Padmashri Zafar Futehally - Doyen of Indian birding

When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men ~ Rumi

Padmashri, Zafar Rashid Futehally, Zafar Futehally, Futehally, Ameen Ahmed, Tumkur Ameen
Padmashri Zafar Rashid Futehally (19 March 1920 – 11 August 2013) (left), the last time I ever met him
I first met Zafar Futehally sab at an ornithology meet in Bangalore in November 1993. The first thing that impressed me about him was his keen interest to know the status of birds and their conservation in the hinterlands of Karnataka. Not many people are aware of his affection and concern for the birdlife as well as people of lesser known wilderness areas of our country, which don’t enjoy the same spotlight as the well known national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

During the meet, I subscribed to Newsletter for Birdwatchers (NLBW), of which he was the Editor. In NLBW's issue no: 1 of the year 1995, Zafar sab published my note on the breeding site of longbilled vultures at Devarayanadurga hill near Tumkur town, which was my first ever article. In fact in my eagerness to write for NLBW, I missed inserting the typed article in the postal envelope and mailed Zafar sab the empty envelope. He was kind enough to send back the empty envelope with a reminder that I may have missed including my article. Had he not got back to me, I would have lost faith in my own writing and wildlife observation standards. My confidence would have taken a beating and my writing career would have died before its birth.

After that I sent regular stories and notes to Zafar sab for NLBW. He wrote back seeking clarifications when ever needed, before publishing them. Each time I met Zafar sab, he would comment positively about the quality of natural history observation in my writings that he said blended well with my narrative style. He would pass on to me the feedback he received from different people on my writings. In 1997 I was one of the three winners of the Newsletter for Birdwatchers’ prize for best article, for my story on birding in Nainital. That inspired me big time. I went beyond NLBW and wrote my first article in a national daily. It was a story on leopard deaths in Tumkur district published in the Indian Express, Bangalore in Nov 1998. My articles in English have been published world over ever since.

Zafar sab's confidence in my skills grew. He introduced me to other conservationists and passed on opportunities in writing and conservation at regular intervals, which to this day are priceless to me. One such contact was Jayalakshmi K Menon, editor of Sunday Herald, the Sunday magazine of Karnataka's most popular newspaper Deccan Herald. Jaya gave me the required space to write in that newspaper. In fact those opportunities were among the chief catalysts for me to choose a career in conservation and writing.

Zafar sab would often call me and enquire about the current conservation initiatives of our nature club at Tumkur (Wildlife Aware Nature Club - WANC). Along with S. Sridhar of Navbharat Press he would organise annual gatherings of subscribers of Newsletter for Birdwatchers mainly at his farm house in Dodda Gubbi, Bangalore. He would ensure bird watchers from towns like Tumkur, Hassan, Sirsi etc had a good presence at those meets.

He was concerned about the threats to western ghats. In 2001, he published my story on the threats to Neriya forest, in a remote corner of Dakshina Kannada district at the foothills of Western Ghats, by a petroleum pipeline. In 2001, Zafar sab and I filed a petition in H'ble High Court of Karnataka against continued iron ore mining inside Kudremukh National Park in western ghats. The petition was merged with another one pending in the same court filed earlier by another wildlife conservation organisation.

At his request, I once visited him in 2000-01 at his residence in Koramangala to give his wife physiotherapy treatment. They were adamant on me taking a fee, which I reluctantly did. After my marriage he invited me and my newly-wed bride to his residence for coffee, where he and his wife gifted us a few books written by his daughter Zai Whitaker.

Though I was often away from Bangalore after 2002, sometimes for prolonged periods, he would contact and compliment me each time he saw my name on the internet or in the newspapers.

I met him last at his residence at Koramangala in Bangalore in August 2012. I had taken along my nephew and niece to meet him. I saw in him the same curiosity and enthusiasm for birds which I had witnessed nearly two decades ago. He asked about our 'Tumkur nature club' and its activities. He even offered me an opportunity to work for a prominent environment trust in Bangalore.

India's birding fraternity has lost a stalwart and an inspiring figure in the passing away of Padmashri Zafar Rashid Futehally. His good work will continue to inspire generations to come. To me, his passing away is a personal loss, as he was a major pillar of strength to pursue my hobby and profession in writing. Zafar sab will live in my heart as long as it beats and in my writings as long as nature lovers and travellers read them. He was God's way of bringing out the writer in me. I owe a lot to him, probably my entire writing career. My last 'Salam' to him. May he rest in peace.

Good bye Zafar sab.

Hope to see you in the next world...Insha Allah!

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Please read the following interviews of Zafar sab to know more about him:

http://www.kolkatabirds.com/misc/zafarinterview.html (Apr 2011)

http://www.hindu.com/mp/2005/01/12/stories/2005011200700100.htm (Jan 2005)

http://www.devalt.org/newsletter/jul97/of_3.htm (Jul 1997)

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