Mangalorean.com brings to its readers Mr. S. A. Hussain, our star for the month of September 2009. Mr. Hussain, is a renowned ornithologist and environmentalist, who has specialized in Field Ornithology & General Ecology. He was born to Haji Syed Hussain and Kulsum Hussain, on August 13th 1944 at Karkala, Karnataka and he joined the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) as a Research Assistant in 1969 in the Bird Migration Project, where he participated in many field assignments and ecological expeditions of Drs Salim Ali and Dillon Ripley on behalf of BNHS. From 1980-90 he was the Principal Scientist for BNHS. He has done fieldwork and published scientific papers on rare Indian species such as the Narcondam Hornbill, Himalayan Honeyguide and the Blacknecked Crane and has over 35 years of field research in Natural History, Ecology as well as leading multi-disciplinary research teams. In addition to this, he is also experienced in planning and organising seminars, and conferences at regional, national and international levels. His hobbies include nature walking, music and travel and his favourite books include those written by Jim Corbett.
Mr. Hussain has participated the Bonn Convention; Biodiversity Convention; Ramsar Convention and the International Ornithological Congress. He also hold a portfolio of impressive overseas assignments which include the post of Development Director, Asian Wetland Bureau, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Vice-Chairman of the Asia Division of the BirdLife International and Member of the Governing council, Birdlife International Cambridge, UK. Currently he is the President of the Biodiversity Initiative Trust, Mangalore and a Member for the Karnataka State Wild Life Board.
Mr. S. A. Hussain speaks to mangalorean.com on those interests that are very close to his heart.
What is the prime factor that brought about an interest in the field ornithology and general ecology?
The environment that I grew up in, in Karkala, had an initial impact on my interest in nature, but the prime factor that made me get seriously interested in ornithology and general ecology was my association with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). I had some vague idea that BNHS was a membership organization and they published books and journals in natural history of Asian region and that Dr. Salim Ali was associated with it. So, way back in 1969 when I joined as a Research Assistant in one of their field stations of the Bird Migration Project, I was quite impressed by the dedication, discipline and methodical field work along with the friendly work culture, encouragement for pursuing individual interest in nature. The emphasis was on meticulous recording of scientific data, gaining broad based knowledge of field ecology and tempering one's behavior with modesty and honesty. It was that magic informality, friendly and honest atmosphere and the sincerity of the people working in the BNHS that made me realize that I must make the best of my career here.
In later years, as I developed my confidence and took on more and more responsible work, I was to realize how important was my initial grounding in shaping that confidence to face greater challenges. Peer pressure was one of the factors that kept one always on one's toes. We were constantly challenged, tested and pushed by colleagues and other fellow researchers and it was a constant battle to be upto the mark either in our discourses or in the writings of scientific papers.
What is the influence of your birth place Anekere Karkala in shaping your career?
Though I was a happy child, last of a brood of ten, in a family as any, I was somehow developing an odd curiosity of looking around to examine a bird, an insect or a flower or anything that looked unusual to me. My companions in play would not understand what they perhaps thought was my odd behavior and would make fun of me. Quite often I would find myself excluded from their games and whenever that happened I would slowly drift towards Anekere and sit alone lost in my world.
Anekere was indeed a virtual window to the wonders of nature to me. There were frisky dragonflies which performed incredible flight patterns, there were birds of various sizes, shapes and colors, and the fish that came very close to shore to escape from being eaten by the bigger ones. I never tired of watching the White breasted Kingfisher that kept up its relentless sallies to get a fish. Apart from the aquatic plants, water insects, fish, reptiles (there were water snakes and turtles too) and birds; that heady smell of the marsh was sheer magic and that magic was to stay forever in my life.
Did you receive encouragement and support from your parents, relatives and friends?
My frequent escapades to the fringe of Anekere, sometimes much past the failing evening light, did cause some alarm to my parents and servants were dispatched to all corners of the lake to drag me in. They generally ignored my idiosyncrasies and left me to my devises so long as I studied my school lessons and generally kept myself clean. My father had a double barreled shot gun which he never used, but my elder brothers and my uncle occasionally went out to shoot ducks and other water birds at Anekere. I never failed to accompany them when this happened for it gave me an opportunity and excitement to actually hold the shot birds in hand and study them. I used to hang on to them, savoring every bit of the colors of the feathers, the shape of the body until a servant would forcibly take them away from me to dismember them for the pot. My curiosity was satisfied but strangely, I never felt sentimental about dead birds as such.
I shall never forget two early everlasting lessons I learnt - one from my mother and the other from my brother. These were my earliest lessons in nature conservation. My first lesson was when I was about six years old. In the backyard of our house next to a large cattle pen there used to be a Ramphal tree (Anona reticulosa). One day I discovered that a pair of brilliantly colored purple-rumped sunbirds had built their nest on the edge of slender branch. For sometime I watched them going in and out of their nest - flimsy, unkempt gossamer wrapped bundle of dry leaves. My curiosity to see what lay inside the nest was growing. And finally one day gathering enough courage I climbed the tree. In my eagerness to reach the thin branch at the end of which the nest preciously hung, I lost my balance and came crashing down with the branch and the nest in my grip.
A pair of hands pulled me up from the ground and my mother, who had seen me fall, had rushed in full of motherly concern, to dust me up and comfort me when she saw the branch with nest in my hand. Next thing I knew was that my ears were almost being wrenched from my head and my normally gentle mother, now an epitome of wrath and fury, shaking me up rather violently. I could not understand why I was being subjected to this rough treatment. She sternly pointed at the nest and warned me in no uncertain terms that, it was alright to just look at the birds but that if she ever finds me so much as touch a nest or eggs or their young, she would not only peel the skin off my back but also starve me to death. She then made a servant boy to tie the broken branch back high on the tree and sternly warned that if the sunbird parents didn’t comeback to the nest she will banish me from the house.
I was desolate all through the day not because of the fate of the birds but because my mother who loved me most had refused to speak to me for the rest of the day. It was the next morning as I was under the Ramphal tree watching the sunbirds back in the nest when I felt my mothers loving arms over my shoulders and I learnt my first lesson in nature conservation.
My second lesson was learnt a few months later and this time the scene was Anekere. I had been watching a pair of whistling ducks with a brood of nine ducklings feeding in the shallow edge of the pond while one of the babies got entangled with long weeds, unable to free itself (it was the youngest of the brood hence apparently weakest). Its parents and siblings, oblivious of the fate of the youngster, had slowly drifted away. Here was a baby that had been inadvertently abandoned by its family which I thought, needed to be rescued since it would either drown or be eaten by some predator. I decided to free the baby and bring it home to look after it. I put the fluffy baby in my shirt pocket and sauntered casually back home.
Before anybody could detect what I was up to, I kept the baby in a small basket after stuffing it with rags and kept it on the top of a cupboard where it could not be seen and sat with my school bag pretending to be doing my homework. About an hour later my elder brother walked into the room with the basket and told
me rather quietly (which was menacing enough for me - he was a school teacher who knew how to tame any unruly pupil) that I should take back the baby and leave it where I had found it.
Many years later when I was seriously into researching avian ecology, I recalled these two early lessons - that a) parental instinct is so strong in feeding parents that the birds will come back to feed their young even if the nest itself is disturbed (brooding parents tend to abandon the nest & eggs) and b) mortality of the weak and last of the brood is a normal phenomenon in large brooded non-precoccial birds.
Causes and circumstances to choose this career?
Like everybody else my early ambition was to become a doctor, an engineer or a pilot. Both in school and college I was an average student without much academic or extracurricular brilliance. Being interested in nature was not glamorous in those days. My attempts to get selected for medical seat failed miserably and my general health took a beating by frequent bouts of rheumatic fever. Inevitably I had to settle for biology as my career. Luckily for me I got my first job as a research assistant in BNHS field station and never looked back thereafter. It was an exciting, challenging and upward climb all the way.
Whom do you propose as your guide in your career and why?
It is undoubtedly Salim Ali who is responsible for guiding and shaping not only my career but also my entire personality in later half of my life. He was a hard taskmaster who believed in teaching by example. Meticulous and methodical, with painstaking attention to minutest of details, he would never tolerate any shoddy work from his students or colleagues. Intolerance was so acute that often he would launch into a cutting tirade against the hapless transgressor - if only for a few minutes. He would however cool down soon after, devoid of any rancor. On the other hand he would never hesitate to accept his own mistakes and even sincerely apologize for any wrongly made comments.
It was extremely difficult for a beginner to gain his confidence, but once one passes that hurdle and gains his trust, which may take several years of sheer hard work, and achieves exceptional order, there are no more barriers. The master and the pupil share the same thoughts, ideas, sentiments and outlook. Very few, if at all, have achieved that distinction. The other ultimate sharing point between the guru and shishya was that subtle sense of humor that would come across clearly in his conversations.
Sincerity and brevity was his forte and his writings in English language were delightfully readable. He would write and re-write a sentence several times over until its meaning comes through clearly and up to the point. In the final effect it always appeared to be an easy flow of thoughts. He had a simple and child-like curiosity about things around him and would keep his mind open to any bits of information he could glean from any source, however lowly it may be. He could be asking a scientist the intricacy of the working of his latest scientific invention and in the next instant he would, with equal humility, asking some road side basket weaver about the fine art of his weaving.
The other side of his personality spectrum was his aversion for anyone who is given to pompous boastful behavior and talks too much. Salim Ali would never let go the opportunity of puncturing the inflated egos with sarcastic but subtle comments interjected in all apparent innocence, and the poor victim, if he is clever enough, would soon realize his mistake. If the person is too "full of himself" to ignore the warning shot, he would be told in no uncertain terms to shut up and leave.
I slowly but surely absorbed most of these lessons that were never meant to be taught in the conventional sense. They were inculcated over the years, slowly but surely. Knowledge as never meant to be flaunted but to be shared. A good teacher also happens to be a good student at the same time.
Which are the most memorable moments to place in record in your career?
The most memorable moment in my career was in 1971 when I was given the sole responsibility of planning, organizing and implementing a field project which required initiative, enterprise, intelligence and courage. Narcondam Island is the remotest and most uninhabited in the Andaman group. It is a volcanic island nearer to Myanmar, rising abruptly to an altitude of 900 m from the deepest part of the Bay of Bengal. I was to live on that island for about two months along with an assistant to study the flora and fauna, particularly the rarest and endemic Narcondam hornbill which is not found anywhere else in the world. It was tough but equally exciting assignment.
I had to organize the logistics, permissions (special permit needed from Govt. of India to land on that island), travel, local administrative support, boats, wireless communication arrangements and food supply apart from camping equipment etc. I also had to organize a police party to drop me in the island in a special boat. Being an uninhabited island there was no landing facility and we had to not only jump onto the shore between crashing waves but also get our equipment and supplies on shore. I stayed in the island like Robinson Crusoe for nearly two months, studying the flora and fauna and later published the first ever paper on the ecology of the rare Narcondam Hornbill. That was a pioneering effort which helped to build my confidence for taking part in many more such expeditions during my tenure at BNHS.
My other memorable moments were during my travel to the remotest part of high altitude wetlands of Ladakh, almost on China border, to study and publish scientific paper on the ecology of the rare Blacknecked crane; to do a pioneering field study on the ecology and behavior of the rare Himalayan Orangerumped Honeyguide in Central Bhutan mountains; expedition to the Rann of Kutch to record the breeding of the Greater and Lesser Flamingos as also organizing and taking part in all the ornithological expeditions of Salim Ali and Dillon Ripley to the Simlipal Tiger Reserve in Orissa, the Melghat Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra, Bhutan, Himalayas and the remotest NE hill forests of Arunachal Pradesh.
With regard to conservation and management of environment in India according to you what is the present trend and what will be the future demand?
India seems to be at crossroads as far as conservation and management of environment is concerned. On the one hand there is definitely a greater awareness among the general public about the need to preserve environment from the ravages of pollution etc. Thanks to the emphasis in schools and colleges about environmental education and awareness, the younger generation is much more concerned and wants to do their bit.
On the other hand with the sheer volume of so called progress coupled with population explosion, matters seem to go out of hand and are impossible to manage. This is particularly so in urban development and industrial sectors. Inspite of the awareness created, the majority of population simply do not seem to care about the environment. Even the so ca1led social elite in urban areas and industrial giants seem to be offering only lip service to po1lution problems. Profit motive seems to override the responsibility of minimizing environmental damage.
On the other side of the spectrum, in rural and forested areas a different kind of pressure seems to be building up. Large scale encroachments of prime forest lands both by the poor and the rich for various reasons create another anomalous situation which is exploited by certain vested interests.
Everybody wants to become rich in the shortest possible time and no one is prepared to do hard work and take risks. Everyone wants shortcuts. India seems to be suffering from some kind of mental block in terms of achieving progress. In contrast, the Philippines which has economic condition similar to India seems to have achieved far more progress. Let me give a comparative example.
As the Director of the Asian Wetland Bureau, I was involved in advising the Philippine Govt. on overcoming the problems faced by their fishing industry. Due to earlier ill advised large scale aquaculture, the production of fishery crashed over the years and the coastal communities were rea1ly suffering and the economy was also in doldrums because the marine fish exports had drastically declined. We quickly put together an international expert group to look into the problem on ground and come up with some solutions which required changes in the local fishery practices and general cooperation of the villagers in coastal areas. The people willingly accepted this and were able to overcome their problems slowly but surely over a few years and today their fishery is not only in top gear but sustainable on long term basis. The general all round economic condition of the Philippines is much better than India today. That is because the people of Philippines wanted the change and were willing to help themselves.
In contrast to this, the outlook of Indian populace is entirely opposite. Sometime ago I participated in a seminar on so-ca1led "matsya kshama" conducted in Mangalore. It was obvious that everybody was harping on government cash subsidies, diesel subsidies, support price from govt., tax concessions, loan waivers from govt. etc., No one was talking about the solutions to overcome the problem or how best the systems can be changed to Get better and sustainable yields. No one was willing to learn lessons from elsewhere so that they can improve their own lot. No one was willing to wait for solutions to be found so that in the long run everybody benefits. How can you expect to attain progress with this kind of mental attitude?
The Kudremukh Wildlife Division has been vacating the adivasis. According to you is the stand taken by this department correct or not.
I think the whole issue is misunderstood by a majority of common people. I do not want to go into the intricacies of the meaning of the term "adivasis" here. It will be too long a debate. The Kudremukh Wildlife Division is a very small arm of a greater government machinery that looks after our precious forest wealth. This small arm is carrying out only the instructions from higher ups. In this case it is no less than an order from the Supreme Court of India. The Supreme Court has ruled that a minimum portion of the forest wealth of India needs to be protected at all cost under a provision of the Constitution of India. This has a sound scientific basis.
Encroachment of protected land by any individual is illegal and the law requires that he be evicted. It is as simple as that. It is the responsibility of the government of the day (Central & State) to ensure this and while doing so they will have to take a policy decision as to how they will solve the human problem. They will have to provide alternatives for those genuine persons displaced first - which is so called "adivasis". Then there are other deliberate and habitual offenders who grab forest land out of sheer greed. In both cases it is the responsibility of the law makers – local MLAs' and MP's to ensure that the people are made to understand the law as also to make suitable arrangements for resettlement of both legal and illegal encroachers. Ironically, these very law makers instead of carrying out their responsibilities, get into vote bank politics and help to break the very law they have passed in the government. The officials who are made to carry out the orders are made the scapegoats in this murky political game. Having said all this, yes, I fully agree that the stand taken by Kudremukh Wildlife Division is not to be faulted since they are only doing their duty. If the people feel they suffer because of this, let them go to their representatives local MLA's and M.P's to find alternate solutions for their woes.
You have participated in many national and international conferences/ workshops. Kindly share your experiences with us.
Besides participating in many national and international conferences/ workshops I have also been involved with organizing and conducting some major events in Asia and western countries. It is indeed a great experience to work with experts and people of different nationalities. A tremendous amount of goodwill and camaraderie is generated at these meetings and one gets to increase one's capacity to assimilate knowledge from various cultures and societies. Of course there are language barriers, different perceptions, varied outlooks and style of functioning but in the end it is all fun to be there and learn a lot.
The Japanese are quite polite and will never oppose your point of view directly though they may not agree with you. But once they start trusting you, you can have the best teamwork on any issues. Americans are an overbearing lot and behave as if they know everything and tend to dominate the discussions. Unfortunately for them this very trait isolates them in a multi country debate. British, though a bit condescending, will restrain themselves and are willing to hear other’s point of view. All other third world countries, particularly Africans and SE & west Asians, are a happy-go-lucky lot and are fun to work with. Unfortunately our own South Asians, with the exception of Sri Lanka and Nepal, talk too much and put on a bit of air which is usually resented by smaller nations.
On the whole, unlike political meetings, all environment related conferences and workshops are conducted in a very friendly atmosphere and participants very quickly build up a good rapport among themselves.
My best and happiest experience was at Kushiro, Hokkaido, Japan in 1993. It was the "Ramsar" global Conference on Wetland ecology in which over 3000 delegates from 79+ countries took part. Kushiro is a delightful little coastal town in the northern part of Japan and the entire city was decked up with festoons, banners, and artifacts for receiving the delegates. The enthusiasm of the local people, media and the host government was indeed palpable. It was a great time for me for, apart from being fully involved in organizing the meetings, chairing scientific sessions & technical committees, I was also the only Asian representative out of six participants from all over the world to take part in a live worldwide TV debate on wetland conservation issues.
The Japanese national TV network NHK not only made me their main international anchorman to telecast in English about the daily progress of the conference, but also made a special documentary on Japanese fishing community with me as the anchorman. My most delightful moment was the final banquet of the conference when the entire Kushiro citizens with their families attended the dinner festivities. Among them I met a Japanese family with a cute little one year old girl who became very friendly with me. Next morning Japan’s leading national daily newspaper Ashahi Shimbun splashed on its front page a large photograph of myself holding up the little baby!
What is your message to the student community?
Though our older generation is too old to change and bring changes in their lifestyle, what with corruption, ignorance, negligence, greed and all the failings of human kind, I still have great hope in our younger generation, particularly the student community. Rapid advances in science and technology in the communication field has brought the world together to share the knowledge base. We only need to assimilate this within our lifestyles and bring revolutionary change in our outlook, approaches to problem solving and generally shake ourselves out of the shackles we seem to have been trapped in. Do not accept any system that does not help anyone. Be bold and ask questions as to why anything should not be changed for better. Look around with your own vision, imagination and ideas and collectively bring in changes – in attitudes, personalities, lifestyles and work for greater common good.
Bird Life International-U.K.
Vice-Chairman - BirdLife Asia Council. Tokyo (1992-2000)
Board Member - BirdLife Executive Council. U.K.(92-2000)
International Ornithological Congress: Member - IOC Committee XXII IOC Vienna -1998.
Government of India: Member - National Committee for Wetlands Mangroves & Coral Reefs. (1992-97)
Member - Bihar State Government Committee for Research and Development of Wetlands of Bihar (1992-97)
Member - Punjab State Government Committee for R&D of Harike & other lakes of Punjab State.(1992-2002)
External Examiner: M.Sc. by Research, A.M.U. Aligarh - 1992
External Examiner: Ph.D by Research, Gujarat University. 1993
Visiting Professor - Kuvempu University, Karnataka
Present Position: Chairman, Biodiversity Initiative Trust, India.
Vice-Chairman, BirdLife Asia Council, Tokyo.(1992-2002)
Council Member, BirdLife International, Cambridge.(1992-2002)
Hon. Wildlife Warden, Udupi Distt. Karnataka. (2004- )
Member, Karnataka State Wildlife Advisory Board (2006 - )
1994-96 - Visiting Professor, University of Malaya.
1992-94 - Development Director, Wetlands International Asia-Pacific Malaysia (Formerly Asian Wetland Bureau)
1985-92 - Principal Scientist – BNHS Bird Migration Project Coordinator - ODA\BNHS Project
1980-85 - Project Scientist, BNHS Avifauna Project
1979 - Actg. Asst. Curator - BNHS
1970-79 - Sr. Research Assistant, BNHS Ornithology.
1969-70 - Research Assistant, Bird Migration Project.
- Over thirty years experience in International Conservation Agencies - organizing, fundraising, coordinating and network building.
- Over 25 years of field research in Natural History, Ecology as well as leading multi-disciplinary research teams.
- Over 15 years experience in Management of Research Units and supervising individual research of M.Sc., and Ph,D’s in field ecology.
- Participated in several international Conventions and Congresses such as Bonn Convention; Biodiversity Convention; Ramsar Convention; International Ornithological Congress
INTERNATIONAL STUDY TOURS & SCHOLARSHIPS
USA 1982 USFWS/Smithsonian Visiting Scholar
- Smithsonian Institution, Washington
- Laboratory of Ornithology, Cornell University
- International Crane Foundation, Wisconsin
- Petauxent Wildlife Research Center, W. Virginia
- San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge, California
- Welder Wildlife Foundation, Texas
- Arkansas Wildlife Refuge, Texas
- Everglades National Park, Miami, Florida
- New York Zoological Society, New York
U.K. 1982 British Council/ RSPB Visiting Scholar
- Edward Gray Institute of Ornithology, Oxford University
- British Museum (Natural History), Tring
- British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Tring
- Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, Monkswood
- Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Slimbridge
- BBC Natural History Film Unit, Bristol
- World Conservation Monitoring Center, Cambridge
- Nature Conservancy Council HQ, Peterborough
- Royal Society for Protection of Birds(RSPB) HQ & Reserves
Holland 1985 STRASBOSBEHEER Visiting Scholar
- Dutch Waddensee Research Station, Texel
- Institute of Ecology, Wageningen University
U.K. 1986 ODA/British Council Visiting Scholar
- Promoting Indo-British Technical Cooperation in Environmental Research.
- Institute of Terrestrial Ecology
- British Museum (Natural History)
- British Trust for Ornithology
- Animal Ecology Research Group(AERG) Oxford U.
- World Pheasant Association
- Some aspects of the Biology and Ecology of Narcondam Hornbill (Rhyticeros narcondami). Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. 81(1):1984.
- Some notes on the Ecology and status of the Orangerumped Honeyguide (Indicator xanthonotus) in the Himalayas (with Salim Ali) JBNHS 80(3) 1984.
- Status of Blacknecked Crane in Ladakh 1983 - Problems and Prospects. JBNHS 82:449-458.
- Coastal Wetlands - Major Ecological Entities for wading Shore birds. pp 200-212., in The Ecology and Management of Wetlands Vol.1. Eds. J.Hook & others. 1988. Croom Helm. London.
- Wetlands in Asia-Pacific Region: Strategies for mobilising Action for their protection and sustainable use. pp 27-35.,in Widening Prespectives on Biodiversity. Eds. Krattiger et.al., 1994. IUCN. Geneva.
- Status and distribution of White-winged Black Tit in Kachch, Gujarat India. Bird Conservation International, 1992 2:115-122.ICBP Cambridge
- Biodiversity of the Western Ghats of Karnataka – Resource Potential & Sustainable Utilisation. Ed. 1999. Biodiversity Initiative Trust. Mangalore
- Kudremukh National Park, Karnataka: A Profile and a Strategy for the Future, JBNHS 100 (2-3) : 202-213. –Aug- Dec 2003.
Submitted by Violet Pereira