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The Bombay Natural History Society: India's Pioneer Institution in the Field of Nature Education and Conservation

Contributed by Neelam Patil, Bombay Natural History Society, Bombay, India

The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), a well-known 114-year-old natural history organization was started by eight residents of Bombay on 15 September 1883, to exchange notes on wildlife and hunting, to exhibit interesting specimens and encourage one another's interest in natural history.

Mr Phipson was the Honorary Secretary of the Society for 18 years. In 1886, BNHS started publishing a journal, the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, under the editorship of Mr Phipson. The Journal, now in its 94th volume, is required reading for any study on the fauna and flora of the Oriental region. Phipson's successor W S Millard was particularly interested in gardening, especially in the cultivation of flowering trees and shrubs. His bungalow at Bombay was famous for the collection of trees, shrubs and a large fernery full of foliage plants, orchids and other tropical flowers. The credit goes to Millard for introducing to India such trees as the Burmese cassia Cassia renigera, and the padauk Pterocarpus indicus, also a native of Burma.

Millard launched the mammal survey of India, Burma and Ceylon in 1911 before he left India in 1920. The survey lasted only till 1914 due to the outbreak of World War I. It was subsequently restarted in 1923.

In 1965 the collection was shifted to Hornbill House, a new building in the Museum compound, built by the Government of India to house the BNHS. The Society's association with the hornbill dates back to the arrival of 'William', a Great Indian Hornbill, in 1894. William lived in the Society's premises until 1920.

Dr Salim Ali's association with BNHS lasted for 79 years having first came to the BNHS as a child to get an unusual looking sparrow identified, which he had shot. To mark his 80th birthday, the Society started publishing a quarterly magazine called Hornbill. This magazine very soon became popular among members as it covered articles and happenings in the field of wildlife. Hornbill is now more than 20 years old.

Under Dr Salim Ali's guidance and presidency the Society started various projects such as:

  • the study of Bird Migration
  • the Gir Project in Gujarat
  • an ecological study of bird hazards at Indian aerodromes
  • the ecology of Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Rajasthan
  • the ecology of endangered species and their habitats
  • a study of the ecology of the grasslands of the Indian plains, with particular reference to their endangered fauna
  • birds of prey

The Conservation Education Centre

With the help of the UK Overseas Development Administration, a project was started to set up an educational centre to educate people and children about nature, to create an awareness amongst the younger generation with the help of talks, films, slide shows, guided tours and nature rambles in the wild. The Conservation Education Centre is fully functional and staffed with four education officers.

Short-term projects and field studies

To name a few, the following projects were carried out:

  • rediscovery of Wroughton's free-tailed bat
  • rediscovery of Finn's baya (Ploceus megarhynchus)
  • rediscovery of Jerdon's courser
  • wild buffalo in Peninsular India
  • status survey of the Nilgiri langur and lion-tailed macaque in South India
  • the Nilgiri tahr in the Eravikulam Sanctuary
  • breeding colony of flamingoes in Kutch
  • the estuarine crocodiles of Bhitarkanika
  • nature reserve potential of Kinwat, Maharashtra
  • Puddukotai Bird Sanctuary
  • crocodile status survey for the Maharashtra Government
  • Ladakh Wildlife Sanctuary
  • the search for Blewitt's owl
  • birds of Sriharikota Island
  • ecology of the honeyguide
  • Nilgiri Bird sanctuary
  • Hark Lake, Punjab, as a waterfowl habitat
  • Basra wild buffalo survey
  • blackjacked crane survey

In 1957, the University of Bombay recognized the BNHS as a research institute, to guide students in research leading to the M Sc. and Ph D degrees. To date, many students have successfully completed M Sc. and Ph D courses and are working at various places in important positions.

The Society's collection is very precious and is recognized by the Government of India as a National Heritage collection. The BNHS collection includes specimens of about 60,000 insects, 7,500 amphibians and reptiles, 17,000 mammals, 26,000 birds and 8,500 herbarium specimens. The entire collection is maintained with financial help from the State Government of Maharashtra. Many research students come to the Society to refer to the collection. The library has a collection of about 180 rare books. It also possesses a large number of books on wildlife such as mammals, insects, plants, bird’s etc. Prominent journals and magazines are available to readers. About 4,000 people from different backgrounds such as school students, housewives, army and navy officers, doctors, engineers are members of the Society. The BNHS also organizes camps and nature outings for the members, schoolteachers and students to various National Parks and Sanctuaries in India. Programmes such as slide shows, talks, film shows, puppet shows and video films on wildlife are arranged. Mobile exhibitions on wildlife are arranged in the rural areas of India for those who can not reach BNHS in Bombay. To create awareness about nature and to conserve this heritage is the message given with the help of all these activities.