Revisiting Salim Ali’s trail

For me it was like a dream come true, to be part of team re-tracing a study conducted by India’s Bird Man, Dr. Salim Ali, around seven decades back in 1933. When I got an invitation from State Forest Department in 2009, I did not hesitate to give up my existing job. I owe this fully to my wife Suma, she said “you must go”. It was an unusual event in Indian ornithological history that a legendary work by Dr. Salim Ali was retraced exactly at the same location on the same dates, but after a period of 75 years, to study the changes that occurred over the years.

I also had the pleasure of working together with Mr. C. Sasikumar, the Principal investigator, who is an outstanding ornithologist of our time and author of many books on birds. The project was unique in many ways as we had to stick to the dates and locations followed in 1933. For almost an year we were “cut off” from family, friends and the outside world.

Many times we wondered how Salim Ali had managed the transport in those days, to move from one location to another. We walked more than 1000 kilometres through the forests of south Kerala, talked to villagers about birds, habitat change, etc. In the end, while comparing the results, we realised that local extinction of many species is happening silently in our landscape, primarily owing to the expansion of human population and related “developmental activities”. We were also surprised at the outcome that many lowland species have started moving higher up the mountains!

The reasons are degradation of suitable habitats in lowlands, overall warmer conditions in higher mountains and human intrusion towards hills and mountains. Crows are now common in the higher mountains of Munnar where they did not exist before! Four species of Vultures became extinct from south Kerala by 1980s! The city of Trivandrum lost 80% of its existing species by 2009 due to urbanisation!. The results are published in a Book by State Forest Department and two scientific papers were published with summaries.

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