BNHS and the Sikkim Connection: A Historical Perspective to commemorate the Birdman of India
This year again, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) is celebrating the birth anniversary of India’s most famous ornithologist Late Dr. Salim Ali on 12 November 2020. In a period of momentous upheavals thanks to COVID-19, ecologists worldwide are calling out for halting environmental destruction which is sending us humans careening down a slippery slope towards unknown and dangerous pathogens. It is time we reflect upon the many solutions Sikkim can offer in the field of conservation of our habitats. All of us are Citizen Scientists in one way or the other and the interesting and absorbing hobby of bird watching or ‘birding’ is one such activity through which we can contribute enormously to our natural history knowledge. This is where Salim Ali comes in!
You would be surprised to know that almost 60 years ago, Salim Ali or the ‘Old Man’ as we fondly knew him in BNHS, was commissioned by the Maharajkumar of Sikkim Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal and the then Dewan John S. Lall to do an illustrated book on Sikkim’s birds. It was the State Forest Department that in 1962 readily published the book titled simply, ‘The Birds of Sikkim’. The amount of detailed information through his Sikkim Ornithological Survey included local names, food habits, behaviour, calls and nesting, backed by studies of specimens in Chicago Natural History Museum, Zoological Survey of India and literature, forms the base for anyone interested in our avifauna. Salim Ali highlighted the richness of birds of Sikkim by observing that the great variety and numerical abundance of our resident birds let alone passage migrants, made Sikkim perhaps the richest area of its size anywhere in the world! And recently birding has advanced from a hobby to an important economic activity for young Sikkimese of the calibre of Chewang Rinchen Bonpo, Lakpa Tenzing, Tashi Lepcha and many others like Chungda Sherpa, in the field of ecotourism or responsible tourism.
18 years after 1962, I was lucky to be part of the first BNHS natural history expedition to Sikkim’s verdant forests in 1980 with a grand fund of Rs. 3000 from the World Wildlife Fund. We were a small team of six birders and botanists and again it was the State Forest Department that supported our month-long field survey. When I joined the department in 1986, we initiated the Asian Waterfowl Count in high altitude wetlands guided by BNHS stalwarts like Mr. J. C. Daniel and S. A. Hussain and kept adding new records to Salim Ali’s bird list. He passed on in 1987, but the Sikkim Nature Conservation Foundation headed by our renowned Shri K. C. Pradhan helped reprint his book in 1989. I finally got my own copy of ‘Salim Ali’!
15 years back, thanks again to Shri K. C. Pradhan and a few close friends, under the aegis of Sikkim Foundation (SF), we established an NGO, the Sikkim Ornithological Society (SOS) and launched it on 12 November 2005, Salim Ali’s birthday, in the sylvan settings of Gangtok's Himalayan Zoological Park. The programme was attended by a large number of school children and interested citizens including visitors who chanced upon our advert in the newspaper. We formally initiated the Salim Ali Bird Count, an activity we need to revive with help from experts like Bharat Prakash Rai, Peter Lobo, Chewang and the increasing number of bird enthusiasts like Kuschel Gurung, Thinlay Namgyal Lepcha, scientists like Dr. Bhoj Acharya, Dr. Kamal Chettri, Prem Chettri, photographers like Karma Tempo, Niraj Thapa, Pempa Tshering and many others in Sikkim.
Not many are aware that Sikkim was the first state in the country to ban by official notification dated 22 December 2005 the veterinary use of the NSAID Diclofenac Sodium which was responsible for decimating vulture populations to critical levels across the subcontinent. Again this was thanks to the preliminary and conclusive studies by BNHS.
In 2006 SOS set up Bird Clubs at Yambong and Pelling, then in 2013 at Namchi. As ecotourism was fast becoming the buzzword, SF under Late Karma Takapa commissioned a pictorial brochure on Birds of Sikkim: Rangit Maenam Watershed. In 2007, BNHS under Dr. Asad Rahmani, the State Forest Dept and SOS published a book ‘Important Bird Areas of Sikkim: Priority Sites for Conservation’ and released it on 5 June World Environment Day. Eleven IBAs have been recognized by the Govt. of Sikkim.
Soon many activities followed, such as the BNHS Bird Ringing Camp in Sikkim, headed by Dr. S. Balachandran, the BNHS Bird Tourism Charter launched in Gangtok by Dr. Rahmani, Camp Sikkim and Gangtok Bird Survey by Lukendra Rasaily, Birding Guide training by Peter Lobo, Dipankar Ghose, the Citizen Sparrow initiative, write-ups in newspapers, radio talks, guest lectures by visiting ornithologists like Dr. Trevor Price, Lepcha expert Dr. Heleen Plaisier, World Pheasant Association Vice President Dr. John Corder, Chris Bowden of RSPB, UK, among others, a couple of excellent bird calendars published, Big Bird Days and E-Bird workshop conducted, even some peafowl predating on crop fields were ringed with BNHS rings and translocated to another forest in lowland Sikkim. Earlier where there were none, today we can boast of many homegrown birders and scientists, ace writers like Suraj Gurung and others who are sharing their knowledge and photographs through various social media platforms, such as Facebook groups on Sikkim birds, making exciting finds and establishing new records. SOS has graduated to generating public awareness through the publication of Chewang's excellent coffee-table illustrated bird book, posters and education programmes in remote areas for laypeople and students. Our birding tribe has happily increased to more people than I can name today, giving enviable job options for sustainable tourism and recognizing the value of conserving our natural wealth.
BNHS now has a project office in Sikkim to study pheasants and finches. Salim Ali would be pleased to see how much Sikkim has progressed in a field that was barely recognized less than three decades ago. On 12th November 2020 evening, BNHS is organizing a free webinar for celebrating the birth anniversary of Dr. Sálim Ali for which details can be seen on their website www.bnhs.org. Check out the other programmes on the occasion and get children to participate online. Here’s to strong legs, healthy hearts and clear vision for the years to come.
Let us also celebrate Salim Ali Bird Count on this day, by watching and compiling our own lists of birds seen in our neighbourhood, from our gardens, windows, balconies or terraces for at least an hour, if not more. His interest in birds was sparked by a Yellow-throated Sparrow he found as a young boy. Hence BNHS has also organized a photography competition themed ‘Sparrows from your window’. Here’s an opportunity for members of Photography Club of Sikkim (PCOS) and other bird photographers to showcase the different sparrows found in Sikkim. As for me, I am scouring my neighbourhood for Minlas and Yuhinas, names I gleaned for my children from Salim Ali’s Birds of Sikkim!
Like I had written elsewhere, we all learnt about our feathered friends from his many bird books. "Did you carry Salim Ali?" was a refrain we heard when we went for our bird counts. To all of us, my friends who taught me about birds, butterflies, flowers, stream fish, even rocks and stars, BNHS was Salim Ali and Salim Ali was BNHS!
The author is Usha Lachungpa is a Retd. Prin. Chief Research Officer, FEWMD, GoS, President, Green Circle the Environment Group of Sikkim, Founder Member Sikkim Ornithological Society* and Member Sikkim Biodiversity Board. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org