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Salim Ali: India’s birdman, lover of nature

This renowned ornithologist and naturalist, was the first Indian to conduct systematic bird surveys across the country. He was a key figure in Bombay Natural History Society and was helped create the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary.

inspiring-lives Updated: Nov 11, 2019 16:59 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Salim Ali in 1941 published The Book of Indian Birds, which popularised ornithology among the common man.
Salim Ali in 1941 published The Book of Indian Birds, which popularised ornithology among the common man.(Illustration: Mohit Suneja)

Born on November 12, 1896 in a Sulaimani Bohra family in Bombay, Ali was the youngest child of Moizuddin and Zeenat-un-nissa. He lost both his parents and was orphaned by the age of three. Ali was raised by his maternal uncle Amiruddin Tyabji and aunt Hamida Begum in Mumbai. He attended the primary school Zenana Bible and Medical Mission Girls High School. Later he joined the St. Xavier’s College, Bombay. He then went to Burma (now Myanmar) to assist his family in their business of tungsten mining. There he got ample opportunities to study birds and indulge in hunting. He returned to India in 1917 and decided to study commercial law and accountancy at Davar’s College of Commerce. Father Ethelbert Blatter of St. Xavier’s College noticing Ali’s interest in zoology convinced him to consider zoology as a course.

Career

In 1926, Ali became a guide lecturer at the natural history section of the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay. After two years, he took a study leave and went to Germany where he worked under Professor Erwin Stresemann at the Berlin Zoological Museum. There he met German ornithologists Bernhard Rensch, Oskar Heinroth and Ernst Mayr. He returned to India in 1930 and got an opportunity to conduct bird surveys of the princely states of Hyderabad, Cochin, Travancore, Gwalior, Indore and Bhopal which were all sponsored by the rulers of those states. In 1941, he published The Book of Indian Birds, which popularised ornithology among the common man. He later collaborated with the famous ornithologist S Dillon Ripley to write the extensive 10-volume Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan, which took 10 years of research to complete.

Awards & Achievements

Besides the Padma Bhushan (1958) and the Padma Vibhushan (1976) awards, Ali received the Gold Medal of the British Ornithologists’ Union in 1967. He was the first non-British citizen to receive the honour. He also received the John C Phillips memorial medal of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. In 1973, the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences awarded him the Pavlovsky Centenary Memorial Medal. The government of India established the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History at Coimbatore (SACON) in 1990. In 1970, he received the Sunder Lal Hora memorial Medal from the Indian National Science Academy. In addition, Ali also received honorary doctorates from the Aligarh Muslim University (1958), the University of Delhi (1973) and the Andhra University (1978).

Major works

The Book of Indian Birds is considered a landmark book on Indian ornithology. Ali’s magnum opus, is considered to be the Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan, which he co-authored with S Dillon Ripley. The 10-volume work covers the birds of the subcontinent, their appearance, habitat, breeding habits and migration pattern among other things.

Personal life & death

Salim Ali married Tehmina Begum in 1918. In 1939, his wife passed away. The tragedy drove him deeper into the world of birds. Ali passed away on June 20, 1987, at the age of 90.

INTERESTING FACTS

1. At 10, Salim shot a bird with his toy gun. Unable to identify the bird,he was introduced to the secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society, WS Millard who offered to train him in ornithology.

2. One of his childhood playmates included his distant cousin, Iskandar Mirza, who later became the first President of Pakistan. They often participated in shooting contests in their neighbourhood.

3. On his 100th birth anniversary India’s postal department released two postal stamps to honour him. Several species of birds, bird sanctuaries and institutions have been named after him.

4. Ali also had a fascination for motorcycles from an early age. He owned a Sunbeam, three models of Harley-Davidson bikes, a Douglas, Scott, New Hudson and a Zenith among several others.

5. Once, Ali received an international award of ₹5 lakh for his contribution in protecting nature. Instead of keeping the money, he donated all the money to Bombay Natural History Society.

Sources: Wikipedia, mapsofindia.com, thefamouspeople.com, thefamousscientists.org

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