On a sunny December afternoon, an all-boys class jostled for space as they pored over sparrow nest boxes, tiger-print tees and twitter clocks at the souvenir store on the ground floor of south Mumbai’s Hornbill House.
Minutes earlier, the noisy, chattering bunch – dressed in pale yellow shirts and coffee brown shorts – had finished peering over a large collection of specimens of birds, bird eggs, butterflies, mammals and reptiles.
Comprising more than 1.20 lakh specimens from all over south Asia dating back to more than a century, this ‘national heritage’ collection of specimens is the 131-year-old Bombay Natural History Society’s (BNHS) gift to Mumbai.
Established in 1883 by eight naturalists and hunters, BNHS was all about exchanging natural history notes and exhibiting specimens for the first 50 years.
While terms such as ‘conservation’ and ‘environment education’ entered school textbooks only in recent times, they have been guiding principles for BNHS since before India became independent.
“When BNHS celebrated 50 years of its existence (in 1933), extensive hunting had resulted in animals disappearing and the need was felt to make a transition from hunting to conservation. This was at a time when the world didn’t even speak the language of wildlife conservation,” said Asad Rahmani, BNHS director for 17 years.
Since then, the not-for-profit organisation, whose work spans nationwide, has managed to save three endangered species of vultures and the Great Indian Bustards from extinction, ensured eco-restoration of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) and worked towards conservation of mangroves in Maharashtra – Mumbai included – and Gujarat.
Its other endeavours include declaring the Sewri mudflats and Thane creek as a globally important habitat for the conservation of bird populations as well as getting Sanjay Gandhi National Park and the Karnala Bird Sanctuary declared as protected areas.
BNHS didn’t stop at conservation. Realising the need to make citizens aware and involve them in conservation efforts, BNHS decided to follow in the footsteps of its director and noted ornithologist Salim Ali, the first nature education officer in the Indian subcontinent in 1938.
While nature education started 40 years ago, BNHS gifted Mumbai the Conservation Education Centre (CEC), spread over 33 acres of a mini-forest sandwiched between SGNP and Film City.
For the city, two decades of CEC – the first-of-its-kind nature education centre in India – has meant trails on five diverse tracks, online courses in entomology and biodiversity conservation, and innovative programmes such as ‘breakfast with butterflies’ and, more recently, green birthday and new year parties.
At the height of leopard attacks around the fringes of SGNP between 2000 and 2005, BNHS initiated the City Forest Project that delved into the causes of man-animal conflict and created awareness among those living around the park’s periphery.
All these achievements have come despite one constant constraint – lack of funds. “By culture, Indians fund religious bodies or healthcare, education, child welfare and poverty alleviation,” said Rahmani. “Among animals, it’s for tiger conservation. While tiger conservation is important, it cannot be at the cost of all species.”
While 5,000 members across the country may seem like a small number for a century-old organisation, many non-members also participate in BNHS activities such as nature trails, flamingo watch and domestic or international nature camps.
“Many have started conducting nature camps after learning from BNHS. It’s similar to a little child performing his/her parents. That’s the multiplier effect BNHS has had over the years,” said Rahmani. “India was the second destination for hunters after the African continent only 44 years ago. Now, there are bird guides and tourists for tigers. We have changed in just one generation.”