Home People In Remembrance S. Dillon Ripley: September 20, 1913 – March 12, 2001

S. Dillon Ripley: September 20, 1913 – March 12, 2001

S. Dillon Ripley: September 20, 1913 – March 12, 2001

S. Dillon Ripley, together with his wife, Mary Livingston Ripley, founded what is today known as the Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy.  Seen here enjoying a quiet moment in the wild, the duo were leaders in the development of an international conservation movement.Photograph Courtesy: Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy.

He seldom spoke about himself, but he did open up when I met him with Dr. Sálim Ali during the Bombay Natural History Society’s (BNHS) centenary celebrations held in Mumbai in 1983.

At the time, rumours were rife that the United States had installed transmitters on all manner of wild animals to “spy” on India, and when I asked him how he might react to such stories, he responded with a quiet look and a sigh, plus words to the effect that there was no point reacting, because the more you try to explain how science is used to monitor wildlife, the more suspicious people get. Ironically, back then, the conspiracy theories about the U.S. spying on India arose because someone came upon a gharial with a radio transmitter (probably installed in Nepal!).

Nevertheless, the Ripley story really reads like an adventure from the 1960s! And, wait for this… Many years later I discovered that Ripley was indeed a spy during World War II! He was even honoured by Thailand for helping the Thai underground resistance movement against the Japanese.

He first travelled to India at the age of 13, to go on a six-week trek with his elder sister to Ladakh and Western Tibet. That trip saw him fall in love with tropical birds and birding, and fostered an association with India that was to last a lifetime. Later, in his teens, he discovered the world of water birds and waders, an enchantment that resulted in his writing a book titled A Paddling of Ducks, based on his own explorations involving collecting, watching and breeding birds of all descriptions.

After that followed a series of voyages to the most remote parts of the world, from where he brought back stories, images and reports that he would use to lobby governments to protect the ecosystems and species few other humans knew existed. India was fortunate to have him as a friend and supporter. Apart from working to strengthen the BNHS, he was one of the first wildlife protectors to insist on using organised and systematic scientific projects as a conservation aid.

A strong Indian connection

Born to one of the United States’ most famous families (his great grandfather, Sidney Dillon, was the founding Chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad), he soon climbed the academic ladder through Yale and then Harvard, where he completed his PhD in 1943. The war changed many lives, including Dillon Ripley’s. As part of the Office of Strategic Services (which metamorphosed into the Central Intelligence Agency or CIA), he actually trained spies in Indonesia and then used his links with ornithologists to turn them into spies too! The year India gained her independence, he managed to convince the Nepal Government that he was close to Jawaharlal Nehru and thus obtained access to sensitive areas, leading to much embarrassment for the BNHS, and Dr. Sálim Ali, with whom he enjoyed a lifetime of birding and scientific collaboration. All this was, however, soon papered over and a strong bond evolved between the two great bird men, culminating in the publication of their jointly-authored, 10-volume magnum opus, the Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan (1968-74). More than that, he saw to it that resources were made available to the BNHS. The meticulous compilation of data was based on several joint expeditions within India and Bhutan by Ali and Ripley. The scientific output of such missions were embellished by hard data pieced together by pouring through the invaluable bird skin collections of the BNHS and are unlikely to ever be equalled in the foreseeable future, particularly when you consider the sharp decline that virtually all bird species are witnessing.

While Dr. Sálim Ali went on to become the virtual foundation for the BNHS, Ripley found himself appointed Secretary to the iconic Smithsonian Institution, a position he held from 1964 to1984. In the event, thanks to his flair for academics (and his family connections), he won both Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships and thus gained almost immediate entry into the world of natural history and wildlife. He also served on the boards of the WWF-US and the International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP), which turned into the famous Birdlife International with which the BNHS still enjoys a close scientific association.

A knowledgeable man, he nevertheless hated to be referred to as Dr. Ripley, preferring “Mr.” even when being introduced at scientific meetings. And in India, he tended to take a back seat, preferring to have the BNHS and Dr. Sálim Ali front even those programmes that he found finance for through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Government under the now-infamous PL 480 programme.

While India trundles on, cutting a path to “development” through its fragile ecosystems, those of us who fight hard battles today should pause mid-stride to read up on people like Ripley. Not just because they were visionaries who fought for wildlife long before the rest of the world even realised how vital species were for our own survival, but because those warriors of yesteryear, even when they competed against each other for recognition, always managed, somehow, to unite long enough to achieve common goals, such as the protection of forests in India. I have myself written reams on Dr. Sálim Ali, but history should record the role of S. Dillon Ripley as the strong wind under the ‘Old Man’s’ wings. As Bikram Grewal writes: “The 20th century saw an increased number of talented and dedicated ornithologists in India, but the most celebrated and long-lasting partnership of the time was that between Drs. Sálim Ali and S. Dillon Ripley.”

And that partnership was responsible for some of India’s most celebrated wildlife successes.

R.I.P. Dillon Ripley.

A man of many parts, Ripley has authored uncounted articles, over a dozen books and received many honorary degrees. He also won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985. Yet, what makes him unique is his foresight and single-minded passion for the wildernesses he fought to preserve at every step of his remarkable journey.Photograph Courtesy: Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy.

1913: Sidney Dillon Ripley II was born on September 20, in New York City.

1926: First visit to India at age 13. Trekked in Ladakh and western Tibet, which led to a life-long interest in birds.

1936: Graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale University.

1937-1938: Participated in Denison-Crockett Expedition to New Guinea.

1938: Joined American Ornithologists’ Union, became an elective Member in 1942 and a Fellow in 1951.

1939: Part of the Vanderbilt Expedition to Sumatra.

1943: Obtained Ph.D. from Harvard University.

1939-1945: Served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during WWII as an intelligence officer in Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. Used his position to go birding in restricted areas. Met his future wife, Mary Livingston, during his work with the OSS.

1946-1947: Part of the Yale-Smithsonian Expedition to India.

1947: Collected bird spciemens in Nepal, pretending to be Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s close friend. Nehru was livid, believed to have led to a suspicion that American scientists were CIA agents.

1948-1949: Part of Yale-Smithsonian-NatGeo Expedition to Nepal.

1950: Fulbright Fellow.

1954: Guggenheim Fellow.

1961: Authored synopsis of Birds of India and Pakistan, published by BNHS. Co-authored the 10-volume magnum opus The Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan with eminent Indian ornithologist Dr. Sálim Ali.

1964-1984: Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He led it through great social and scientific change and reinvigorated and expanded it.

1970: Founded the Smithsonian Magazine.

1984-1985: Retired from the Smithsonian. Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the U.S.A.

Died: March 12, 2001.

by Bittu Sahgal, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, February 2013.


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