Zafar Futehally: A Birds of India Interview
In an exclusive interview with Bikram Grewal, Zafar discusses his early birding days with Sálim Ali, birding and conservation in India and shares his message for the future generations.
[Editor's note: Zafar Futehally passed away on 11 August 2013, 2 years after this interview was recorded]
Zafar with wife Laeeq, 2011. Pic by Garima Bhatia
BIKRAM: You almost single handedly edited the ‘Newsletter for Birdwatchers’ from 1959 to 2003. What were the challenges you faced and how did you over come them?
ZAFAR: My blood relationship with Sálim Ali was obviously the main reason why I started to take a serious interest in birds. Immediately after my marriage to his niece Laeeq, in 1943, Sálim invited us to spend some time with him in Palanpur. In camp with him, I had the opportunity to learn, in a few days, what one could never really learn from books. I recall, for example, handling birds taken out from the mist-nets and being told about how their morphology was suited for their specialised life-style. The length of a particular primary feather in Blyth’s Reed Warbler determined whether it was a long distance migrant, or whether it could be found within our national boundary. The rather frightening-looking beak of a nightjar when it opened its gape widely was surprisingly powerless, designed only as a means for inviting insects to come in. The claws, beaks, length of tail feathers, the roundness or elongatedness of the flight wings of birds of prey were all the result of ages of ecological adaptation suited to the life-style of the species. All this I learnt very quickly and my interest was aroused. I also realised then in what high regard Sálim was held by the "royalty" of those days. The Nawab of Palanpur hosted a lunch for him where several Princes and Maharajahs were invited. Guns boomed to announce their arrival. At the lunch-table, Sálim whispered to me that the lady in blue ”was a negotiable document" having changed hands several times! He was famous for his sharp witticisms.
Palanpur gave me a good start, and thereafter it was the regular walks with him in the Borivali Reserved Forest (as it was then) and in Kihim, where we went often to stay with my parents-in-law, that I added to my store of ornithological knowledge. I read a good deal, and one book presented to me by my mother-in-law: An Introduction to Ornithology by George Wallace provided me with material, which came in handy many times.
In the early 50’s we were friendly with Uma Anand (Chetan Anand’s ex-wife) who was a Programme Assistant in All India Radio. Knowing about my interest in birds (and also aware of my connection with Sálim) she asked me to give regular talks on birds. I am told that I was a good speaker and my voice then had a "radio quality". The talks were well received and some of them were published in the AIR Bulletin.
About that time an article appeared in the Times of India headed The Magpie Robin. Apparently a junior editor of the TOI wanting to make a little pocket-money looked up the Book of Indian Birds and another relating to the birds of Europe and produced a hodgepodge of Copsychus saularis and Pica pica. Sálim was furious and telephoned the Editor N J Nanporia to stop publishing such rubbish. Nanporia enquired whether he could suggest someone who could do a column on birds, and Sálim suggested that I might be able to do so. That was the beginning of my column A Birdwatchers Diary, which continued for about ten years.
During an evening walk with Sálim on the Bandra seafront, he suddenly stopped and suggested that we should form a ‘Birdwatcher’s Field Club of India’ and produce a ‘Newsletter for Birdwatchers’, which would mainly consist of fresh observations from the field. "We need to know more about the living bird- there is too much emphasis on taxonomy at the moment”. He thought I could do the editing with some help from him. I said that bird-notes were already coming in and being published in the miscellaneous section of the BNHS Journal and was that not an adequate forum? He insisted that there was a need to have a separate publication entirely devoted to birds, and that is how I became Editor and sole proprietor of the NLBW. JS Serrao, the Senior Stenographer of the BNHS, agreed to type the stencils for the cyclostyling machine after-office hours and Dynacraft Machine Company, where I worked for a living, bore the cost of this exercise. The annual subscription was Rs. 5 for this monthly periodical.
But soon there was trouble. Some members of the BNHS Executive Committee, led by Humayun Abdulali, protested that the BNHS was suffering because of its meagre membership and a new society would result in further attenuation. However Sálim was unmoved and the first issue of the Newsletter saw the light of day on 31-12-59.
You come from an eminent family of birders, which included stalwarts like Dr Sálim Ali and Humayun Abdulali. What were your early memories about your relatives and growing up with them?
Humayun was one of the brightest young boys of our extended family. He was quite a few years older than me, and I recall that he was always full of fun, and never missed an opportunity to crack a joke even if it was a dirty one!
At one time his parents rented a house not far from our residence where Humayun came quite often to play cricket with us. "Hey, butter fingers" he shouted, when I dropped a catch. My father requested him to oversee my school lessons occasionally, but his attempts to make me perform better in my 4th year in school bore no result. A few years later I recall his short and stout figure looking rather outlandish with a double-barreled gun across his shoulders going out in the marshlands, behind Juhu beach, where in winter there were huge congregations of waders and plovers. One day there was literally a cloud of Golden Plovers and Humayun, a good shot, bagged quite a few. Over the weekends he often managed to bring home a fair number of snipe, shot in the wetlands of interior Bombay - around Thana and Panvel. He was well known for his love of rash driving, both for the personal pleasure of speed, as well as for the joys of "showing off". His Harley Davidson, as well as his Ford (?), was a terror on the roads, but he didn’t relent even after having killed a woman on the road to Thane. This incidence led to a long litigation lasting over many months- but litigation and argumentation (a la Amartya Sen) was a way of life with him. I lost touch with Humayun after these years, and then our connection re-surfaced when I started the Newsletter.
Dr Sálim Ali dominated the early days of Indian Ornithology, what were his plus points and weaknesses if any?
I had no contact with Sálim Ali in my school days. My only memory of him in my younger days was when he came to stay with us from Dehra Dun for an ear operation. Apparently it was serious business but he survived, even though the removal of the mastoid left him deaf in one ear. When I was in college, and when I fell for his niece Laeeq, his wife Tehmina invited me to spend a weekend with them in Dehra Dun. I have only hazy memories of my visit. Soon afterwards life changed for Sálim dramatically with the death of his wife in 1939, and his permanent shift from Dehra Dun to Pali Hill Bombay to stay with my parents-in-law for the rest of his life. One day, soon after his arrival in Bombay, I saw him sitting in the orchard of his brother, Jabir Ali’s residence in Chembur. He looked absolutely "finished". But inside him there must have been something churning - forget the past and get on with a new life. He set to work and the publication of the Book of Indian Birds in 1943 again changed his life - he became instantly famous throughout the world.
Who were the other great ornithologists that you worked or interacted with? Who do you think was underrated and why? Were there specific individuals who triggered the direction you took?
Since I am not a top-class ornithologist this question is beyond my competence. But one way to judge a person is to see what his compeers feel about him, and equally the response of the subordinates who work under him. I was lucky to be present on many occasions when Sálim was interacting with some of the leading ornithologists and naturalists of the time. Among those with whom I managed to be acquainted were Dr. S Dillon Ripley, Sir Landsborough Thomson, Loke Wan Tho, Richard Fitter, Peter Scott, Sir Frank Fraser Darling, Biswamoy Biswas, Lee Talbot, and quite a few others whose names I forget. I found that all these great men were true admirerers of Sálim. It was only Meinertzhagen who complained about Sálim’s ugliness and incompetence about putting up his tent in camp. Horace Alexander and Sálim once fell out over the identity of a Warbler in Kashmir, but that quarrel was soon patched up. Sálim could be viciously critical on occasions, but he bore no long-term ill will against any one.
As far as his subordinates were concerned - J C Daniel, J S Serrao, and the rest of the BNHS staff. The only real complaint I heard was from P W Soman (a field assistant) who was very angry in camp because "We are treated like donkeys, working 24 hours, and he complains that we eat too much". Serrao, who according to Sálim himself played a crucial role in producing the ten volume Handbook was absolutely beside himself with pride and joy when Sálim gave him a cheque of Rs 1,000 when the last volume was completed. I think on the whole the staffs were happy with him.
Would you like to comments on the legendary rivalry between Sálim Ali and Humayun Abdulali?
During the early years of their acquaintance, Sálim was exceptionally generous to Humayun. When R C Morris and his wife Heather invited Sálim to spend a few days with them at their coffee estate in Honnametti in the B R Hills, Sálim took Humayun along. On several other such outings with his friends, Humayun accompanied him. When and why this good relationship between the two soured I do not know, but I recall Sálim’s bitter comment once about Humayun’s behaviour "Ingratitude worse than a serpents tooth”. I also recall Sálim once saying that when the proposal was initially made to appoint Humayun as Honorary Secretary of the BNHS, S H Prater, the Curator, had warned Sálim that Humayun was too much of a "takrari”. Both men obviously must be blamed for this unfortunate enmity, particularly in view of the fact that Humayun’s passion for taxonomy, and Sálim’s for ecology, could have coalesced into a fine partnership in the greater interest of Indian ornithology.
Great results, it is said, take place not in national and international conferences, but in casual comments across the dining table. Once when I was away on Dynacraft business, R E Hawkins invited Sálim and Laeeq for lunch to meet R A Stewart Melluish who happened to be in town. After lunch (Laeeq tells me) while walking down the lane, Laeeq told Hawkins that Sálim was on the point of resigning as President of the BNHS, because of the continued battle with the Honorary Secretary over every minor matter. Hawkins with his slow drawl replied " Well it is true that we have treated Sálim in a very cavalierly manner".
Soon after this meeting Sálim and Laeeq were in Kihim. Laeeq told Sálim that his thought of resigning from the BNHS was ridiculous just because he couldn’t reign in Humayun. "Don’t you realise that you are a world figure, and that the reputation of the BNHS is largely due to you”. Sálim replied that he couldn’t deal with Humayun, and there seems to be no one else who is prepared to act as Honorary Secretary. Laeeq said that I might be willing. At the next meeting of the BNHS Executive Committee (held at the White House, Malabar Hill) Sálim suggested that I was willing to be the Hon. Secretary and the proposal was accepted.
Who were the other great ornithologists that you worked or interacted with? Who do you think was underrated and why? Were there specific individuals who triggered the direction you took?
Two individuals, with whom I spent a lot of time, were Richard Fitter and Sir Frank Fraser Darling. From Frank I learnt a great deal about how herbivores adapted themselves to their natural surroundings, especially in Africa, while my talks with Richard related more specifically to birds.
But it was my interaction with many knowledgeable ornithologists who contributed to the Newsletter, which resulted in my acquiring such learning as I have. The people who come readily to mind are Stewart Melluish, Peter Jackson, Shivrajkumar and Lavkumar of Jasdan, Madhav Gadgil, Kumar Ghorpade, and several others. I do not know "about who was underrated” but one aspect in this regard must be noted. It was only those who could write well in English who got their articles published and joined the mainstream of the birding community. Now the situation is different and there are several vernacular journals (like Vihang in Gujarati), which will result in a widening of the birding community.
Your wife Laeeq (with Sálim Ali) wrote a book on Indian birds? Why did you not write one yourself?
Laeeq is a naturally gifted writer (much praised also by Shamlal, the then Editor of the Times of India). Sálim once received a long article from Col. R Burton on the history of shikar in India. It was badly written, so Sálim asked Laeeq to put it right, which she did, and Sálim was very impressed with her capacity to create order out of chaos. Thereafter when the National Book Trust asked Sálim to write a popular book on birds he asked Laeeq to collaborate. I have not ”written" a book but I have edited one ”India through her birds" in which I have written one chapter. Unfortunately the book has been poorly distributed.
Which is your favorite birding patch In India? And has it changed over the years?
No question that Kihim has been my favourite birding area, one reason being that I have been going there almost every year of my life since I was a child. The coastal strip (just seven miles across the ocean from the Taj Mahal Hotel, but 100 miles by road) has been both my classroom for natural history as well as an incomparable pleasure ground. Among the rocks on the seashore there have always been, in winter, flocks of waders, plovers, terns, gulls, herons (the Reef in both colour phases) and always a pair of the magnificent White-bellied Sea Eagles. In our garden, adjoining the coast, there are nests of the Red-whiskered Bulbul, Green Bee-eaters, Tailorbirds, Grey Hornbills, and quite frequently the matchless Asian Paradise Flycatcher spent time with us. A few furlongs into the hinterland was the village pond where Sálim Ali did his path-breaking research on the nesting habits of the Baya. Till a decade ago this little pond covered with the alluring white lotus was home to over 30 species of birds including both the Pheasant-tailed and the Bronze-winged Jacanas. My attempts to make it into a sanctuary over the years were a failure, and now it has been leased to fisher-folk and so the lotus and the birds have gone. In 1970 some members of the IUCN whom I had invited were thrilled with the sight of this pond and Peter Scott made a sketch of a possible ‘hide’ for birders to enjoy the scene. Not too far back when Sunita Narain (Editor, Down to Earth) headed a wetlands team of the Government of India and I suggested that this invaluable historical cum ecological asset should be preserved and restored she promised to send over someone to give it publicity - but no one ever came. Bittu Sahgal promised to locate a corporate sponsor. No one was found. It is now too late. Nature does not wait forever - even for her admirers. There are several other ponds in this area, which need to be saved and rehabilitated, one right in the busy Alibag town where migrant ducks still come. It will be a tragedy if this is "reclaimed”.
You have been given, quite rightly, several awards. Which one meant the most to you?
I think the Padma Shri, being the first one, is the most appreciated, particularly since at the time I received it in 1970, these awards had not been "politicised " as they are today.
You served on several governmental bodies, did you find that birds in general are given very low priority in the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
I do not recall any occasion when the preservation of birds, in general, was on the Agenda. But as you know Sálim Ali did succeed in driving home the point that in our agricultural country, birds played a crucial role in controlling insect pests. He also was instrumental in ensuring that to avoid collision with aircraft, the areas around airports were kept free from slaughterhouses, which attracted vultures and kites. Once I was asked to be the Chairman of a Committee on Environmental Pollution. The main issue was the increasing use of DDT. I tried to limit the production of DDT in the government factory (I forget where) but this was refused by the Ministry of Health because of the need to check malaria. As you know well there have been sporadic attempts to save particular species of birds, like the Great Indian Bustard, by creating Sanctuaries. Recently the Sanctuary for Jerdon’s Courser is another example.
You were associated with WWF, BNHS and Project Tiger, besides others. Given the dismal state of Indian Wildlife, do you think that these institutions have failed in their objectives?
Considering that as yet we have lost only one mammal, the Cheetah, and only the Pink-headed Duck among avians, have we been a total failure? I think our unchecked population growth has made it impossible for Government to have a rational land use policy, which would have ensured that wildlife and humans could both share the space. I realise of course that we would have been much better off if our administration was more effective.
Project Tiger would have been more successful if our Government, and particularly the Project Director Kailash Sankhala had been more welcoming to the offers of WWF International and IUCN for doing research in Project Tiger areas. I thought that establishing Research Centres in Tiger Reserves, as was done in the Gir National Park would help to keep our forest personnel on their toes, and also keep a check on poaching. Many proposals from international universities were refused. The point was always made that Project Tiger was not an International but a purely ‘National’ Project. Also that the Government of India was spending far more on the Project than the money received from foreign donors. All this may be so, but the lack of a generous approach towards foreign collaboration was very obvious. To give one instance, when a WWF photographer produced the famous picture of a tigress in a trap in Corbett National Park, Karan Singh, the then Chairman of Project Tiger gave credence to the view by our foresters that this was a contrived picture
I might mention that during the short period of Janta rule, when H M Patel, our Finance Minister, was Chairman of Project Tiger, several very productive steps were taken, one of which was stopping the plans for a major road through Corbett National Park.
What is your opinion of the current state of Birdwatching in India?
As we all know the growth of birdwatching, since it started in the 50’s has been incredible, especially in the last two decades. Birders all over India have become not merely enthusiastic but are taking the trouble to educate themselves. In Bangalore there are at least about 10 to 15 birding messages every day on bngbirds website, about visits to various places and list of birds seen, including rarities. Knowledge about species is growing by leaps and bounds. Suhel Quader's Migrant Watch is a marvelous exercise, with over 2000 birders responding this season and reporting about 162 species. All the Newsletters, MNS, Vihang, Hornbill, Pitta and others indicate the keen interest of the subscribers. The Annual Bird Race in several cities, and their support by Corporates shows that birdwatching has "arrived".
Project Tiger, once reputed to be the world’s most successful conservation project has floundered. Will it ever be revived? Can the tiger be saved?
Now that experts like Ulhas Karanth have been given their place perhaps there will be a slow revival. The decision to pay more attention to critical habitats, and ensure the protection of herbivores, which provide food for the tiger, might lead to a change for the better. The creation of so many more reserves for the tiger should also help. Tourism continues to be a menace. I think that a five-year ban on tourism with all the effort devoted to allowing nature to re establish itself - and hanging the poachers would be applauded by our wild lifers. Jairam Ramesh seems to have shown some wisdom and strength in banning the tunnel in Bandipur/Mudumalai, and appointing Madhav Gadgil as Advisor shows that he means business.
Having devoted your life to birds, do you have any regrets? Would you do things differently if you had the chance?
I have been lucky in a life devoted to birds and horses. I do not know whether birds have thrilled me more or horses. The privilege of being intimate with Sálim was a special factor not given to many. I was also fortunate in that my fellow Directors in Dynacraft allowed me to spend time with birds. Would I do things differently? I should have taken more advantage of the reference collection in the Bombay Natural History Society. I am naturally not a good observer, and more time spent with dead birds would have resulted in more enjoyment of the living ones!
In a world dominated by bad news, how do you retain your optimism?
I am, like most of us, distressed about the state of the world, but I get a "childish" satisfaction, in seemingly insignificant ones like not using shaving soaps because they allegedly contain harmful synthetic chemical. I do with the ordinary sandal soap which does not harm the environment. I use a small car, Maruti 800, in spite of my son offering to finance a larger one, because I like to feel that I am using up less of the over-crowded road. I am not frustrated about having achieved so little - but happy that I made the attempt. In this I share the views of Max (EMS) Nicholson. In his letter to me a few months before he died, he wrote on 18-9-99. "How splendid to hear from you and to know that we are both carrying on the struggle". The words of the poet Ghalib are always with me Nisha pilla ke girana to sub ko ata hai---maza to jab hai ke girton ko tham le saqi (anyone can fall after imbibing. The joy is when the cup-bearer prevents the fall).
How do we handle the conundrum of the forest, ecosystem people and nature? How should ordinary people battle money-power from destroying what is precious?
I presume this will only happen when the case for the preservation of the natural environment really goes home and people realise that there is nothing more important than the five renewable natural resources-air, water, soil, flora and fauna. In course of time, when we are really on the edge, there may be a change.
Earlier I had referred to the letter from Max Nicholson. In concluding he had said: " As our environmental campaigns have only partly succeeded in converting public opinion, I have largely switched my own efforts towards persuading people to change over to life-styles more in keeping with ecology and in harmony with survival of nature " This Max called The New Renaissance, and this really involves battling against ourselves. It could be a deeply satisfying experience.
What is your message to the youth of India about their forest heritage?
The young people of India today are living in an age where science has worked miracles. The opportunities of capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into energy; the potentiality of solar energy, the possibility of converting our huge quantities of waste into energy; all this suggests that in future there may be no need to mine minerals for creating electricity. The forests could remain to add to the glory of the natural world and play their part in conserving water - the most critical natural resource of the future. If the forests and other natural areas, grasslands, wetlands, marshlands remain we would be back to a pristine world without pollution, and without the horrible prospects of Atomic Meltdowns. That is the future they should aim at.
If you had a magic wand, what would you change in terms of wildlife policy in India?
A Wildlife Policy is intimately connected with land use, and I would welcome a land use policy, which gives the same importance to all species of life as it does for us humans. As Peter Scott said, referring to wildlife: "It is their world too". We cannot be sentimental- but have to be utterly scientific. We may have to cull numbers to ensure the healthy survival of any species. As custodians of our planet, by the accident of evolution, we have to discharge this responsibility as ethically and intelligently as we are capable of.
Zafar, thank you for talking to us. May you continue your fine work for many more years to come.