June 20 marked the death anniversary of the 'Birdman of India', Dr Salim Ali (Padma Vibhushan), whose interventions in conserving wildlife were most effectively witnessed at the duck shooting preserve of the Bharatpur royals and the Silent Valley National Park, Kerala. More than anything, Dr Ali's simple, yet charming and witty descriptions of birds in his books, rendered a yeoman's service to popularising bird-watching among Indian audiences.
Drawing from Dr Ali's life practises, Sahgal sends a message to the eager-beaver army of contemporary conservationists. "Contrary to what most people assume, Dr Ali was not an animal or bird lover. Yes, he was totally fascinated by things natural --- plants, insects and even the birds he came to be associated with. But in truth, his life was spent exploring the wonder and utter usefulness of nature without once becoming emotionally attached to the 'sanctity of life'concept that so many people still confuse with conservation. He hunted all his life, though he was scathing about some latter-day shikaris who respected neither rules, nor the animals they hunted...He realised the power of money and harnessed it whenever he could for his first love, the BNHS. But he never seemed to care much for money personally, except where it helped him repair his hideaway home at Kihim, or travel to some distant forest. Curiously enough, he seemed fascinated by the new Maruti cars and mentioned more than once that he wished he had a Maruti to drive him around! That was the limit of the materialism I was able to detect in him."
Delving on Dr Ali's vision, Sahgal writes: "Why don't these people understand?" He often used to ask when he heard of the destruction of yet another forest or grassland. And then, with a resigned look on his face, 'I suppose I've done my bit, it's now up to you younger people.' The frustrations of being eyewitness to the most destructive period in the natural history of India must have been hard, but that never stopped him from persisting in his efforts to document the diversity of the natural world. Nor did it stop him from fighting to change people's attitudes towards nature conservation. An inveterate optimist, he took strength from the fact that young people had of late become actively involved in conservation."
UNCLE SALIM LIVES ON
One of my most vivid childhood recollections of Dr Salim Ali was his erstwhile bungalow at the very tony Pali Hills, Mumbai. As Dr Ali entertained my parents with tea and birdy gossip one fine evening in 1986, we kids stole into his garden and spied next door through the boundary hedge. We had been tipped off by our mother that Dr Ali was neighbours with Dalip Kumar and Saira Bano.