S. Mohammed Ali, founder of Natural History Trust, author of eight Tamil books on wildlife, and editor of Kattuir magazine, tells K. JESHI that understanding Nature, and wildlife is the first step towards conservation

Recently, at a classroom in Gobichettipalayam, S. Mohammed Ali, founder and president of Natural History Trust, let out a water snake from his bag, much to the alarm of students. Worse, the snake bit him, and blood started oozing, but he continued talking. “The students ran out when they saw the snake moving,” he laughs. “I demonstrated it to take their fear away and to tell them that water snakes are non-poisonous. Out of 250 species of snakes in India, only four are venomous,” he mentions.

At his home in Mettupalayam, over endless cups of chaai and some tasty home-made biscuits served by his wife, it is enriching to listen to Mohammed Ali. He quit his job with the postal department in 1980s and turned a full-time conservationist from then on. “Mettupalayam, the place I live is surrounded by forests and wildlife. And, I started exploring,” he smiles.

Initially, Mohammed Ali, along with nature lovers Dr. Vasanth Alva from Pollachi and Dr. K.Yoganand from Mettupalayam, formed Wildlife Lovers Association, which later became Natural History Trust (NHT). “Science is taught in schools always with an eye on marks. There is no connect with every day life. Many students define Nature from what they read in their text books. We took the students outdoors.”

They approached government-run schools and colleges with slide-shows on wildlife. Later, they took the students into the forests in the Nilgiris and Mettupalayam. Sitting on boulders inside the forests, with butterflies and dragonflies fluttering around, students got lessons in Nature. NHS started with 100 students in Mettupalayam and now covers over 100 schools across Pollachi, Tirupur, and Erode.

Scorpion in a match box

Once, he brought a skink (aranai or long lizard) to a classroom. At another time, it was a scorpion, which he carried in a match box. “I let the scorpion climb on my hand to indicate that it stings only when it senses trouble when your hand moves. Black scorpions, considered the most poisonous, never initiate the attack. I share such information with students,” he says.

He has plenty to say about lizards. “They are harmless. In our own backyard, we have the bark gecko (marapalli), house gecko (house lizard) and blue-tailed skinks. The garden lizard (veli onaan) is an insectivore and keeps the garden clean. Such lizards, including udumbu (monitor lizard), and snakes, are vital to a garden’s ecosystem. They keep the pests out, including the mosquitoes. But we spray chemicals and chase them away,” he says. Superstitions are a deterrent too. “When an Indian Pipistrelle (fruit bat) enters homes, it is considered a bad omen. But, the truth is that it keeps the garden and house free of small pests.”

NHT camps with school children have been highly successful. But they lack support from the government. “There is no funding. We invest our money and run it. We have 20 active members, totally dedicated to the cause. In Tamil Nadu, we have about 500 members now.”

Mohammed Ali, who has just completed a two-day awareness camp for SHGs in Trichy, says it is easier to convey the message to those at the grassroots. “We talk at clubs, meet parents, NGOs, LIC agents and tell them to cut down on water usage, use less oil on their hair, less shampoo…everything helps in environment conservation.” He then adds with a straight face, “Instead of long tresses women should opt for shorter haircuts.”

The conservationist is irked by exaggerated accounts of wildlife. “Encounters in the wild are normal,” he says and shares an incident at Gir National Park. “Our group spotted a male lion 60 ft away from the car. After we took 10 steps forward, the lion woke up. Then, it gave a warning roar and stayed right there for 30 minutes. A simple experience like this is turned into a dramatic account.”

He gives another example. “At Thengumarhada, we camped in the forest to identify a tiger which was feared to be a man-eater. As it turned out, the tiger was in pain as a porcupine spine had pierced its foot. That was the reason it was growling. And a writer would probably describe this incident and title it ‘Killer on the prowl!’”. The misrepresentation extends to elephants and bears too, says Mohammed Ali. Elephants are the most misunderstood mammals, he says regretfully. “It never stamps a living being as often reported. It just chases you out of its way, and maybe attacks with its tusk. Man-bear encounters are described as karadiyudun thotta vaaliban katti purandu sandai. It is so misleading. But at our meetings we make it a point to give the real picture.”

Mohammed Ali has authored eight books on Nature. His book Iyarkaiyin Seidhigalum Sindhaiyum packs 1,500 news items, facts and figures about Nature, and has been acknowledged by some as one of the best compilations in a regional language. It is considered an as an Encyclopaedia on Nature.

One of his books is dedicated to ornithologist Salim Ali, whose life story inspires him. “I so yearned to own a gun like him in my younger days,” he recollects. “Salim Ali shot a yellow-throated sparrow, and took it to his father to identify it. His father sent him to BNHS. A European curator, opened the doors of the museum (home to 1000s of stuffed birds) to the young Salim Ali. And, he went on to become one of the greatest ornithologists ever.”

Conserve with care

Mohammed Ali has strong opinions about ‘blind conservation’, where tree plantation drives are carried out without proper research or understanding of the environment. “I visited the Savannah grasslands in South Africa. For millions of years, there have been no trees there, yet the ecosystem supports a rich bio-diversity. We go on tree planning sprees and it affects the balance of Nature. It is important to promote endemic trees such as poovarasu, vembu and teak.”

Street campaigns

NHT now conducts street awareness campaigns. Mohammed Ali cups his palm in the form an imaginary megaphone and demonstrates the cleanliness campaign they conducted at Khaderpet in Tirupur. “The area is dirty with all the spitting and betel leaf stains. We asked people there, ‘Do you spit inside your homes?’. We spoke for an hour each at three locations and no one protested, which is a good sign. We plan to address locality specific issues through such campaigns.”

Mohammed Ali quotes from Sangam literature where references are made to wildlife and nature. He mentions the poem kurunthohai thaaisaa pirakkum pulli karuvandu’ which describes the pulli karuvandu (spotted crab that carries eggs on its belly).The poet living in Sathimutram thousands of years ago has spoken about the migratory pattern (one of the first written works) of white storks from Siberia and Russia (naarai naarai sengaal naarai…thenthisai kumari aadi, vada thisai eeiguveer aayin…) “Such honest descriptions are lacking in literature now,” he rues.

He tells youngsters, “Look at the forests, they are always clean. Have you seen a spotted deer? How beautiful they look, do they apply any make-up?”

His books

Neruppu Kuzhiyil Kuruvi is a critical take on politicians, writers, conservationists, and poets.

Yaanaigal: Azhiyum Paeruyir is a handbook on elephants

Paluyiriyam is a Q&A format on bio-diversity

Paambu Enrall is a guide on snakes

Vattamidum Kazhugu

Adho Andha Paravai Pola

Rare sightings

NHT has spotted the European bee eater in Sirumugai forest (1991), Black buck (1986) and King Cobra (1988) on the marginal forest near the River Bhavani. All the sightings have been recorded with BNHS

Visit www.naturalhistorytrust.org