A Fifty Year Journey
Zafar Futehally

Mr. Zafar Futehally (77) has been actively involved in the national and international movement for conservation of nature.  Described variously as a naturalist, environmentalist or conservationist, he had been at the vanguard of the environment/conservation activities in our country.   The late Salim Ali was his mentor and often provided the stimulus for action such as establishment of “Birdwatchers’ Field Club”.  But, Mr. Zafar Futehally was instrumental in taking the initiatives in policy directions such as incorporation of an ‘environment’ philosophy in the national five-year plans. 

His role in the conservation of forests, wildlife and fragile ecosystems such as in the Western Ghats, has received recognition nationally and internationally.  He has held high offices at IUCN, WWF, and BNHS with distinction. 

We, at Development Alternatives are fortunate to have Mr. Zafar Futehally as a distinguished member of the Board of Governors of our sister concern “Technology and Action for Rural Advancement” (TARA).   Bombay Natural History Society has honoured Mr. Zafar Futehally with the award of International Salim Ali Centenary Memorial Prize.  We extend our felicitations to Mr. Zafar Futehally. 

The article is not a verbatim reproduction of the acceptance speech, but highlights some of the milestones on the “conservation” journey in ZH’s inimitable style of wit and frankness. 

I think the best I can do on this occasion is to give an anecdotal account of the Conservation Movement for the past 50 years.  I will attempt to highlight from memory (not a very sharp one) the main events of the past five decades.  It is a period when Salim Ali played a pioneering role in emphasising the importance of our natural environment, not merely for nature lovers, but for society as a whole.  I was fortunate to be on the periphery of this movement.


I think it will be agreed that the first National Pronouncement about conservation was the National Forest Policy of 1952 with its famous proposal that 33% of India’s land surface should be under forest cover.  I understand that the figure of 33% was arrived at in a curious way.  A Government of India note, produced by the Ministry of Agriculture, said that Europe had a certain degree of forest cover but since its climate was temperate, and the rainfall more frequent, and since India was a tropical country with greater extremes of climate, it should have more forest cover than Europe.   On that basis the figure of 33% was arrived at.  I need hardly remark to this audience that in the matter of vegetation cover on the land, averages can provide no sensible guidelines.

I wish the Government would accept the recommendations made in several fora for having two categories of Forests, i.e. Protective and Productive Forests.  This policy would ensure that there would be no exploitation at all of the Protective Forests and these would be left entirely untouched to perform their ecological functions, conservation of ground water, protection of soil and all the other natural duties which a forest is meant to do.  The  present practice of having selective felling even in the so-called protective forests leads to serious degradation.  It might be noted that a forest which has anything less than 60% of its leaf cover fails in its ecological functions.

On Birdwatching

My serious involvement in birdwatching and conservation happened in a curious way.  Towards the end of the 50s, a reporter in the Times of India, wrote a piece under the heading The Magpie Robin - a fine songster.  He obviously knew nothing about birds but must have looked up the books and put together a paragraph about the European Magpie (Pica pica) and then added a few paragraphs from Salim Ali’s book about our own dayal (Copysychus saularis) creating a hybrid bird.  Salim Ali was furious and conveyed his annoyance in his characteristic manner to N J Nanporia, the then Editor of the Times of India.  Nanporia in return inquired who could write a column on birds on a regular basis, and Salim suggested my name.  It was the start of the Birdwatchers Diary which continued for over a decade and I believe created some interest in birds.  We started the “Birdwatchers’ Field Club” and a newsletter.  The first issue of the ‘Newsletter for Birdwatchers’, was brought out in December 1959.  Since then it has appeared without a break as a cyclostyled monthly till 1987, and as a printed bi-monthly since then.  I have every hope that it will survive the editor.


The 60s was a period when Europe and America had got extremely alarmed by the consequences of man’s aggression on the natural world. The IUCN and the WWF had started their worldwide mission to save Planet Earth in the mid 50s.  In 1969, Salim Ali and E P Gee arranged for a close interaction between the Indians and some of the leading naturalists such as Sir Peter Scott, Max Nicholson, Richard Fitter, Lee Talbot, Sir Frank Fraser Darling, Sir Hugh Elliot, Harold Coolidge and some others. The outcome was the IUCN General Assembly holding its session in New Delhi in 1969.  It was here that the tiger was designated an endangered species and its hunting totally prohibited.

Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS)

There were two success stories for the BNHS during the 60s.  I refer to them not only for their intrinsic value, but also because each was the outcome of a happy chance.  While driving from Kihim to Bombay, a stranger on the road asked for a lift and I took him in my car.  When we approached the area below Karnala Fort I found a freshly painted signboard in Marathi.  Not being able to read it very well, I asked my companion what the notice was about.  He said the area had been designated an industrial estate by the Maharashtra State Industrial Development Corporation.  This was shocking news and the next day I sent a letter to the Times of India saying that it was unbelievable that the last remaining evergreen forest around Bombay should be converted into an industrial estate instead of being made into a sanctuary.  That very evening the Secretary Industry, Mr. P C Nayak, telephoned me and said that he agreed with the contents of the letter and that the decision would be reversed and Karnala would be made into a Bird Sanctuary.  Mr P C Nayak is now in Bangalore and continues to the active in conservation.

The other unexpected success took place in the Borivli National park which was then a Reserve Forest and the catchment area for the lakes of Powai and Vihar. On one of my walks through the area I was alarmed to see a hundred teak trees cut down and laid in neat rows along the road.  I took a photograph and sent it to the Times of India, hoping that they would publicise the undesirability of cutting down trees in the catchment area.  The Evening News published the picture under the heading ‘Reserve Forest or Slaughter House’ or words to that effect, and in fact wrote an editorial on the subject. We had an opportunity to explain to the Forest Minister the undesirable consequences of denuding the forest of trees particularly since Powai and Vihar lakes supply much needed water to Bombay.  Obviously impressed by the arguments, the Minister turned to the Chief Conservator of Forests and said, “Ata kapaicha band kara”.  As far as I know there was no legal cutting of trees in Borivli after this directive from the Forest Minister.  Borivli, in spite of being suffocated by surrounding development pressures, remains a unique example of a natural area so close to and within a busy city.

Project Tiger

The 70s were dominated by Indira Gandhi.  Soon after her return from the Stockholm Conference, she established the National Committee of Environmental Planning and Co-ordination in 1972.  Unfortunately, the NCEPC was not an effective body.   The process towards developing a national environment policy was a frustrating experience.  The Committee reports were nicely worded documents, but little thought went to the implementation on the ground.  “Project Tiger” was born in 1972.  You are all familiar with what Project Tiger has achieved so far!

Environment and Ecology in the National Plans

Environment and Ecology featured in the planning process thanks to the vision of Late Pitamber Pant.  I suggested to Salim Ali that it might be a good move on the part of Bombay Natural History Museum to try and get the Planning Commission to introduce a section on environment and ecology in the 5th Plan document. He agreed, and asked me to produce the requisite text.  The ball was in my court now.  Salim Ali complimented me on one virtue of the document - its brevity!

All over the world conservation became an issue of great concern.  President Nison established the Council on Environmental Quality in 1970.  The world, by and large, realised that man has been too cavalier with nature.

At about this time, BNHS and WWF decided that educating our ‘masters’ would be a good move.  Alyqe Padamsee’s help was sought and he suggested that “Conservation - an answer to drought” kind of audio-visual presentation may draw in the decision-makers in Bombay since Maharashtra was going through a drought-stricken period.  This was a brilliant idea, and the presentation was convened in the spacious Hindustan Lever hall - 10 legislators turned up.  Shri S N Wankhede, the speaker of the Maharashtra Assembly was chairing the meeting!  However, there was one important person in the audience and that was Ajit Bhattacharjea, the then Editor of the Times of India.  He recognised the value of the presentation, and took up the cudgels.  Conservation never received a greater shot in the arm than on this occasion.  The audio-visual on “Conservation - an Answer to Drought”, has made its rounds in many seminars both here and abroad, and has not lost its relevance through the passage of time.

Fellowship at University of Calgary, Alberta

While at Alberta, I was highly impressed by the environmental concerns of the state government and the holding of public hearings on environmental issues.  50 information centres were set up.  Over 50,000 volumes containing factual information used to be circulated to the public well before the hearing date.  The hearings were widely attended and many excellent submissions were received.  To me, public hearings on land use on the eastern slopes of the Rocky mountains were of particular interest since the Western Ghats played a similar role in peninsular India.  When I returned from Canada, I spoke to Mrs. Gandhi about this subject.  She was not enthusiastic about the public hearings, and had her own reasons, but she did organise an Ecology Planning Task force which comprised people such as J C Daniel, Madhav Gadgil and several others who retain a continuing interest in the future of the Western Ghats.

In the 80s, the major event for conservation was the promulgation of the ‘World Conservation Strategy’.  Mrs Gandhi released this document on 5th March along with (if I remember right) 28 other countries.  If we were to follow the three main guidelines of this policy : use resources sustainably; preserve ecosystems; save genetic resources; all would be well on the ecological front and the Ministry of Environment was conceived.  In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development published ‘Our Common Future’ under the chairmanship of Mrs Gro Brundtland, the Prime Minister of Norway.  Many of you must be familiar with this report which is basically an elaboration of the world conservation strategy.

Coming to the present decade, we had the Rio Conference in 1992.  Perhaps the most worthwhile result of the Conference was the recognition by world leaders that our future is closely connected with the biodiversity of the natural world.  Politicians may accept the importance of biodiversity in theory, but many of them are unaware of its deeper implications, and it is for organisations like the BNHS to ensure that the administrators are properly informed about the crucial importance of this Convention.  Many important decisions taken by experts in the past have remained unimplemented.  This has happened in many fields other than in natural history too.  But, it is encouraging to find that the conservation movement is now spreading to the common man.  Lifestyles are being altered to suit the requirement of nature.

I would like to conclude on a happy note and the credit for this goes to Prof. Madhav Gadgil of the Indian Academy of Sciences.  In a recent publication it was stated that Salim Ali will be remembered for a whole series of superbly written and illustrated books on Indian birds, books that played a key role on stimulating popular interest in India’s rich living heritage.  In honour of this great naturalist the Indian Academy of Sciences will launch, on the occasion of his birth centenary, a project called ‘Lifescape’ as a part of its initiative to enhance the quality of science education.  This project aims to publish illustrated accounts of 2500 to 5000 Indian species of micro-organisms, plants and animals.  This project needs to be supported by us all.  Its success will create the kind of understanding and love for the natural world amongst our common citizens which is essential for conserving our natural resources.   q    

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