November 06, 2014

The birdman of Sarawak

By K. Pradeep

FEATHER AND PLUMES: Ornithologist Satish ‘Slim’ Sreedharan

Satish ‘Slim’ Sreedharan, a Malayali, has done invaluable work documenting the birds of Borneo.

When Satish ‘Slim’ Sreedharan returned to Kerala after nearly 50 years he felt like a stranger. All those cousins and relatives of whom he had sepia-tinted memories were older, turned frail and some of them were no more. A whole generation in the family was being introduced to him. For Sreedharan it was a strange experience, one he vowed would not happen again.

A distinguished field ornithologist, Sreedharan is noted for his ground-breaking work in the jungles of Borneo, where he worked for more three decades.

Sreedharan’s parents had moved to Malaysia sometime in the late 1930s. In early 1941, when the WW II was imminent his mother, who was pregnant with him, sailed back to India with his elder brother.

“I was not listed on the ship’s manifest. I was born a few months later, manufactured in Malaya, and assembled in transit, born in Thrissur, so to speak. It was not until early 1946 that the family was finally reunited in Seremban (Malaysia),” remembers Sreedharan who was in the city recently. He now makes it a point to come to Kerala as frequently as possible and spend a few days with his relatives.

Sreedharan completed his school education at the Victoria Institution in Malaysia but the sudden death of his father made things difficult. There was money enough only to support his elder brother’s medical education at Glasgow University. Sreedharan took up part-time jobs, as a bus conductor and postal worker among others, to finance his studies. This included a stint in the British army.

The Army stint changed Sreedharan’s life plans and his name forever. “They found it very difficult to pronounce my name. And they began to call me Slim, a name that stuck.”

Sreedharan was injured during the Borneo campaign and was sent to Thailand to recuperate.

“It was there that I met an American army doctor Elliot McClurie, who worked on bird transmitted diseases in Asia. He ignited in me a passion for birds.”

By 1967 Sreedharan had decided on ornithology as a career. He went to England for further studies, specialising in field ornithology. Sometime in between he got married. “I went on a brief project to East Africa and followed it up with a research project in India under the legendary Dr. Salim Ali. The Indian project was funded by ornithologist Loke Wan Tho’s Foundation. He was an ornithologist I knew. I worked in Bandipur for three years and returned to England for advanced studies. In between projects I made documentary films on wildlife conservation and on management training.”

The ornithology of South East Asia is relatively unknown. It might have been documented but not in a systematic manner with info on bird behaviour, feeding habits, breeding cycles, habitat requirements.

When Sreedharan began work at Sarawak, he was the only full-time ornithologist there.

“After the World War II some research was done. There were a few checklists prepared for one or two National parks but no serious research on the birds of Borneo since 1970. 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 locally available. I soon realised that we knew absolutely nothing about many of our birds. We had no biometrics on our birds.”

So in 1985, when Sreedharan was invited by the Sarawak government to make an ornithological survey of Bako National Park, he knew nothing about the birds of this area. “I had to rely almost entirely on The Birds of Borneo by B. E. Smythies (1960), the only book on the birds of Borneo with illustrations. Even this had very little information about many birds, especially the deep jungle species.”

Since then Sreedharan embarked on a mission to make a systematic study of Sarawak’s birds. “When I started work, I discovered that many birds defied identification. The book that I had for a guide did not give detailed descriptions of some of the common birds. One had to rely on the colour plates to fix a bird’s identity and these plates were bad.”

Sreedharan chalked out a plan that made it imperative that he spend at least five months in each area for a detailed documentation. “This was going to be tough and required huge man power to survey a state as large as Sarawak. It was also going to be expensive. I prepared a project report and tried to get funding support from WWF Malaysia, which did not work. I decided to use my own funds.”

Tribal settlements were selected as bases in each area where Sreedharan found an old hut or open space near the river where he could camp. “For years they became my camps and the area outside my garden. The birds that came were rare jungle species. It was adventurous. I got to know the birds there, studied their behaviour and, whenever possible, their nesting habits. I caught them with mist-nets to get full descriptions and measurements.”

Sreedharan lost his wife Kamlae. She was to have joined him in his work but was struck down with cancer. When a new bird in Sarawak, sub-species of the jungle flycatcher, was found in 1996, trapped by Sreedharan, it was given the name Kamlae, as a tribute to his wife whose study of birds was short-lived.

“I’m 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.,” says Sreedharan, who is now Honorary Curator of Sarawak Museum, talks, takes classes in Malaysia and Singapore on birds.

Also see:

Slim Sreedharan: One Rare Bird

VI The V.I. Web Page