Salim Ali was an Indian ornithologist and naturalist, often referred to as the "birdman of India." Among the first Indians to conduct systematic bird surveys across India, he also authored several books on birds that helped to popularize ornithology in India. Born into a large family, he lost both his parents in quick succession and was orphaned by the age of three. He was taken in by his childless uncle and aunt and received a middle-class upbringing at their home. He developed an early interest in birds and was introduced to W. S. Millard, secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) when he needed help in identifying a bird he had shot. Millard kindled in him a deep desire to learn more about birds and the young boy ventured into ornithology. Even though he did not posses any formal training in the subject, he went on to become a very renowned ornithologist whose works are credited to have popularized the study of birds in India. Following India’s partition in 1947 he became a key figure at the Bombay Natural History Society and was actively involved in the creation of the Bharatpur bird sanctuary (Keoladeo National Park). He received several honors for his life’s work, including the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan.
Childhood & Early Life
Salim Ali was born into a Sulaimani Bohra Muslim family on 12 November 1896, in Bombay (now Mumbai). He was the ninth and the youngest child of Moizuddin and Zeenat-un-nissa. His father died when Salim was just a year old, and his mother too expired after a couple of years. The orphaned children were then raised by a childless uncle and aunt.
When he was ten years old, Salim shot a strange looking bird with his toy air gun. Unable to identify the bird, he showed it to his uncle Amiruddin who introduced the boy to W. S. Millard, secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). Millard was impressed by the boy’s curiosity and kindled his interest in ornithology by offering to train him.
He went to primary school at Zenana Bible and Medical Mission Girls High School along with his sisters. He later went to St. Xavier's College, Bombay, but his studies suffered as he suffered from chronic headaches. He passed the matriculation exam of the Bombay University with much difficulty in 1913.
He went to Burma to help his family in their wolfram (tungsten) mining works there. There he got ample opportunities to study birds and indulge in his favorite hobby, hunting.
He returned to India in 1917 and proceeded to study commercial law and accountancy at Davar's College of Commerce. However, Father Ethelbert Blatter at St. Xavier's College recognized his true passion and convinced him to study zoology alongside. Thus, he attended morning classes at Davar's College and also attended zoology classes at St. Xavier's College. He was eventually able to complete the course in zoology.
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Salim Ali desperately wanted the ornithologist's position which was open at the Zoological Survey of India but could not get it due to the lack of a formal university degree.
In 1926, he was hired as guide lecturer at the newly opened natural history section in 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.
He gained useful experience in Berlin and made acquaintance with many of the major German ornithologists of the time including Bernhard Rensch, Oskar Heinroth and Ernst Mayr. He also gained experience in bird ringing at the Heligoland Bird Observatory.
He returned to India in 1930. By this time the guest lecturer position had been eliminated and Ali moved to Kihim, a coastal village near Bombay, to study birds.
Eventually, he received an opportunity to conduct systematic bird surveys of the princely states that included Hyderabad, Cochin, Travancore, Gwalior, Indore and Bhopal with the sponsorship of the rulers of those states. He was aided in his surveys by Hugh Whistler.
A prolific writer, he authored several books on birds. In 1941, he published the ‘The Book of Indian Birds’, which became a very popular handbook that popularized ornithology among the common man. He later collaborated with famos ornithologist S. Dillon Ripley to write the extensive ten volume work the ‘Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan’ which took ten years of research to complete.
Following India’s independence in 1947, Ali played a vital role in acquiring funding for the BNHS by writing to the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for help. He was instrumental in promoting the development of ornithology in India and was a major influence in conservation related issues in post-independence India.
The author of many bird books, one of his most popular ones was ‘The Book of Indian Birds’, which is considered a landmark book on Indian ornithology. The book sparked much interest in the birds of India and was a popular bird-guide in a low-cost edition.
His magnum opus is considered to be the ‘Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan’, which he wrote along with S. Dillon Ripley. The ten volume work took ten years to be completed. The comprehensive work covered the birds of the subcontinent, their appearance, habitat, breeding habits, migration, etc.
Awards & Achievements
The Indian government decorated him with a Padma Bhushan in 1958 and the Padma Vibhushan in 1976, India's third and second highest civilian honors, respectively.
In 1967, he became the first non-British citizen to receive the Gold Medal of the British Ornithologists' Union.
He received the John C. Phillips memorial medal of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in 1969.
In 1973, the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences gave him the Pavlovsky Centenary Memorial Medal.
Personal Life & Legacy
Salim Ali married a distant relative, Tehmina in December 1918. The couple shared a loving relationship and he was left devastated by his wife’s death in 1939. He spent his later years living with his sister and her husband.
He suffered from prostate cancer during his later years and died on 20 June 1987, at the age of 90.
The Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON)—named in his honor—was established at Coimbatore by the Government of India in 1990.