Slim Sreedharan:

One Rare Bird

My V.I. Days
by Slim Sreedharan

attended the Victoria Institution for only two years, in 1954 and 1955. My recollections of that period are pretty vague except for the barest details. It is also quite clear that several memories appear to have coalesced and it is, often, difficult to separate events that happened at the VI from those that occurred earlier, at KGV, or later, at Klang High School.

That I remember so little about that period, and very few of my classmates, could possibly have been part of a defence mechanism. My father, in the Civil Service at that time, was constantly being transferred and, to me, the Victoria Institution was just another one of six schools I attended between Primary One and Form Five!

In early 1941, when war with Japan seemed imminent, all service families were packed off to Ceylon or India. When my father, then a soldier, put my mother and my elder brother onto one of those ships, I was not listed on the ship's manifest. I was only born a few months later, manufactured in Malaya, and assembled in transit, so to speak! It was not until early 1946 that the family was finally reunited in Seremban.

My brother, Sreekumar, joined Form 2 at the V.I. in 1953. I was supposed to have joined Form 1 too but, since I had obtained a double-promotion at KGV the year before, and since the VI refused to recognise the double-promotion, I stayed behind at KGV to finish Form 1.

In 1954, I was finally admitted to the VI, in Form 2E under Mr S. G. Dorairaj - in the picture, I am the one standing extreme left in the very last row, almost certainly on a tall chair since I was very short then. I was then known as S. Satish but I use my father's name, Sreedharan, as my surname now. Most people just call me by my nickname - Slim!

There is so much I do not remember. I vaguely remember Mr Dorairaj but not the House I was in nor even the House colour. I have always been under the impression that I moved on to Form 3A - I now find that I was probably in Form 3B but I have no idea which form master I was under!

Though I was fairly good at cricket, I was far too small to be included in my House Eleven or any of the other sporting events. I do remember hawking $1 bricks for the VIOBA building fund - by selling them mostly to senior civil service officers, I think I managed to raise some $25 or so.

I am fairly certain that I was a member of the Photographic Society. I had, by then, more or less adopted my father's old Kodak Brownie 620E camera and had learnt a fair bit about darkroom procedures even before I reached the VI. I still have some contact prints, mostly family pictures, from that period, and the camera too!

Being very interested in archaeology, which I had seriously considered as a career option, I was also a member of the Historical Society and do remember having made a trip to the old fort at Kuala Selangor. As for classmates, I am embarrassed that I remember very few of them. I had vague memories of Nasir Ahmad from the cricket field but, more, I suspect, because I had to visit his father’s sports shop, Car & Company, on a couple of occasions to get my cricket bat repaired. A few years ago, I stopped by at Car & Company, now located on the old Malacca Street area, and did get to meet Nasir Ahmad and have a chat with him. I remember Abilash Kumar quite well but, then, he was the son of a family friend, and I did get to meet him once again in London, many years later!

The Siebel brothers and their elder sister, Fay, are far easier to remember. Earle was a classmate in 1955 and Neville was my brother's classmate, also in 1955. Besides, both the brothers were with me in the ATC. Also, when living on Circular Road, behind the General Hospital, I often used to visit them, cycling to their house along the old mining pools.

Perhaps the most vivid memory of school life was that of being the smallest, shortest chap in town, forever being chased about from pillar to post and bullied by some of the larger boys. In this context, I also remember an Indian school prefect, not the usual thin skinny Indian type, but one of the big well-built Indian types, who got me into all kinds of trouble! I do wish I could remember the fellow's name.

I was, one day, running away from a bully as usual, after having shouted a few choice sarcastic words at him, running backwards more or less, when I bumped into this big shot. He must have figured out what was going on, probably even heard what I had said to the other chap. He called me a "cheeky little bugger", warned me against running in the school corridors and, thankfully, went away.

Mind you, I was not quite thirteen then and still did not know what "bugger" meant. A few days later, during a quarrel with my brother, I used the same phrase on him. Unfortunately, my father heard it. He was an absolute stickler for correct form and I literally got stick for using that word. Purely as an aside, I find it curious that while those of the younger set tend to use far more explicit expletives, those from my generation tend to favour the use of "bugger"!

I also remember the girls at school, well, one of them, at least. During my first year, when passing by, she patted this small object (me) on the head and said to another girl, "So cute!". I was mortified. These days, of course, "cute" is probably the most unlikely word anyone would use to describe me since I am no picture postcard (never was, I don't think).

Probably the highlight of my stay at the VI was when I joined the Federation of Malaya Air Training Corps, or FMATC. I was not allowed to join in 1954, either because I was too small, or too young. Probably the latter since I was quite as small when I joined in 1955! Once the classes and tests on navigation, map reading and so on were over, I was issued the uniform, and actually got to wear long trousers for the first time!

The long cycle trip to Sungei Besi aerodrome was quite a long haul but definitely worth the effort - I used to be there practically every Saturday. Once I had persuaded my father to sign the necessary indemnity papers, I was frequently allowed to go on several flights on Vikings and Valettas, making operational supply drops. I even had a shot or two on Tiger Moths but never quite managed a trip in a Harvard Trainer despite all my efforts!

Since government quarters were in short supply, we moved houses three times during those two years. Firstly, near the junction of Circular and Pudu Roads, then high up in the Weld Drive and Ceylon Road area and, finally, at the other end of town on Circular Road but nearer the Pahang Road end, almost directly behind the General Hospital.

Travel to and from school from the Circular Road houses was nearly always in a crowded school bus, and quite a tame experience. The journeys from the Weld Drive house to the school, often a rather hurried affair, involved a long walk along Weld Road, across Pudu Road and a railway track, then a scramble uphill to the rear of the school.

The return journey, always more leisurely, was a bit more of an adventure, one that involved a saunter through China Town. An alternative route back, via Bukit Bintang Road, was equally exciting, taking in the two cinemas (the Pavilion and the Cathay), and the food stalls in the Jalan Alor area. It was slow progress, taking in the atmosphere and, on the rare occasions when I had money in my pocket, sampling some chendol or gorging myself silly on a 20-cents bowl of mee soup. I would never have managed to finish off a 30-cents bowl, even if I could afford it.

Though my father might not have even heard of Maslow's theory, he was a firm believer in the hierarchy of needs and wants. Everything we needed, he provided. Anything we wanted, we had to acquire the means to pay for ourselves! Five cents to wash the car or polish his shoes, ten cents to mow the lawn since we had a huge garden, and so on.

I moved to Klang High School in 1956 and was really miffed to learn that they did not have an ATC wing there. When my father died suddenly in 1957, six months before my School Certificate examinations even began, any prospect of undertaking further studies became a bit iffy. I was tempted to take a shot at FMC Port Dickson but was persuaded not to. I would probably have been rejected anyway, since I was still in short trousers!

There was only enough money to support my eldest brother, then in his third year of a medical degree at Glasgow University. Though Sree and I ended up in England after Form Five, we had to shift for ourselves, forced to continue our studies the hard way! To finance our studies, like many others also based in Malaya Hall at Bryanston Square, we held part time jobs during term time, and worked flat out during the holidays, often having two or more jobs at the same time. I went through quite a range of temporary "careers", mostly menial jobs such as bus conductor, washer-upper and postal worker among others, not to mention a stint in the British Army that helped subsidise a fair bit of my studies!

I had been interested in birds even while at school but parents tend to have very definite views as to what is, and what very definitely is not, an acceptable career. A five-year medical degree course being just a pipe dream, the most affordable option was a degree in Natural Sciences which, eventually, would gain me an exemption or two towards a medical degree.

It was only in 1967 that I firmly decided on ornithology as a career. By 1972, I had picked up the necessary training and qualifications. However, I was married by then, and a move to Malaysia or schooling in Bahasa would not have been good for my three children.

It now seems a curious coincidence that the Pavilion cinema on Bukit Bintang Road was owned by Loke Wan Tho, a former Victorian and an ornithologist. In 1973, while I was on a brief project in East Africa, Loke's old ornithologist friend and my mentor, Dr. Salim Ali, invited me to join a research project in India, one funded by the Loke Wan Tho Foundation. I readily accepted.

Twenty years later still, the same Foundation, administered by his sister, Lady Y. P. McNeice, was funding research and further studies for two of my own trainees! I continued to work in India until 1976 when I returned to England for further studies. In between projects, to subsidise under-funded projects or to pay school fees for three children in public schools, I made documentary films on wildlife conservation and on Management training.

When in Form Five, I remember having seen and drooled over pictures in Loke Wan Tho's A Company of Birds. I could, then, just dream about bird photography since the equipment costs were way beyond anything I could possibly afford. Now that I could, much of my leisure time was devoted to photographing birds!

When my youngest son started his 'A' levels in 1984, I returned to Malaysia and started fieldwork in Borneo. My wife stayed behind in England to see the children through University. She was supposed to have joined me in 1988 but she suddenly came down with cancer and died shortly afterwards. Now, I suppose, I am on the last lap, getting all my field data whipped into shape for a book on the birds of Sarawak, my swan song, so to speak.

Oh, by the way, that shortest chap in school is now a six-footer. I tempted Fate, I expect, or was it just Murphy's Law again? When doing my 'A' levels, I decided that if I was going to be a dwarf all my life, I was, at the very least, going to be a well-dressed dwarf. Remember the rage those days, those shiny dacron suits? Yes, I had a suit made, at a formidable cost, for a student on the bread line, that is. Three weeks after it was ready, I shot up a full eight inches and the blasted trousers came to just below my knees!

Does anyone know where Murphy lives? I would dearly wish to meet him, and kick him where his mother never kissed him!

Birds in My Garden
by Slim Sreedharan

n 1985, when I was invited by the State Secretary for the Sarawak Government to make an ornithological survey of Bako National Park, I knew practically next to nothing about the birds of Sarawak, and had to rely almost entirely on The Birds of Borneo by B. E. Smythies.  First published in 1960, it was then the only book on the birds of Borneo with illustrations.

Yet, once I started work, I discovered that many birds defied identification.  Amazingly, the book gave little or nothing by way of descriptions, not even for some of the common birds. One had to rely on the colour plates to get a fix on a bird's identity, no easy task since I had the second 1963 edition, its colour plates being singularly awful!  A visit to the Sarawak Museum Library to find a better book proved depressing - it revealed that very little was known about the birds of Sarawak.

I also found out that, apart from the few checklists prepared for some of the National Parks, little or no research had been done on the birds of Borneo since 1970 or so.  Though large numbers of birds were trapped and ringed between 1963 and 1970, under the U. S. Army Migratory Animals Pathological Survey project, none of the records were available locally.

This was especially frustrating for, though I was regularly catching ringed birds, with rings bearing the University of Malaya address in Kuala Lumpur, nobody seemed to know who had done the ringing!  Nor was there a list of all the birds that had been ringed!  A list of these ring numbers in hand, I went over to peninsular Malaysia to visit Dr. David Wells, the person administering the ringing project.  Any hope of getting some information on my birds quickly evaporated - he pointed to a large accumulation of bundles of paper, all old ringing records, tied up and stacked in every nook and corner of his office. They dated back to 1963 but none of it had been consolidated, or published.

It was clear by then that we had no biometrics on our birds, no information on age/sex plumage variations, little or nothing on their behaviour, on what they ate, or their breeding habits and requirements.  I, therefore, decided it might be better to start from scratch and gather as much information as I could as I went along.

To make a detailed behavioural study, I would need to spend three to five months in each area to document the habits of every species found there, quite clearly a tall order for one person.  Several field teams would be required to survey a state as large as Sarawak, and it would be a horribly expensive project.   To make the best of a bad job, I tried to identify some of the problem species and the habitat types I could expect to find them in, so that I could examine these one at a time.   Writing up a detailed project proposal, I began to look for funding support through WWF Malaysia.  After waiting two fruitless years, I decided to use my own funds to finance the project.

Clearly the best option was to use existing tribal settlements as bases to reach sites deep in the jungle. In each area, I tried to locate an old jungle hut or clearing by a river where I could camp for between two to three months. The camp would be my house, the clearing around it would become my garden, but the birds visiting my new garden would all be little known jungle species!  Since I simply could not afford to hire any assistants and would have to live in the jungle entirely on my own under full field conditions for extended periods, lots of careful planning was called for!

To save labour and costs, I took in a gas cylinder and gas cooker with me.  My night lights and a laptop computer ran off a 12V car battery, recharged daily by two small solar panels that fitted snugly into my backpack.  Since an unbalanced diet could affect my health, I grew vegetables for my own use at some of these camps, sometimes even flowers and some quick-growing fruit.  At each base, once I had marked out the study areas, I soon got to know the birds there, studied their behaviour and, whenever possible, their nesting habits.  I also caught them with mist-nets to get full descriptions and measurements.

Now, nineteen years down the road and very many field camps later, there is a growing sense of satisfaction - that I have documented most of our resident birds, including some of the rarer ones.  While there are still quite a few elusive species I have yet to find, the end objective finally seems less of a hopeless dream.  Looking back, it is also gratifying to realise that I have no regrets - I would happily do it all over again!

It has been a great adventure, a wonderful experience.  I now have so many friends in so many longhouses and, having hiked through some of the most inaccessible parts of Sarawak, I am in better physical shape, fitter than I have ever been. Mind you, there was a bad moment in 1995 when funds ran desperately low but I was lucky in that I had good friends who persuaded a local organisation to support my work.

Of course, most people are surprised that I spend about nine months of every year in deep jungle.  But, having travelled extensively, I am convinced that it is safer to be alone on a jungle trail deep in the interior of Sarawak than it is to stray into some inner city areas of England, Europe or America.  It is, however, a human trait to fear, or be suspicious of, something one is not familiar with.  When the average longhouse dweller from deep in the Sarawakian jungles first hears of my work and my lifestyle, he begins by expressing surprise, and some worry for my safety as I live alone in the jungle.  Once they are reassured that I have lived this way for a long time and am fairly competent in the ways of the jungle, one question almost invariably arises.  "Aren't you afraid?", they ask.  "Of what?", I ask in return, fully aware of what is coming next.  Surprised by my reply, they insist.  "Of ghosts?"

In the early days, I was often foxed by this and tried to explain in rather lofty and prosaic detail that supernatural beings really only existed in one's imagination, a view they rarely accepted - even if they were too polite to say so openly!  Over the years, I have evolved a new response, one they are more prepared to accept.  I would look thoughtful for a while, then say quietly,  "Actually, when the ghost saw me, it got frightened and ran away". The reply nearly always evokes some laughter and the matter is soon dropped.

I remember how it was during my early visits to some longhouses.   The children, frightened, no doubt, by my beard, usually stayed well away from me.  The women, after a while, used to tease me and the men, with exquisite courtesy and charm, would welcome me to their fireplaces.  But this has changed.

Nowadays, the children come tearing down the length of the longhouse, yelling out my name in welcome.  Most of them call me Uncle - some the newer young ones even call me Grandpa!  The women, no longer satisfied with teasing me, also bully me, mercilessly! And spoil me too, with more food than I can possibly eat.  The men?  They quietly fetch an extra cup, pour out some coffee, and push the biscuits in my general direction.

They no longer ask, "Where do you come from?"  The question now is, "When did you return?", a tacit acknowledgement of a homecoming.  A wonderful feeling, that!

Wednesday March 8, 2006

New bird discovered in Sarawak


Dr Leh showing a preserved specimen of the new bird in Kuching on Tuesday.

KUCHING: Amid the bird flu scare in the country, an inspiring discovery of a new bird has been made in Sarawak.

Although the small sub-species of the Rhinomyias gularis jungle flycatcher was discovered in October 1996, it was only disclosed in a recent journal of the Sarawak Museum department, which described the bird as having a body length of 158mm and weighing 28g.

The museum’s zoologist and curator of natural history, Dr Charles Leh Moi Ung, said the discovery was significant to science as the last bird species found in Sarawak was described in the mid-1960s.

The latest discovery was made at the Pa’ Di’it waterfalls, 1,524m above sea level in Pulong Tau National Park in the Kelabit highlands of the state’s northern region.

Trapped by field ornithologist Slim Sreedharan, an associate of the Sarawak Museum, the new bird has been given the sub-species name kamlae, in honour of his wife Kamla, whose study of Borneo birds was short-lived following her death from a terminal illness.

Sreedharan is a retired serviceman from Selangor who has spent many years making observations of birds in Sarawak.

The bird was believed to be two to three years old when it was trapped, Dr Leh told The Star, adding that they considered it to be endemic to the Kelabit highlands.

“We are watching out for additional specimens of the same sub-species, in order to upgrade the status of the new bird to a full species,” he said.

The genus Rhinomyias consists of eight medium-sized to large species. The new bird is, however, a lot larger than most other Rhinomyias flycatchers that had been caught.

“Borneo is so well studied that it is difficult to find a new bird species or mammal,” Dr Leh said.

The discovery of Rhinomyias gularis kamlae had shown that there still could be species that had yet to be found in the country, he said.

He added that researchers from Europe and North America had, between 1850 and 1940, described a lot of bird species in Sarawak and many of these bird specimens could be found in museums abroad.

Dr Leh said the Sarawak Museum had a collection of about 550 bird species.

He said birds were important for scientific studies because some migratory birds are believed to carry diseases.

“In the Bario highlands in northern Sarawak, we see migratory birds from southern China stopping to feed before continuing their journey to Australia,” he added.

The last “new” mammal discovered in the state was the brown kijang, a barking deer, in 1985.

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