R. Sugathan’s life is dedicated to birds. The ornithologist recounts his close association with mentor Dr. Salim Ali and his adventurous expeditions in search of rare species

One man and a few of his few letters changed Dr. R. Sugathan’s life forever. This eminent ornithologist’s eventful journey into the world of birds happened when the legendary Dr. Salim Ali wrote to him asking him to come to Bombay immediately after his graduation, even sending him a third class railway ticket.

For Sugathan, born and brought up in the little agricultural village of Thanipuzha, near Kalady, who had not travelled beyond Ernakulam, the only child of his parents, this invitation put him on the horns of a huge dilemma.

“Convincing my parents was the first hurdle. Then it was travelling alone to a strange city. But I decided to go,” says Sugathan, 64, of his decision that ultimately made all the difference.

Looking back, he feels everything was destined to happen that way. Even those long walks to school and back home helped him develop strong legs so vital to his job later. “Along with a couple of friends and the headmaster of the school, we used to walk to the school. And recently I trekked all the way from Chimmini (Thrissur district) to Nelliyampathy (Palakkad) as part of a survey.”

Sugathan first saw a photograph of Salim Ali on a magazine cover while he was doing his graduation in Botany at the Sree Sankara College, Kalady. “I did not know this man. There was this photograph of Salim Ali sir peering through his binoculars. On top of the cover were two birds in flight. One bird was shown as telling the other that they had to be careful as they were flying above India and they were being watched. This made me read the interview with Salim Ali.”

Salim Ali’s address was given at the end of the interview asking those interested in ornithology to contact him. Sugathan did.

Meeting Salim Ali

The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) functioned from a building within the Prince of Wales Museum. Sugathan reached there to find that Salim Ali had left for the day. Two of the attendees allowed him to stay there for the night.

“From the moment I first saw him Salim Ali sir became a father-figure, a mentor, an inspiration. He gave me a job of an assistant at a monthly salary of Rs. 350, allowed me to stay in the BNHS Bird Room where there were racks that held 17,000 skins of nearly 1,200 bird species of India.”

Sugathan was literally living with birds from day one. The life there shaped this committed ornithologist. “It was a struggle to survive on the salary. There were moments when I became homesick; longed for home food. But the people around were so kind. Some of them even brought that extra chappathi only for me.”

A project on ‘Pollination and Seed Dispersal by Birds’ got him his Masters from the Bombay University. “This subject was suggested by sir. To move into ornithology, I had to work on zoology. So he suggested I get into ornithophily.”

Sugathan was soon on his way. On a student exchange programme, with Salim Ali as his guide, he secured his Doctorate from the Patrice Lumumba University, Russia. “I was fortunate to see from close quarters this great man work on his famous book The Handbook of Birds in India and Pakistan. He collaborated with S. Dillon Ripley and I was given the task to check out details of the list of birds he gave me from the Bird Room. That was great learning for I became familiar with those birds. No one would have got this kind of experience.”

Time flew like the birds. The turning point came when Salim Ali asked Sugathan if he was ready for a Himalayan expedition in search of the Black Necked Crane. “I could not have asked for more. This bird was supposedly sighted by Indian soldiers on the China border and sir wanted to confirm it.”

Salim Ali was around 70 then but he refused to get into a helicopter, walking, climbing 2,000 feet every day till they reached the border. “We were taken to a salty-marshy place in high altitude after nearly 30-40 days of expedition. We saw the birds and for the first time, official photographic recording of the birds was done.”

Spotting the Ceylon Frogmouth

It was then that Salim Ali was revising the Red Data Book. Sugathan was asked to assist him. “He wanted me to check out the status of some species that he had not seen for many years. Like the Ceylon Frogmouth which was not seen for 70 years in the country. He asked me to traverse the Western Ghats, from Tapti to Kanyakumari on the trail of this bird.”

After a tough 14-month search, Sugathan spotted this bird at Silent Valley. Salim Ali came down and recorded the find. “Later, I spotted as many as 27 pairs in the course of that expedition. I understood the Western Ghats like no one else did. In fact, I walked the Ghats twice again, almost back-to-back in search of the Broadbill Roller and the Red Faced Malkoha. I saw the first one at Parambikulam, but failed to spot the Malkoha, the last confirmed sighting of which was done some 100 years ago.”

The most rigorous of all the expeditions that Sugathan took part was the reconnaissance survey of the Andaman Islands. “We surveyed all the inhabited and uninhabited islands, faced death when our dingy got caught in rough waves. The survey took us more than three years and by the time it was over, I was hit with cerebral malaria.”

Sugathan was recuperating when Salim Ali called him for the Bird Migration Project. “This was to study the migration of birds. The job was to trap the birds and put a ring on them after recording all specifics. I was Project Scientist and established 21 stations across the country. In eight years we ‘ringed’ more than two lakh birds. Even today, we are getting details of these birds.”

The Salim Ali Wild Wings Trust was set up after Salim Ali’s death. One of the trustees, Sugathan is now associated with the Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary. “This is in contract with the Department of Forests, providing details and information on the birds of this sanctuary. I also offer inputs on management of the sanctuary, various studies here like man-bird conflict, impact of global warming on migration etc.”

Sugathan continues his work with the same passion of his first expedition. Like the many birds around, this unsung ornithologist is hardly recognised. But he continues to fly.