The birdman of India


Sálim Moizuddin Abdul Ali (November 12, 1896 – July 27, 1987) was among the first Indians to conduct systematic bird surveys across India and his bird books helped develop ornithology. He was an Indian ornithologist and naturalist.  Known as the “birdman of India”, He became the key figure behind the Bombay Natural History Society after 1947, creating the Bharatpur bird sanctuary (Keoladeo National Park) and preventing the destruction of what is now the Silent Valley National Park. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1958 and the Padma Vibhushan in 1976. He authored Handbook of the Birds of India & Pakistan (vols. 1-10) and several popular bird books.



Salim Ali was born into a Sulaimani Bohra Muslim family of Bombay.  He went to St. Xavier’s College in Bombay. Following a difficult first year in college, he dropped out and went to Tavoy, Burma to look after the family’s Wolfram (Tungsten) mining and timber interests there. The forests surrounding this area provided an opportunity for Ali to hone his naturalist (and hunting) skills.

On his return to India in 1917 after seven years, he decided to continue formal studies. He was to study commercial law and accountancy at Davar’s College of Commerce. His true interest was however noticed by Father Ethelbert Blatter at St. Xavier’s College and at his persuasion, after attending morning classes at Davar’s College, he would attend zoology classes at St. Xavier’s College and was able to complete the course in zoology.


Ali later moved to Berlin and here he made acquaintance with many of the major German ornithologists of the time . He also gained experience in ringing at the Heligoland observatory.

On his return to India in 1930, he moved to Kihim, a coastal village near Mumbai. Here he had the opportunity to study at close hand, different species of birds and their habits.

Dr. Ali had considerable influence in conservation related issues in post-independence India especially through Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Indira Gandhi was herself a keen birdwatcher, influenced by Ali’s bird books (a copy of the “Book of Indian Birds” was gifted to her in 1942 by her father Nehru who was in Dehra Dun jail while she herself was imprisoned in Naini jail) and by the Gandhian birdwatcher Horace Alexander. Ali influenced the designation of the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and in decisions that saved the Silent Valley National Park.

Salim Ali wrote numerous journal articles, chiefly in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. He also wrote a number of popular and academic books, many of which remain in print. His most popular work was The Book of Indian Birds. First published in 1941, it has been translated into several languages and has been through more than 12 editions. The first ten editions alone sold more than forty-six thousand copies. His magnum opus was however the 10 volume Handbook of the Birds of India & Pakistan written with Dillon Ripley and often referred to as “the handbook”.

A single volume “compact edition” of the “Handbook” was also produced and a supplementary illustrative work A Pictorial Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent with illustrations by John Henry Dick and coauthored with Dillon Ripley was published in 1983, these plates were also used in the second edition of the “Handbook”.


Although recognition came late, he received several honorary doctorates and numerous awards. 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 to form the corpus of 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 Science gave 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 also nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1985

He died in 1987 of 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.


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