Salim Ali : biography
Sálim Moizuddin Abdul Ali (November 12, 1896 – July 27, 1987) was an Indian ornithologist and naturalist. Known as the "birdman of India", Salim Ali was among the first Indians to conduct systematic bird surveys across India and his bird books helped develop ornithology. He became the key figure behind the Bombay Natural History Society after 1947 and used his personal influence to garner government support for the organization, create the Bharatpur bird sanctuary (Keoladeo National Park) and prevent the destruction of what is now the Silent Valley National Park. He was awarded India’s second highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan in 1976.
Salim Ali was very influential in ensuring the survival of the BNHS and managed to save the then 100-year old institution by writing to the then Prime Minister Pandit Nehru for financial help. Salim also influenced other members of his family. A cousin,Ali (1985):192 Humayun Abdulali became an ornithologist while his niece Laeeq took an interest in birds and was married to Zafar Futehally, a distant cousin of Ali, who went on to become the honorary Secretary of the BNHS and played a major role in the development of bird study through the networking of birdwatchers in India. Ali also guided several M.Sc. and Ph. D. students, the first of whom was Vijaykumar Ambedkar, who further studied the breeding and ecology of the Baya Weaver, producing a thesis that was favourably reviewed by David Lack.Ali (1985):168Ali (1985):213
Ali was able to provide support for the development of ornithology in India by identifying important areas where funding could be obtained. He helped in the establishment of an economic ornithology unit within the Indian Council for Agricultural Research. He was also able to obtain funding for migration studies through a project to study the Kyasanur forest disease, an arthropod-borne virus that appeared to have similarities to a Siberian tick-borne disease. This project partly funded by the PL 480 grants of the USA however ran into political difficulties with allegations made on CIA involvement. In the late 1980s, he also guided a BNHS project that aimed to reduce bird hits at Indian airfields. He also attempted some early citizen science projects through the birdwatchers of India who were connected by the Newsletter for Birdwatchers.
Dr. Ali had considerable influence in conservation related issues in post-independence India especially through Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Indira Gandhi was herself a keen birdwatcher, influenced by Ali’s bird books (a copy of the Book of Indian Birds was gifted to her in 1942 by her father Nehru who was in Dehra Dun jail while she herself was imprisoned in Naini JailAli (1985):205–206) and by the Gandhian birdwatcher Horace Alexander. Ali influenced the designation of the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and in decisions that saved the Silent Valley National Park. One of Ali’s later interventions at Bharatpur involved the exclusion of cattle and graziers from the sanctuary and this was to prove costly and resulted in ecological changes that led to a decline in the numbers of many species of waterbirds. Some historians have noted that the approach to conservation used by Salim Ali and the BNHS followed an undemocratic process.
Dr. Ali was a frequent visitor to The Doon School where he was an engaging and persuasive advocate of ornithology to successive generations of pupils. As a consequence, he was considered to be part of the Dosco fraternity and became one of the very few people to be made an honorary member of The Doon School Old Boys Society.The Doon School Register, published by The Doon School Old Boys Society every few years. The 1998 edition, among others lists Dr. Ali.
Honours and memorials
Although recognition came late, he received several honorary doctorates and numerous awards. The earliest was the "Joy Gobinda Law Gold Medal" in 1953, awarded by the Asiatic Society of Bengal and was based on an appraisal of his work by Sunder Lal Hora (and in 1970 received the Sunder Lal Hora memorial Medal of the Indian National Science Academy). He received honorary doctorates from the Aligarh Muslim University (1958), Delhi University (1973) and Andhra University (1978). In 1967 he became the first non-British citizen to receive the Gold Medal of the British Ornithologists’ Union. In the same year, he received the J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Prize consisting of a sum of $ 100,000, which he used to form the corpus of the Salim Ali Nature Conservation Fund. In 1969 he received the John C. Phillips memorial medal of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. The USSR Academy of Medical Sciences gave him the Pavlovsky Centenary Memorial Medal in 1973 and in the same year he was made Commander of the Netherlands Order of the Golden Ark by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. The Indian government decorated him with a Padma Bhushan in 1958 and the Padma Vibhushan in 1976.Ali (1985):215–220 He was also nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1985.