to his face. Worried that something awful had happened imagine my surprise when he whispered: “Don’t look at my face, look above you at that girder. They badly need help from Sanctuary’s Editor.” In bright, red, block letters they had painted the atrociously hyphenated legend: “Wel-come”.

Not a day passes that I do not actively miss the Grand Old Man of Indian Ornithology.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, VOL. XXX. No. 3, June 2010.


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