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Dr. Sálim Ali Profile

 

Dr. Sálim Moizuddin Abdul Ali, better known as Dr. Sálim Ali, born on 12th  November, 1896, was the pre-eminent ornithologist of India, famously known as the “Birdman of India”. When Sálim was ten years old, his uncle presented him with an air-gun. One day young Sálim shot a sparrow which had a yellow streak below its neck. His uncle directed him to Bombay Natural History Society for identification of the bird. Honorary Secretary, W. S. Millard, identified the sparrow as the Yellow-throated Sparrow, and showed him the Society’s splendid collection of stuffed birds. Dr. Sálim became interested in birds through this single incident and wanted to pursue his career in ornithology.

Early year

Ironically, Dr. Sálim Ali had to struggle through many years of unemployment and hardship during the early years of his career. Since there were no jobs related to natural history in 1919, Sálim Ali and his wife Tehmina went off to Burma to look after the family mining and timber business. After returning to India, Sálim 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 was given to someone else. Dr. Sálim Ali managed to procure a job of a guide lecturer at the newly launched 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 Sálim Ali considered his guru.

Despite the training at the prestigious University abroad, Sálim Ali was unsuccessful in procuring a job in India. It was then that he hit upon an idea. 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 in 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. For the next two decades Sálim Ali roamed the subcontinent studying birds. 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 Sálim 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 travelled to every corner  of the country, however remote or inaccessible.


 

Post Independence

After India’s Independence from the British rule, Sálim Ali took over the BNHS and, managed to save the 100 year old institution from shutting down due to lack of funds. He sought help from Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru, who immediately came to the rescue, and gave the society funds to tide over its difficult period.

Recognition

Dr.Sálim Ali 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 the non-British) and a Padma Shree and Padma Vibhushan from the Indian Government, three 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 Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur, Rajasthan and the Silent Valley National Park, Kerala. In his autobiography ’The Fall of a sparrow’ in 1985, Dr. Sálim Ali wrote that his interest was in the “living bird in its natural environment.”

Writing

Dr. Sálim Ali has done more than any individual to popularize the study of birds in India. He wrote numerous journal articles, popular and academic books and field guides. Among the several books authored by him the ‘Book of Indian birds’ still remains the bible for budding ornithologists.

Dr.Sálim Ali passed away in 1987 at the age of 91. Despite the fame and adulation showered upon him, Dr. Ali remained what he was as a ten year old – an ever curious person with a passion for birds.