Inspiring Indians - Salim Ali

He was born on 12 November 1896 in Bombay as Salim Moizuddin Abdul Ali. Orphaned at a very young age, Salim Ali was brought up by his maternal uncle who was a nature-lover. Under his guidance young Salim became aware of the nature around him. 

The fall of a Sparrow

As a child Salim was given an expensive Daisy air gun as a present, and he spent all his time shooting sparrows around the house. One day he noticed that one of the sparrows he had shot had a yellow throat. He couldn't hold his curiosity and
approached his uncle. His uncle who was equally clueless, took him to the Bombay Natural History Society* (BNHS) in the hope of finding an answer. There, the honorary secretary, W. S. Milliard told him that the bird was the Yellow Throated Sparrow. Milliard also told him about the variety of sparrows. The conversation left a deep impact on the young boy who had never thought there were so many types of birds, let alone so many kinds of sparrows in the world. That day Salim decided that he wanted to know everything there was to learn about birds. This incident inspired him to pursue a career in Ornithology, the study of birds.

A life of struggle and learning

As a young man Salim had to face years of unemployment and hardship. There were hardly any jobs available for ornithologists in India at that time. So in 1919, Salim moved to Burma to look after the family mining and timber business. It was a rewarding experience for the naturalist as there were endless opportunities for exploring the forests of Burma. After returning to India, Salim tried to get a job as an ornithologist with the Zoological Survey of India but was rejected since he did not have a Master's degree in Science or a Doctorate. 

When Salim Ali heard of an opening as a guide lecturer at the newly opened natural history section of the Prince of Wales Museum* in Bombay, he decided to study further in order to qualify for the job. Salim went to Germany for higher studies under a famous ornithologist. However, when he came back to India he found out that there were still hardly any opportunities in his profession. It was then that he hit upon an idea. He decided to create an opportunity. 

Salim Ali and the Princely States 

Latidens Salimali
(Salim Ali's fruit bat)

Salim went to the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and offered his free services for conducting regional ornithological surveys. His only condition was that he should be provided funding for camping and transportation. Before Independence, there were many princely states in India; he offered to conduct the regional ornithologist surveys of their areas which were little explored earlier, for the BNHS. It turned out that the princely states were also eager to record their avian fauna and agreed to his idea. 

From there onwards Salim began his life as a nomad, moving from state to state and recording the variety of bird life in India. Salim was living the best years of his career. The long hours spent in the field studying birds made him one of those rare Indians who really knew each and every part of their country. Ali's wife accompanied him during these travels. 

The Bombay Natural History Society phase 

After India's Independence, Salim Ali took over the BNHS. He managed to save the 200 year old institution from closing down due to lack of funds by writing to the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for help. The Prime Minister immediately came to the rescue and gave the society funds to tide over its difficult period. Dr. Salim Ali was the Society's first Indian Honorary Secretary and also served as its President. During his later life, the Bombay Natural History Society became synonymous with him.

Dr. Ali's influence helped save the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and the Silent Valley National Park. In 1990, the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) was established in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. 


It was his sincerity that won him numerous awards all over the world including the Golden Ark of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the golden medal of the British Ornithology Union. He also received the Padma Bhushan in 1958 and the Padma Vibhushan in 1976 from the Indian Government. 

Pondicherry University established the Salim Ali School of Ecology and Environmental Sciences. The government of Goa set up the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary and the Thattakad bird sanctuary near Vembanad in Kerala also goes by his name. The location of the BNHS in Bombay was renamed to "Dr Salim Ali Chowk". 

As an author 

Dr. Salim Ali authored invaluable books on birds. His books include 'The Book of Indian Birds' (1941) considered the "Vedas" for the ornithologists of India, 'The Birds of Kutch' (1945), 'The Birds of Travancore and Cochin (1953)', The Indian Hill Birds' (1949), 'A Handbook of Birds of India and Pakistan', which he co - authored. His autobiography is titled 'The Fall of a Sparrow'. His 'The Book of Indian Birds' with its lively descriptions and pictures is popular even with the common man. 

Dr Salim Ali passed away in 1987 at the age of 91, after a prolonged battle with cancer. The legendary "Birdman" opened up ornithology for the masses that might otherwise have gone through life seeing fluttering shapes and colors. Because of his single-handed contribution, there are small groups of people bird watching in India today. Dr. Ali is no more but his legacy lives on. 

*The Prince of Wales Museum" now renamed as "The Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum" was set up in the early years of the 20th century to commemorate the visit of the then Prince of Wales. It is located near the Gateway of India in Mumbai. The museum houses rare and ancient exhibits of Indian history as well as objects from foreign lands. 

Ornithology is the branch of biology concerned with the scientific study of birds. It includes observations on the structure and classification of birds, and on their habits, song and flight. 

The Bombay Natural History Society is the largest organization engaged in conservation research in India.

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