Zafar Futehally was one of the pioneers of conservation movement in India. He played a crucial role in taking it out from the discussions of elite groups to the national scene. He has held key posts in all the important conservation organizations BNHS, IUCN, WWF- India and Project Tiger to name a few.
The Song of the Magpie Robin is his memoir which he has written with a little assistance from Shanthi Chandola and Ashish Chandola. The book is divided in two parts. The first part comprises of personal memories of Zafar while the second is aptly titled as Pioneering Conservation in India.
Zafar spent his childhood days in a house at Andheri which had two-and-a-half acre garden. It is difficult to imagine such a large piece of green land in today's Andheri that we see. Magpie Robin was the bird which would frequent Zafar's garden. Hence the title “The Song of the Magpie Robin”
The second part narrates the story of rise of conservation efforts in India and the birth stories of organizations like Bombay Natural History Society, IUCN, WWF and the most ambitious and successful project- Project Tiger. Zafar states interesting tales as to how these organizations were formed, how they functioned and their contribution towards conservation on the Indian scene. People govern any organization and they come with their own egos, thoughts and idiosyncrasies. Plus there is constant brush with the bureaucracy. No wonders the song of Magpie Robin turns out to be an interesting read. It is heartening to see the commitment shown by Indira Gandhi towards protection of environment. I hope every Prime Minister shows the same level of commitment towards the environment protection.
The book offers a peek into the world of ornithology. For the first time I came to know how birds are shot for collection. The book accounts Zafar's expeditions along with Salim Ali, where they ringed birds, collected specimens, took notes and connected with their peers. Zafar also narrates how he thwarted the attempt to convert Karnala bird sanctuary into a MIDC. He says that we get ample rainfall. However the water is wasted as rivers empty themselves into the sea. What is needed is that the rain water must be arrested by increasing the forest cover on the mountains. He emphasizes that it takes hundreds of years to make a forest. So industries should not be allowed to deplete the forest cover in exchange of planting equal number of trees somewhere else.
While emphasizing joint efforts of the countries in conservation efforts Zafar says, “Though we should be clear in our minds that our policies should be shaped with reference to national conditions, we must recognize the importance of accepting international standards and the recommendations of specialized international bodies such as IUCN and the World Wildlife Fund.”
In the afterword Zafar's daughter says that after Zafar's death from the memorial meetings, press coverages and personal messages that she received, she reflected on Zafar's life as a classic textbook for naturalists and conservationists. I reciprocate her feelings. The only change I would like to make is that his memoir is a must read for every one no matter if he is a naturalist or not. For that will sensitize us towards the pressing environmental concerns and make us strive hard for preserving our beautiful planet for the posterity.
Yesterday while I was travelling I came across a lake. The birds in the lake caught my attention and I stopped to appreciate their beauty. I had passed several times across that lake. But those birds had never caught my attention. Zafar, the bird watcher had succeed in inducting me in his tribe through his writings.