Glory of Bharath  »  Scientists of Bharath - Part Seventeen
Salim Ali
Dr. Sálim Moizuddin Abdul Ali, (November 12, 1896 - July 27, 1987) was the pre-eminent ornithologist of India. Known as the "Birdman of India", Dr. Salim Moizuddin Abdul Ali's (or Dr. Salim Ali, as he is better known) name was synonymous with birds. To his many associates however, he was much more than that. A great visionary, he made birds a serious pursuit when it used to be a mere fun for the most. Orphaned at a very young age, Salim Ali was brought up by his maternal uncle, Amiruddin Tyabji. Uncle Amiruddin was a keen Shikari (Hunter) and nature-lover. Under his guidance young Salim learnt his first lessons in Shikar and became aware of the nature around him.

When Salim was ten years old, his uncle presented him with an air-gun. One day young Salim shot a sparrow which had a yellow streak below its neck. His uncle could not explain more about this sparrow and asked him to go to Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Mumbai. He went to BNHS, but, was apprehensive about going in and confronting with some strange English man (Honorary Secretary, W. S. Millard). He somehow found the courage and walked in through the door. That single incident changed his whole life and gave India its best ornithologist. Millard identified the sparrow as the Yellow-throated Sparrow, and showed him the Society's splendid collection of stuffed birds. Salim became interested in birds through this incident and wanted to pursue his career in ornithology.


Burma and Germany
Ironically, Salim Ali had to struggle through many years of unemployment and hardship during the early years of his career. If fate had not helped out at the right time, the famous birdman might have ended up as a disgruntled businessman or office manager. Since there were no jobs connected with natural history in 1919, Salim Ali and his wife Tehmina went off to Burma to look after the family mining and timber business. It was a rewarding experience for the naturalist as there were endless opportunities to explore the forests of Burma. The business did not flourish and he had to return to India.

After returning to India, Salim Ali tried to get a job as an ornithologist with the Zoological Survey of India but since he did not have an M. Sc. or Ph.D., having abandoned his studies after a B.Sc. in Zoology from St. Xavier's College, the post went to someone else. Salim Ali decided to study further after he managed to get a job of a guide lecturer at the newly opened natural history section of the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai. He realized that it was important to pursue further studies if he wanted to take up ornithology as a profession rather than a part time interest. He went on study leave to Germany where he trained under Professor Stresemann, an acknowledged ornithologist, whom Salim Ali considered his Guru. Despite his studies at the prestigious university abroad Salim Ali was unable to get job. It was then that he hit upon an idea.


The Princely States
There were vast tracts of India, particularly the princely states whose avifauna had been little explored or studied. He offered to conduct regional ornithological surveys of these areas for the BNHS. He would give his services gratis provided the Society and the state authorities would fund the camping and transport. The princely states were only too eager to have their birds recorded for posterity, and they readily agreed to this novel idea. From there onwards he began his life as a nomad. Ali put to practice all that he had learned about field ornithology in Berlin. The working conditions were tough and not what an average young man from the city would have found ideal, but for Salim Ali, those were the best years of his career.

The long years that Dr Ali had spent in the field studying birds made him one of those rare Indians who really knew each and every part of their country, however remote or inaccessible. "My chief interest in bird study has always been its ecology, its life history under natural conditions and not in a laboratory under a microscope. By traveling to these remote, uninhabited places, I could study the birds as they lived and behaved in their habitats", he once remarked. Though those ornithological survey journeys were far from easy bird watching sorties, Salim Ali's wife accompanied him and made camp life as comfortable as possible in those remote areas. She was not only his wife, but also his script editor, fellow bird watcher and inspiration. For the next two decades Salim Ali roamed the subcontinent studying birds. There is perhaps no major bird breeding area on the subcontinent that he hasn't visited.

In 1939, Salim Ali's wife Tehmina died suddenly after minor surgery. It was a great blow. Her death was one of the greatest tragic experiences of Salim Ali, but, perhaps it drove him deeper into the world of birds. After India's Independence from the long British rule, Salim Ali took over the BNHS and, managed to save the 200 - year old institution from closing down due to lack of funds. He wrote to Prime Minister Pandit Nehru for help, who immediately came to the rescue, and gave the society funds to tide over its difficult period.

It was the sincerity of conviction that had won him awards and medals from all over the world. Recognition came late to him but it came abundantly. He received numerous awards including the J. Paul Getty International Award, the Golden Ark of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Golden medal of the British Ornithology Union (A rarity for non-British) and a Padma Shree and Padma Vibhushan from the Indian Government, 3 honorary Doctorates and numerous other awards. An unlikely parliamentarian, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1985. Dr. Ali's experience and knowledge was respected. His timely intervention saved the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and the Silent Valley National Park.


Writing
Besides the re- discovery of rare species of Finn's Baya in the Kumaon Terai, Dr. Ali had authored numerous books, including the Book of Indian Birds, a bible for budding ornithologists. Books were on the birds of Kutch, Kerala, Sikkim, the 10-volumed Birds of India and Pakistan (with S. Dillon Ripley, a young Zoologist with U.S. Army in Sri Lanka) and the Indian Hill Birds. Salim Ali has done more than any individual to popularize the study of birds in India.

Dr Salim Ali passed away in 1987 at the age of 91, after a prolonged battle with prostate cancer. But despite all the fame and adulation showered upon him, Dr. Ali remained what he was as a nine year old - an ever curious person with a passion for birds. The legendary "Birdman" opened up ornithology for the masses that might otherwise have gone through life seeing fluttering shapes and colors. Because of his single-handed contribution, there is a small group of people bird watching in India today. Dr. Ali is no more but his legacy lives on.

He was the author of:
The Book of Indian Birds (Salim Ali, et. al.)
Pictorial Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent (Salim Ali, et. al.)
Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan (8 volumes) (Salim Ali and S. Dillon Ripley)


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