30.4.1937 I am disappointed in Salim. He is quite useless at anything but collecting. He cannot skin a bird, nor cook, nor do anything connected with camp life, packing up or chopping wood. He writes interminable notes about something-perhaps me... Even collecting he never does on his own initiative...
Sálim Moizuddin Abdul Ali (12 November 1896 – 20 June 1987) was an Indian ornithologist and naturalist. Sometimes referred to as the "birdman of India", Salim Ali was among the first Indians to conduct systematic bird surveys across India and wrote several bird books that popularised ornithology in India. He became a key figure behind the Bombay Natural History Society after 1947 and used his personal influence to garner government support for the organisation, create the Bharatpur bird sanctuary (Keoladeo National Park) and prevent the destruction of what is now the Silent Valley National Park. Along with Sidney Dillon Ripley he wrote the landmark ten volume Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan, a second edition of which was completed after his death. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1958 and the Padma Vibhushan in 1976, India's third and second highest civilian honours respectively. Several species of birds, a couple of bird sanctuaries and institutions have been named after him.
Salim went to primary school at Zenana Bible and Medical Mission Girls High School at Girgaum along with two of his sisters and later to St. Xavier's College, Bombay. Around the age of 13 he suffered from chronic headaches, making him drop out of class frequently. He was sent to Sind to stay with an uncle who had suggested that the dry air might help and on returning after such breaks in studies, he barely managed to pass the matriculation exam of the Bombay University in 1913.
Salim Ali's early education was at St. Xavier's College, Mumbai. Following a difficult first year in college, he dropped out and went to Tavoy, Burma (Tenasserim) to look after the family's wolfram (tungsten) mining (tungsten was used in armour plating and was valuable during the war) and timber interests there. The forests surrounding this area provided an opportunity for Ali to hone his naturalist (and hunting) skills. He also made acquaintance with J C Hopwood and Berthold Ribbentrop who were with the Forest Service in Burma. On his return to India in 1917, he decided to continue formal studies. He went to study commercial law and accountancy at Davar's College of Commerce but his true interest was noticed by Father Ethelbert Blatter at St. Xavier's College who persuaded Ali to study zoology. After attending morning classes at Davar's College, he then began to attend zoology classes at St. Xavier's College and was able to complete the course in zoology. Around the same time, he married Tehmina, a distant relative, in December 1918.
Ali failed to get an ornithologist's position which was open at the Zoological Survey of India due to the lack of a formal university degree and the post went instead to M. L. Roonwal. He was hired as guide lecturer in 1926 at the newly opened natural history section in the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai for the salary of Rs 350 a month. He however tired of the job after two years and took leave in 1928 to study in Germany, where he was to work under Professor Erwin Stresemann at the Berlin's Natural History Museum. Part of the work involved examining the specimens collected by J. K. Stanford in Burma. Stanford being a BNHS member had communicated with Claud Ticehurst and had suggested that he could work on his own with assistance from the BNHS. Ticehurst did not appreciate the idea of an Indian being involved in the work and resented even more, the involvement of Stresemann, a German. Ticehurst wrote letters to the BNHS suggesting that the idea of collaborating with Stresemann was an insult to Stanford. This was however not heeded by Reginald Spence and Prater who encouraged Ali to conduct the studies at Berlin with the assistance of Stresemann. Ali found Stresemann warm and helpful right from his first letters sent before even meeting him. In his autobiography, Ali calls Stresemann his guru, to whom all his later queries went. In Berlin, Ali made acquaintance with many of the major German ornithologists of the time including Bernhard Rensch, Oskar Heinroth, Rudolf Drost and Ernst Mayr apart from meeting other Indians in Berlin including the revolutionary Chempakaraman Pillai. Ali also gained experience in bird ringing at the Heligoland Bird Observatory and in 1959 he received the assistance of Swiss ornithologist Alfred Schifferli in India.
Salim Ali wrote numerous journal articles, chiefly in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. He also wrote a number of popular and academic books, many of which remain in print. Ali credited Tehmina, who had studied in England, for helping improve his English prose. Some of his literary pieces were used in a collection of English writing. A popular article that he wrote in 1930 Stopping by the woods on a Sunday morning was reprinted in The Indian Express on his birthday in 1984. His most popular work was The Book of Indian Birds, written in the style of Whistler's Popular Handbook of Birds, first published in 1941 and subsequently translated into several languages with numerous later editions. The first ten editions sold more than forty-six thousand copies. The first edition was reviewed by Ernst Mayr in 1943, who commended it while noting that the illustrations were not to the standard of American bird-books. His magnum opus was however the 10 volume Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan written with Dillon Ripley and often referred to as "the handbook". This work began in 1964 and ended in 1974 with a second edition completed after his death by others, notably J S Serrao of the BNHS, Bruce Beehler, Michel Desfayes and Pamela Rasmussen. A single volume "compact edition" of the "Handbook" was also produced and a supplementary illustrative work, A Pictorial Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, by John Henry Dick and Dillon Ripley was published in 1983. The plates from this work were incorporated in the second edition of the "Handbook". He also produced a number of regional field guides, including The Birds of Kerala (the first edition in 1953 was titled The Birds of Travancore and Cochin), The Birds of Sikkim, The Birds of Kutch (later as The Birds of Gujarat), Indian Hill Birds and Birds of the Eastern Himalayas. Several low-cost book were produced by the National Book Trust including Common Birds (1967) coauthored with his niece Laeeq Futehally which was reprinted in several editions with translations into Hindi and other languages. In 1985 he wrote his autobiography The Fall of a Sparrow. Ali provided his own vision for the Bombay Natural History Society, noting the importance of conservation action. In the 1986 issue of the Journal of the BNHS he noted the role that that the BNHS had played, the changing interests from hunting to conservation captured in 64 volumes that were preserved in microfiche copies, and the zenith that he claimed it had reached under the exceptional editorship of S H Prater.
On his return to India in 1930, he discovered that the guide lecturer position had been eliminated due to lack of funds. Unable to find a suitable job, Salim Ali and Tehmina moved to Kihim, a coastal village near Mumbai. Here he had the opportunity to study at close hand, the breeding of the baya weaver and discovered their mating system of sequential polygamy. Later commentators have suggested that this study was in the tradition of the Mughal Naturalists that Salim Ali admired and wrote about in three part series on the Moghul emperors as Naturalists. A few months were then spent in Kotagiri where he had been invited by K M Anantan, a retired army Doctor who had served in Mesopotamia during World War I. He also came in contact with Mrs Kinloch, widow of BNHS member Angus Kinloch who lived at Donnington near Longwood Shola, and later her son-in-law R C Morris, who lived in the Biligirirangan Hills. Around the same time he discovered an opportunity to conduct systematic bird surveys in the princely states that included Hyderabad, Cochin, Travancore, Gwalior, Indore and Bhopal with the sponsorship of their rulers. He was aided and supported in these surveys by Hugh Whistler who had surveyed many parts of India and had kept very careful notes. Whistler published a note on The study of Indian birds in 1929 where he mentioned that the racquets at the end of the long tail feathers of the greater racket-tailed drongo lacked webbing on the inner vane. Salim Ali wrote a response pointing out that this was in error and that such inaccuracies had been carried on from early literature and pointed out that it was incorrect observation that did not take into account a twist in the rachis. Whistler was initially resentful of an unknown Indian finding fault and wrote "snooty" letters to the editors of the journal S H Prater and Sir Reginald Spence. Subsequently, Whistler re-examined his specimens and not only admitted his error but became a close friend. Whistler wrote to Ali on 24 October 1938:
He was accompanied and supported on his early surveys by his wife, Tehmina, and was shattered when she died in 1939 following a minor surgery. After Tehmina's death in 1939, Salim Ali stayed with his sister Kamoo and brother-in-law. In the course of his later travels, Ali rediscovered the Kumaon Terai population of the Finn's baya but was unsuccessful in his expedition to find the mountain quail (Ophrysia superciliosa), the status of which continues to remain unknown.
Ali had considerable influence in conservation related issues in post-independence India especially through Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Indira Gandhi, herself a keen birdwatcher, was 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 Jail) and by the Gandhian birdwatcher Horace Alexander. Ali influenced the designation of the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, the Ranganathittu 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 as it resulted in ecological changes that led to a decline in the waterbirds. Some historians have noted that the approach to conservation used by Salim Ali and the BNHS followed an undemocratic process.
Ali was fascinated by motorcycles from an early age and starting with a 3.5 HP NSU in Tavoy, he owned a Sunbeam, Harley-Davidsons (three models), a Douglas, a Scott, a New Hudson and a Zenith among others at various times. On invitation to the 1950 International Ornithological Congress at Uppsala in Sweden he shipped his Sunbeam aboard the SS Stratheden from Bombay and biked around Europe, injuring himself in a minor mishap in France apart from having several falls on cobbled roads in Germany. When he arrived on a fully loaded bike, just in time for the first session at Uppsala, word went around that he had ridden all the way from India! He regretted not having owned a BMW.
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 based on an appraisal of his work by Sunder Lal Hora (and in 1970 he 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 as a corpus for 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 awarded 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. He was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1985.
Salim Ali took some interest in bird photography along with his friend Loke Wan Tho. Loke had been introduced to Ali by JTM Gibson, a BNHS member and Lieutenant Commander of the Royal Indian Navy, who had taught English to Loke at a school in Switzerland. A wealthy Singapore businessman with a keen interest in birds, Loke helped Ali and the BNHS with financial support. Ali was also interested in the historical aspects of ornithology in India. In a series of articles, among his first publications, he examined the contributions to natural-history of the Mughal emperors. In the 1971 Sunder Lal Hora memorial lecture and the 1978 Azad Memorial Lecture he spoke of the history and importance of bird study in India.
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. The funding for the early bird migration studies actually came for the early studies from the US Army Medical Research Laboratory in Bangkok under the SEATO (South Atlantic Security Pact) and headed by H. Elliott McClure. An Indian science reporter wrote in a local newspaper that the collaboration was secretly exploring the use of migratory birds for spreading deadly viruses and microbes into enemy territories. India was then a non-aligned country and the news led to political upheaval and a committee was set up to examine the research and allegations. Once cleared of these allegations, the project however stopped routing the funds through Bangkok to avoid further suspicions and was directly funded by the Americans to India. In the late 1980s, Ali also headed a BNHS project to reduce bird hits at Indian airfields. He also attempted a citizen science project to study house sparrows in 1963 through Indian Birdwatchers subscribed to the Newsletter for Birdwatchers.
Dr. Salim Ali died in Bombay at the age of 90 on 20 June 1987, after a protracted battle with prostate cancer. In 1990, the Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) was established at Coimbatore by the Government of India. Pondicherry University established the Salim Ali School of Ecology and Environmental Sciences. The government of Goa set up the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary and the Thattakad bird sanctuary near Vembanad in Kerala also goes by his name. The location of the BNHS in Bombay was renamed to "Dr Salim Ali Chowk". In 1972, Kitti Thonglongya discovered a misidentified specimen in the collection of the BNHS and described a new species that he called Latidens salimalii, considered one of the world's rarest bats, and the only species in the genus Latidens. The subspecies of the rock bush quail (Perdicula argoondah salimalii) and the eastern population of Finn's weaver (Ploceus megarhynchus salimalii) were named after him by Whistler and Abdulali respectively. A subspecies of the black-rumped flameback woodpecker (Dinopium benghalense tehminae) was named after his wife, Tehmina, by Whistler and Kinnear. Salim Ali's swift (Apus salimalii) originally described as a population of Apus pacificus was recognised as a full species in 2011 while Zoothera salimalii, an undescribed population within the Zoothera mollissima complex, was named after him in 2016.
A two-volume compilation of his shorter letters and writings was published in 2007, edited by Tara Gandhi, one of his last students.