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Salim 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 Ali was born into a Sulaimani Bohra Muslim family in Bombay, the ninth and youngest child of Moizuddin. His father died when he was a year old and his mother Zeenat-un-nissa died when he was three. Along with his siblings, Ali was brought up by his maternal uncle, Amiruddin Tyabji, and childless aunt, Hamida Begum, in a middle-class household in Khetwadi, Mumbai. Another uncle was Abbas Tyabji, a well known Indian freedom fighter. Ali’s early interest was in books on hunting in India and he became interested in sport-shooting, encouraged by his foster-father Amiruddin. Shooting contests were often held in the neighbourhood in which he grew and his playmates included Iskandar Mirza, a distant cousin who was a particularly good marksman and went on in later life to become the first President of Pakistan. Salim was introduced to the serious study of birds by W. S. Millard, secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) where Amiruddin was a member, who identified an unusually coloured sparrow that young Salim had shot for sport with his toy air gun. Millard identified it as a yellow-throated sparrow, and showed Salim around the Society’s collection of stuffed birds. Millard lent Salim a few books including Eha’s Common birds of Bombay, encouraged Salim to make a collection of birds and offered to train him in skinning and preservation. Millard later introduced young Salim to (later Sir) Norman Boyd Kinnear, the first paid curator at the BNHS, who later supported Ali from his position in the British Museum.In his autobiography, The Fall of a Sparrow, Ali notes the yellow-throated sparrow event as a turning point in his life, one that led him into ornithology, an unusual career choice, especially for an Indian in those days.Even at around 10 years of age, he maintained a diary and among his earliest bird notes were observations on the replacement of the males in paired hen sparrows after he shot down the males. He noted that male partner of a female sparrow was replaced soon after he had shot the previous male.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.