Walking with Salim Ali...
N Krishna Kumar recalls some of his precious memories of being in the Indian Forest Service and the treks he took with some wildlife greatsby K. Jeshi
“Dr. Salim Ali was a role model,” N. Krishna Kumar IFS (Rtd.) reminisces about his early days at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) where he started out as a Junior Research Fellow in the 80s. He went on to become the director of the Institute of Forest Genetics and Tree Breeding (IFGTB) Coimbatore, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, and Head of Forest Force.
He can’t forget a walk with the bird man. “A team of five or six of us were posted to Point Calimere in Kodiakarai assigned to study bird migration. It was early morning and we walked with him for five kms. I was in awe of the man. But he was mostly silent and meticulously observed the birds. When he did speak to me I got a peek into his extraordinary understanding of nature and I think, more than anything else, I learnt about discipline from him.”
Krishna Kumar has walked with some of the best, he says and acknowledges the valuable lessons he has learnt from them. On a trek with wildlife photographer, writer and naturalist, M Krishnan, he understood the importance of silence, especially in a forest. “The moment we entered a forest, Krishnan would urge us to stay quiet and tread lightly. He said that was the best way to understand Nature.”
On crocodile walks with conservationist Romulus Whitaker, he has collected crocodile eggs. This was the time they were endangered and crocodile banks were started in Tamil Nadu. Whether it was about the behaviour of chitals, sambars, and elephants, he gleaned from ‘elephant doctor’ Dr V Krishnamurthy, or the world of insects he was introduced to by Dr Ananthakrishnan from Loyola Institute of Entomology, Krishna Kumar is grateful for the experiences.
Engaging with Nature is everything, he says, giving the example of the Tamil Nadu Wildlife Youth Club programme where he got the golden opportunity to spend three years exploring sanctuaries and national parks in Tamil Nadu. “I met veteran wildlifers and foresters during those student days, and got an insight into what it would take to enter IFS. I worked towards it and here I am. I wish such programmes were reintroduced. Early introduction to wildlife and nature is important.”
• Krishna Kumar is the Tamil Nadu president of the Organisation for Industrial, Spiritual and Cultural Advancement (OISCA). OISCA advocates and implements sustainable development programmes among young people. “It is spread across 65 countries. They believe Mother Earth should not be disturbed. The objective is to get children to understand the value of Nature, and motivate them to protect her. OISCA promotes organic farming, children forestry programmes and other projects aimed at introducing Nature to school children. Under the UN programme, there are 17 sustainable development goals. India and 130 countries are signatories. Climate change is a big threat, we have to make the future generation understand the impact and look for solutions.”
His informed work on butterflies is greatly respected today. “My thesis was on ecology and conservation of selected Papilionidae butterflies in the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary in the Anamalais. My recommendations on tracking and monitoring butterflies and on the inventory of host plant status are still being implemented as are my points on conservation education, training, and creation of conservation networks,” he says.
As the director of Vandalur Zoo, (he held the post for six years), he set up the butterfly conservation centre and park at the Arignar Anna Zoological Park in Vandalur in 1997. “We nurtured over 80 host plants that attracted butterflies. Zoos are not just about exhibiting large, beautiful and fancy animals, it is about the smaller species too. That’s why I set up an insectarium and a herpetarium.” Krishna Kumar started the Zoo School. “School children were brought to the zoo and told about the animals, birds and insects. They were encouraged to treat other creatures with respect and sensitivity. We inculcated those values in children.”
• Krishna Kumar says migratory birds descend in huge numbers — red shanks, little shanks, cormorants, teals and geese. “We set up small traps for waders and terrestrial birds in the evenings. The following morning we measure the wing span, beak span, weight, and length of the legs of the bird before attaching an aluminium ring with a number inscribed on it, round their legs before setting them free on their way to Siberia, Russia and Ukraine. There was no GPS then , but after a month or so, we would get a call or a letter saying ‘Your bird (BNHS ring no..) has landed in Siberia’. We received details of the date, the body weight of the bird and other details. We could then tell if the bird had lost or gained weight during its flight...”
“Every single day of my 36 years amidst wildlife and forest has been rewarding,” says Krishna Kumar who has specialised on forest genetic resources. “In India, we have 2600 species of trees and in the world there are over a lakh, but we know very little about them. Every tree is individual. Its genetic make up decides its longevity, adaptability to climate and so on. If we do not preserve this genetic information, we will lose the trees. In the era of climate change, we have to understand Nature better. Conservation of forest genetic resources therefore is important.”
He shares one more special memory about Dr Salim Ali and that walk: “I held out a copy of Handbook of Indian Birds to him. He signed it and gave it back to me. It made my day.”