Dr. Salim Ali
Also refer: std 9 – Our Winged Friends
Born On: November 12, 1896
Born In: Mumbai, Maharashtra
Died On: July 27, 1987
Famous as: Ornithologist, Naturalist
One of the greatest biologists of all times, Salim Ali meticulously observed and documented the birds of the sub-continent for around 80 years, thereby making immense contribution to the field of ornithology. It was his phenomenal and path-breaking work in the related field that he was bestowed with the nickname of “birdman of India”. Besides, he was fondly known as the “grand old man of Indian ornithology” as well. Such was his extraordinary work in the distribution and ecology of over 1000 bird species inhabiting South Asia that he created history and made significant contributions in conserving the fauna, which in an integral part of a mosaic of landscapes.
Salim Moizuddin Abdul Ali, or Salim Ali as he is better known as, was born as the ninth and youngest child in a Sulaimani Bohra Muslim family. He was born in Mumbai to Moizuddin and Zeenat-un-nissa. Losing his father at the age of one and mother at three, Salim Ali and other kids were brought up by his maternal uncle, Amiruddin Tyabji, and childless aunt, Hamida Begum. He was also surrounded by another maternal uncle, Abbas Tyabji, a prominent Indian freedom fighter. He attended primary school at Zanana Bible Medical Mission Girls High School at Girgaum and was later admitted to St. Xavier’s College at Mumbai.
However, due to his frequent chronic headaches, he was forced to drop out of school every now and then since he was 13 years old. He was sent to Sind to stay with his uncle with hopes of the dry air making an improvement in his health. Thus, on returning, he just managed to clear his matriculation examination from Bombay University in 1913. Since childhood, Salim Ali gained an interest in observing birds closely and had a hobby of shooting birds with his toy air gun. With the help of W.S. Millard, secretary of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), the bird was identified as Yellow-throated Sparrow, which further increased his seriousness towards ornithology.
Life in Burma and Germany
After spending a difficult first year in Xavier’s College, Mumbai, Salim Ali dropped out of college and went to Tavoy, Burma to care of his family’s Wolfram mining and timber business. The forests surrounding the area helped him further develop his naturalist and hunting skills. He developed good relations with J.C. Hopwood and Berthold Ribbentrop who worked with the Forest Service. On returning to India in 1917, he decided to complete his studies. Hence, he studied commercial law and accountancy from Davar’s College of Commerce. He used to attend morning classes at Davar’s College and go to St. Xavier’s College to attend zoology classes to complete his course in zoology.
He was rejected a position at the Zoological Survey of India due to lack of a formal university degree. With this, he began studying further when he was hired as a guide lecturer in the newly opened natural history section at Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai in 1926 with a salary of Rs. 350 per month.
Being fed up with the monotony of the job, he decided to go on a break and went to Germany in 1928 on a study leave. He worked under Professor Erwin Stresemann at Zoological Museum of Berlin University. He was also required to examine the specimens collected by J.K. Stanford, a BNHS member. Stanford was supposed to communicate with Claud Ticehurst at the British Museum who did not like the idea of involving an Indian in his work. Hence, he kept distance with Stresemann. Salim Ali then moved to Berlin and associated with popular German ornithologists, such as Bernhard Rensch, Oskar Heinroth, and Ernst Mayr. Apart from his usual ornithology experience, he also gained knowledge in ringing at the Heligoland observatory.
Contribution to Ornithology
After studying ornithology in Germany, Salim Ali returned to India in 1930 and started looking for a job. However, to his surprise, the position of a guide lecturer had been dropped off from universities due to lack of duns. Left with no option, Salim Ali, along with wife Tehmina, moved to Kihim, a coastal village near Mumbai. This place gave him another opportunity to observe and study birds very closely, including their mating system.
Gradually, on travelling places, Salim Ali got an opportunity to conduct systematic bird surveys in the princely states of Hyderabad, Cochin, Travancore, Gwalior, Indore, and Bhopal. He was financially supported by Hugh Whistler who had previously conducted surveys in various parts of India. Although Whistler initially resented Salim Ali for finding faults and inaccuracies in the early literature, he later re-examined his specimens and accepted his mistakes. With this, began a close friendly relationship between Ali and Whistler. He introduced Ali to Richard Meinertzhagen and the two went on an expedition to Afghanistan. Initially, Meinertzhagen was also critical of Ali’s views but later, the two became close friends. Salim Ali was more attracted towards studying birds in the field rather than getting into the details of bird systematic and taxonomy.
Salim Ali was not only passionate about studying birds in general; he also showed equal interest in capturing his views on them in words. With the help of his wife Tehmina, a learned scholar from England, Ali improved his English prose. Thus, began Ali’s writing career, particularly journal articles for Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. One of his most popular articles was “Stopping by the woods on a Sunday morning” in 1930 which was reprinted again in Indian Express on this birthday in 1984. He penned several books as well, the most prominent of them being “The Book of Indian Birds” in 1941, which was inspired by Whistler’s “Popular Handbook of Birds”. It was later translated into several languages and saw more than 12 editions. However, his masterpiece was the 10 volume “Handbook of the Birds of India & Pakistan”, written along with Dillon Ripley and was often known as “The Handbook”.
Besides the national and international bird books, Ali also authored several regional field guides, like “The Birds of Kerala” (first edition was titled “The Birds of Travancore and cochin” in 1953), “The Birds of Sikkim”, “The Birds of Kutch” (later renamed as “The Birds of Gujarat”), “Indian Hill Birds”, “Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern Himalayas”. He penned his autobiography “The Fall of a Sparrow” in 1985 where he included his vision for BNHS and the importance of conservation related activities. One of his last students, Tara Gandhi, published a two-volume compilation of his shorter letters and writings in 2007.
After battling with prostate cancer for a very long duration, Salim Ali died on July 27, 1987 in Mumbai at the age of 90.
Honors & Memorials
Salim Ali was honored and credited with several honorary doctorates and awards during his lifetime, though this journey began late. Starting with “Joy Gobinda Law Gold Medal” in 1953 by the Asiatic Society of Bengal, he went on to receive numerous accolades. It was based on the appreciation he received from Sunder Lal Hora. Thus, in 1970, he was conferred upon with the Sunder Lal Hora Memorial Medal of the Indian National Science Academy. He was bestowed with honorary doctorate degrees from Aligarh Muslim University in 1958, Delhi University in 1973, and Andhra University in 1978. On receiving the Gold Medal from the British Ornithologists’ Union in 1967, Salim Ali became the first non-British citizen to be bequeathed with such an honor. He received the John C. Philips Memorial Medal of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in the same year.
In 1973, he received the Pavlovsky Centenary Memorial Medal from the USSR Academy of Medical Science and was made the Commander of the Netherlands Order of the Golden Ark by Prince Bernhard of Netherlands. He was honored with Padma Bhushan Award in 1958 and Padma Vibhushan Award in 1976. The Government of India established the Salim Ali Center for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) in Coimbatore in 1990. Further, Salim Ali School of Ecology and Environmental Sciences has been established by Pondicherry University. The Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary in Goa and Thattakad Bird Sanctuary near Vembanad, Kerala have been set up in his honor. The place where BNHS was located in Bombay was renamed as “Dr Salim Ali Chowk”.