Half a Century Ago

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 26 No. 10, October 2006

By Peter Jackson

I was feeling apprehensive as I drove from Delhi to Okhla. The year was 1954. General Sir Harold Williams, Engineer in Chief of the Indian Army, had invited me and my wife, Adrienne, to go birding. This was special, for he had bet India’s renowned ornithologist, Dr. Sálim Ali, that you could see 60 bird species at Okhla before breakfast. Adrienne and I had only a meagre knowledge of birds, and we feared we would have to hide in the bushes or lie in the mud and keep silent. The reality was that Dr. Sálim Ali was a lively, friendly man, and we chatted as we wandered along the bank of the Yamuna with Sálim naming birds – telling us a sandpiper was called spotted because we had spotted it. General Williams ticked the Delhi Bird List. In two hours, we had seen 68 species and then we had breakfast.

Dr. Sálim Ali had been known to us by name because the year before, in 1953, General Williams had given me a copy of Sálim’s book, Indian Hill Birds, for my trek to Mount Everest to report on the successful British Expedition. When a large blackbird sailed in front of me as I sat on a hillside, I pulled out the book; and there, on the cover, was the Himalayan Black Eagle. Later a flock of brilliantly-coloured birds passed by, and I found them illustrated in the book – minivets. I had never been interested in birds until then but I became fascinated by those I saw during two months in the great mountains.

Sálim Ali came to Delhi again in 1955 on his way to Bharatpur to ring young Open-bill Storks. We asked if we could join him, but he was hesitant because he was the guest of His Highness, the Maharajah. However, he agreed, and thus began long-lasting friendships with Sálim and HH. They were surprised to see us arrive with our first child, aged three months, and her ayah. They stayed on the bund while we paddled out with Sálim to the heronry. It was dirty work, for the young storks excreted a stream of black liquid when handled.

In the 1960s, the Sultanpur jheel near Delhi was just an open waterbody with no trees and islands. These were introduced after Sultanpur was declared a Protected Area and the late Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, ordered the Haryana Government to protect the bird haven. Bharatpur’s most famous winter visitors, the Siberian Cranes (below) are no longer seen in the Park. Photo: Ranjit Lal

Keoladeo Ghana at Bharatpur did not have many visitors in those days, and we could drive around the bunds, the car a useful hide when taking photos. I had an inflatable boat, and in 1959 had the privilege of taking out Sir Julian Huxley, the world-famous natural scientist. During a day’s visit we scored over 100 species, a record for him. It was particularly exciting because we saw a small flock of Siberian Cranes, the first recorded in Bharatpur since Sálim Ali saw them in 1937.

The Siberian Cranes became famous during the 1960s, and it is often said that hundreds were counted, but during my frequent visits I never saw more than 86. I was present when HH had duck shoots for his friends. The cranes would take off, circling overhead and calling plaintively as the guns boomed, and then glide down to resume feeding when the shoot was over.

I had first visited India when in the Royal Navy in 1945, and one of my memories is of great whales breaching around us as we sailed up the Malabar coast. When I returned as a resident Reuters correspondent, first in Pakistan and then in Delhi, I travelled widely around the subcontinent, and visited wildlife reserves whenever possible. I saw the last elephant khedda in Mysore, rhinos in Kaziranga and Chitwan, hundreds of blackbuck moving like an army to water in Velavadar – so many magnificent animals, and there were always birds. But tigers were elusive. We spent days and nights driving around reserves, often finding pugmarks later on our car tracks, but never seeing our target. Tigers were only likely to be seen by spotlight on buffalo baits. 

I did see the tiger during memorable nights at the Kalighati waterhole in Sariska. At dusk, peacocks and langurs withdraw to the trees; sambar appear, followed by chital and nilgai. Suddenly there is tension in the air: a tiger arrives to drink; the deer freeze and stamp their forefeet. A domestic buffalo confronts the tiger and then retreats to the bushes, teasing the snarling tiger – nature in the raw.

Bird photography was my passion. For an hour or two every morning before I started work, I roamed the countryside around Delhi to see and photograph birds. We spent several summer breaks in Kashmir, where my shikari, Sultana, who had worked with Sálim and other bird specialists, would locate nests and set up hides for me. Most exciting was in 1959 when, after many failed attempts to photograph the Pheasant-tailed Jacana, I was able to take a set of close-up pictures. As I was about to pack my camera equipment, the Jacana pulled one of its eggs into the water and, walking backwards, guided it with its bill to a new nest about two metres away. I quickly set up my camera again and got a series of shots as the bird moved all four of its eggs to the new nest. It was the first time this behaviour had been photographed.

A Pheasant-tailed Jacana (left) pulls one of its eggs into the water and guides it with its bill to a new nest. Peter Jackson was the first person to photograph this unique behaviour. A trek to Mount Everest to report on a successful British climbing expedition triggered the author’s interest in birds. He is seen here (right) in Mumbai in 1979 with Dr. Sálim Ali, with whom he never missed an opportunity to go birding.

When in Bombay, I usually went birding with Sálim in the Borivli forests. I joined him for two expeditions in Bhutan when he was collecting specimens for Birds of the Eastern Himalayas. Early breakfast and hunting in the morning, afternoons preparing the day’s specimens. Food was simple, with a square of chocolate after supper and a pleasant walk and chat before bed. I once shared Sálim’s tent, allowed only after I assured him that I did not snore.

The jewel in the crown around Delhi was Sultanpur, which I discovered after the Najafgarh jheel had been drained. The road from Gurgaon had been broken up by floods, but it was just possible to reach Sultanpur, then a treeless jheel that attracted hundreds of waterfowl. I was usually alone there. In 1969, I took some distinguished international ornithologists to the jheel. Sir Peter Scott, founder of Britain’s Wildlife and Wetlands Trust, asked me if the jheel was being saved. This led to my writing to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a founder member of the Delhi Bird Club. She said she would like to see the birds. Arrangements were made, but the visit was cancelled at the last moment. She arranged for the Haryana government to conserve the jheel, however, and years later, she did see the birds there – when she was under arrest and held in the newly built rest house!

Indira also saved the lake in the centre of Porbandar when I told her that hundreds of lesser flamingos were feeding there. She stopped the draining in progress to make a park and the sanctuary was instead created. 

There were plenty of birds to see in the centre of Delhi. When living on Hanuman Road, I twice saved young kites that had fallen from nests. I kept them in the bathroom where they shocked guests who found them watching with beady eyes from the shower rail. Mynahs nested in my office window. When I set up my camera, the pair came and inspected it. One day I parked my car on the corner of Hanuman Road and Parliament Street, opposite my office. As I got out among a crowd of people, one of the mynahs picked me out and hit me on the head.

The 1969 IUCN international meeting changed my life. I met the leaders of IUCN and WWF and told them that I had become so interested in India’s wildlife that I wanted to use my journalistic abilities for conservation. I became Director of Information of WWF the following year. 

The Delhi meeting had been dominated by the plight of the tiger. This led to WWF launching an appeal for a million dollars for conservation. I was the only person in WWF or IUCN who had seen wild tigers and so I took on the task of managing the funding of field projects, especially Project Tiger. It was a pleasure to return frequently to my old haunts, to work with Kailash Sankhala, Project Tiger’s first Director, and in the 1980s, to see tigers starting to emerge by day in Ranthambhore. After nine years with WWF, I decided to freelance as a writer/photographer, but in 1983 I was invited to chair the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, a privilege I held for 17 years. My work for IUCN took me back to India frequently. I saw Delhi changing, like other great world cities, and not always for the better. The countryside I had enjoyed so much was swallowed by the expanding city. The wonderful winters, with clear blue skies, were no more, replaced by haze and smog. The vultures that filled the sky and nested in roadside trees vanished. So did the fruit bats. But Delhi birders’ daily emails assure me that the birds are still flourishing.

Peter Jackson was a British journalist, photographer and author who took an interest in tiger conservation. He was the Chairman of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group from 1983 to 2000.

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