Home People In Remembrance Zafar Futehally – Acclaimed Ornithologist And Conservationist

Zafar Futehally – Acclaimed Ornithologist And Conservationist

Zafar Futehally – Acclaimed Ornithologist And Conservationist

Zafar Futehally and his wife Laeeq at their residence in Koramangala, Bangalore, on his 91st birthday. Photo Courtesy: Garima Bhatia.

One of India’s best known naturalists and ornithologists, Zafar Futehally, passed away on August 11, 2013. Bittu Sahgal remembers one of the pioneers of India’s modern conservation movement.

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Alfred Lord Tennyson – Morte D’Arthur

My wife Madhu and I sat contemplating the sun, sand and sea stretching away into the horizon from Zafar and Laeeq Futehally’s heritage Kihim bungalow. When he emerged, with his trademark pair of binoculars in hand, he scanned the shoreline where gulls, terns and waders of all descriptions were busy doing what shorebirds do. “Their ancestors took to the air 150 million years before the Wright Brothers,” he said… half to himself. What a day we spent with him! I learned about horses, birds, human frailty and the joy of living, all in one afternoon.

Zafar was of another age. A more genteel age. An age when zabaan (a man’s word) was his covenant. Tall, wiry, and with a decided twinkle in his eye, he was one of the pioneers of India’s modern conservation movement, a contemporary of such all-time greats as Dr. Sálim Ali, Professor P.V. Bole and Humayun Abdulali.

A birder since his youth, he was also an unyielding fighter. At a time when it was almost heretical to fight against government (we were still in the throes of celebrating our freedom from the British and the flame of patriotism had not yet been sullied by rampant corruption), my friend and lifetime inspiration, Zafar Futehally, took up cudgels for birds and the tiny refuge in which they found shelter.

Sodden with the ambition of development, good people who had fought for freedom had identified the Karnala Bird Sanctuary, less than 100 km. from Bombay, as the site for a slew of factories to be set up by the Industrial Development Corporation. Despite having worked for generations to prevent the British from colonising India, Indians in whose hands a trusting nation had placed its faith now wanted to outshine the British in their haste to turn forests, lakes, rivers and shores to commercial profit. In knee-jerk fashion, Zafar threw down a gauntlet, publicly, and then fought and won the battle to save this tiny bird haven from being turned to industrial sludge. One thing led to another and soon he found himself fighting (and winning) yet another war against the felling of teak trees in what is now the Borivli National Park, the purest imaginable source of drinking water for the citizens of Bombay.

He was that kind of man. He never worried about the odds ranged against him, merely about whether what he was fighting for was right or wrong… for nature.

Zafar Futehally (left), Alan Morley (centre) and R. T. Chacko in Wyanad, Kerala, in 2002.
Photo Courtesy: L. Shyamal/Wilkimedia Commons.

A contemporary of Dr. Sálim Ali, who was his wife Laeek’s uncle, Zafar was in many ways more ‘activist’ than his more famous (distant) cousin who became renowned as the ‘Birdman of India’. An economics graduate from St. Xavier’s, Bombay, a casual opinion piece written in the Times of India about Magpie Robins saw him being invited to pen piece after piece for over a decade, and soon his ‘Birdwatcher’s Diary’ turned him into a celebrity of a very different sort from the ones that had either fought for freedom or had made a fortune for themselves by participating in the industrialisation of India.

People responded to Zafar organically. They began to look to him for advice, opinions, and arbitration for the many birding squabbles that would inevitably break loose when bird identifications were disputed. It was inevitable, in a sense, that his passion for birds and his prolific writing would manifest themselves as the Newsletter for Birdwatchers that saw the light of day in 1959.

Self-financed, this historic effort to draw attention to and celebrate our feathered bipeds commanded the princely sum of five rupees per annum for the cyclostyled sheets he would meticulously put together, print and distribute, almost single-handedly.

Conservationists of today would do well to study the life of people like Zafar, who were imbued with both the love of nature and the fire of patriotism, which manifested itself in a burning desire to protect all that was natural. At an age when industrialising India was the only real way to prove one’s worth, Zafar went on to fight industry with every force at his command, including the then Prime Minister of India, the late Indira Gandhi, who trusted him and paid heed to his advice when he asked for vast forests to be set aside for Project Tiger, which was to no small extent, born thanks to the ceaseless efforts of the likes of Zafar Futehally, Sálim Ali and J.C. Daniel of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).

As a young conservationist who gravitated to the corridors of the BNHS in the early 1970s, I was privy to many rumblings about differences among the all-time greats of wildlife protection, all of whom I admired greatly. There was, for instance, little love lost between Zafar and Kailash Sankhala, the first Director of Project Tiger. Yet such differences never once sullied the careful canvas of unity presented to the Prime Minister of India, under whose protective mantle Project Tiger was born. In fact Kailash Sankhala often spoke to me about how people like Zafar and Sálim Ali were critically important in convincing the Prime Minister, when virtually all members of her cabinet (save for such die-hard conservationists as Dr. Karan Singh) were clamouring for their pound of flesh.

“We never once fought in public, though we often drew blood privately,” Zafar would say with a wry smile, hurting not only thanks to Sankhala’s unyielding attitude, but also because fissures between friends and relatives within Mumbai’s tight conservation community had singed him.

The honours followed Zafar. He was Secretary of the BNHS between 1959 and 1973. He was also appointed Vice President of the IUCN in 1969. Mrs. Gandhi ensured that Zafar was nationally recognised with the Padma Shri in 1970. A decade later, he was presented by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands with the Order of the Golden Ark, an honour his more celebrated cousin Sálim had already tucked under his belt years earlier.

Imbued with a scientific temper, Futehally worked with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to investigate an outbreak of the deadly Kyasanur disease, carried by ticks on birds that migrated between India and Russia. A strong votary of bird-ringing (a method by which their migration could be tracked using rings attached to their legs), he was the quintessential conservation biologist (though the term had not then been coined).

It was Zafar Futehally, Sálim Ali, Kailash Sankhala and M. Krishan who planted purposeful seeds in me in the days when I was merely flirting with the idea of starting Sanctuary Asia magazine. By the time the magazine was born, in 1981, Futehally was already a veteran of battles to protect the forests of the Western Ghats and the trees and lakes of Bangalore, where he finally moved after leaving Bombay. People passing by Bangalore’s Hebbal lake today, for instance, should say a quiet ‘thank you’ to this grand old man of conservation, for had he not taken up the next to impossible task of fighting the landsharks who wanted to reclaim every last parcel of marketable land they could not enjoy its blessings today.

Zafar served on the Project Tiger Steering Committee and the year I started Sanctuary Asia magazine he sat me down and explained why it was not enough to celebrate natural history. “Fight against the roads being cut through tiger habitats, for these roads bring with them people and more people and the forest vanishes in their wake.”

Zafar Futehally's Newsletter for Birdwatchers inspired hundreds of young nature lovers to develop a sustained interest in ornithology. Photo: Baiju Patil.

Few people know that it was Futehally who was entrusted with the task of setting up the India chapter of the WWF, now a solid, well-known organisation. Around this time, sadly, he began to lose the support of friends in the conservation business, who should really have walked shoulder to shoulder with him as he vociferously opposed one industrial project after another. “Ecological assessments should have begun much before the many projects that ‘developers’ launched,” he told me overlunch at his magical Kihim bungalow. “Zafar they never listened to you then and they do not listen to me now,” I responded ruefully. Unfortunately, the idea was never accepted and the environment continues to be the last concern in any project.

Would that Dr. Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia were able to benefit from the wisdom of the likes of Zafar Futehally, Dr. Sálim Ali and Kailash Sankhala. If they had the vision, they would have understood that when Futehally fought and won the battle to protect Karnataka’s Bedthi Valley in the ’80s, he was actually fighting for India’s rivers… India’s climate and food security.

In the event, he would be happy to know that in September 2013 the Karnataka Forest Department organised a one-day convention to discuss ways to protect the Bedthi Valley, which was saved when short-sighted planners wanted to drown this biodiversity haven together with the Aghanashini Valley in Uttara Kannada.

Zafar had particularly strong views on tourism and espoused the belief that tourism should be halted in all wildernesses for five years to allow the area to recover. He also felt that there is a need for a green brigade amongst bureaucrats and that government officials should be taken out into the wild to experience the magic of nature themselves – an experience he said would encourage them to protect these fragile spaces.

He often reflected on the state of his much-loved city and country, and how sad it was that the thirst for life and zest had been replaced with the thirst for money.

Zafar died one fine Sunday, from bronchial complications, at the ripe old age of 93, in the Kihim he loved all his life. His wife Laeeq and his daughter Zai will no doubt keep his memory alive, hopefully with help from thousands of admirers such as this writer, who many decades ago knew another admirer of Zafar’s, one Nissim Ezekiel, poet extraordinaire who, inspired by Zafar, wrote flowingly of the Paradise Flycatcher:

White streamers moving briskly on the green
Casuarina, rouse the sleepy watcher
From his dream of rarest birds
To this reality. A grating sound
Is all his language, spelling death
To flies and moths among the leaves
Who go this way to Paradise.

Rest in peace Zafar… as the battles you launched continue to be fought by those you taught.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII No. 5, October 2013


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