Salim Ali
1896 - 1987

Salim Ali (Salim Moizuddin Abdul Ali) was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) on November 12, 1896, the ninth and last child in a large Muslim family. His father died when he was only a year old, and his mother followed just a couple of years later. He was raised by one of his maternal uncles, Amiruddin Tyabi, and an aunt with no children of her own, Hamida Begum.

Ironically, it was his foster father's love of shooting that brought Salim Ali to his lifetime love of ornithology, as he describes in his autobiography, The Fall of the Sparrow. One day when the young boy was shooting his air rifle for fun, he brought down a sparrow that had unusual coloring. His uncle couldn't identify it, so he took it to W.S. Millard at the Bombay Natural History Society. Millard identified the bird as a Yellow-Throated Sparrow, showed Salim the society's stuffed bird collection, and taught him the principles of specimen gathering and bird preservation.

Education

Salim Ali spent his early school years at Zanana Bible Medical Mission Girls High School in Girgaon with his sisters, but because of severe headaches, he spent a portion of his school time with an uncle in Sind who thought the dry climate there might help.

He began college at St Xavier's but dropped out after only a year and went to Burma to oversee the family's tungsten mine and timber interests there. Salim stayed in Burma for seven years, taking advantage of the myriad of opportunities to hunt and explore the area's wildlife and nature.

When he returned to India in 1917, he resumed college and married a distant relative, Tehmina, the following year. In those days, studying birds was considered a hobby, not a career, so his primary degree was initially in commercial law and accountancy. But his love for birds was obvious. A professor, Father Ethelbert Blatter, convinced him to follow his dream and not to give up on ornithology, so he completed his coursework in zoology.

He did find a job as a guide lecturer for a natural history museum. But unfortunately, he was still denied work in ornithology because he lacked a master's or doctorate in the subject. Salim Ali decided that if he ever wanted ornithology to be more than a part-time hobby, he would need to continue his coursework in the subject, so went to Berlin.

In Germany, he studied under the respected ornithologist Professor Erwin Stresemann at Berlin University's Zoological Museum.

The Bird Man Hatches

When he returned to India in 1930, Ali found that his guide lecturer position had been eliminated due to funding problems, and he was still unable to find good work in ornithology. Rather than giving up, he took a visionary approach: He arranged with the princely states to perform an unpaid survey of avian life in their areas. The rulers would cover only his camping expenses and travel.

The princely states jumped at the chance to have their avian wildlife catalogued in full, and thus began Salim Ali's nomadic career as an expert field ornithologist. He visited every major bird breeding ground in India over the next couple of decades. Indeed, Salim preferred studying the birds in their natural habitat, and his wife shared this love with him. Tehmina traveled with Salim and aided him in his work until she died in 1939.

Books

The following is a partial list of books authored or coauthored by Salim Ali:

  • The Book of Indian Birds
  • Pictorial Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent
  • Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan
  • Indian Hill Birds
  • The Fall of the Sparrow (autobiography)

Honors and Hobbies

He was the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including:

  • The J. Paul Getty International Award
  • Joy Gobinda Law Gold Medal
  • Golden Ark of the International Union for Conservation of Nature
  • Golden Medal of the British Ornithology Union (only rarely awarded to non-British)
  • Padma Shree
  • Padma Vibhushan
  • Pavlovsky Centenary Memorial Medal
  • A number of honorary doctorates
  • Nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1985

He was also an avid motorcycle enthusiast, owning at various times a Sunbeam, three models of Harley Davidsons, a New Hudson, a Scott, a Douglas, and a Zenith, among others.

Salim Ali died of prostate cancer in 1987 but is still remembered for his lifetime contribution to the pursuit of subcontinental ornithology as a serious discipline, as well as for his work in conservation.


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