In memoriam: SA Hussain

At year’s end, it comes to this – more sad news for ornithology and conservation in India. 2009, this wicked year, started off by snatching away Ravi Sankaran from us in January, went on to claim Alan Rodgers at the end of March, and has now rounded itself off by taking away another doyen of Indian natural history in the person of Syed Abdulla Hussain. Via Nathistory-India came news a short while ago that SA Hussain passed away on the penultimate night of this lousy year.

(images courtesy of Manoj Singh and Bharat Bhushan via Facebook)

I remember spending a month or so with him in Dachigam National Park, Kashmir one summer some 20 years ago. I was a tyro then, doing field work for my MSc dissertation (from the Wildlife Institute of India) on the bird communities of Lower Dachigam Valley. Luckily for me in my very first field season, SA Hussain arrived in the park just as I was beginning my transects to count birds. He came with a team of graduate students and Bihari trappers from the Bombay Natural History Society on a bird ringing project, and camped for some weeks. It was the first time I had the opportunity to observe and participate in an intensive mist-netting operation. I hadn’t the resources nor expertise to attempt any such thing for my own thesis work – and no one at WII did either! Hussain taught me how to remove small birds from the fine nylon mesh (you do it carefully), and the importance of always carrying a swiss army knife in one’s pockets (and, of course, wearing a birder’s vest with many such pockets!) when doing so. For the little pair of scissors sure come in handy at times when a bird gets badly entangled and you have to cut the net to free the poor beast! Especially things like small woodpeckers that tend to get their long tongues caught in a knot of nylon – not a pretty sight, and not for the squeamish. I particularly remember a lovely Wryneck we had one day (it was’t badly entangled), and how we marveled at its remarkably flexible neck! Skills he taught me then, even though I wasn’t formally his student, still stand me in good stead.

It’s been a while since I last heard from him, even on Facebook where we had become friends again over the past year. I had heard that he was ill some time ago, but wasn’t aware of the extent of his illness. It was good to see pictures of him walking around in the woods during the Great Himalayan Bird Count just last month where he also accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award (see full gallery on posterous for additional images). I didn’t think he was all that old nor that seriously ill, so this news came as a bit of a shock. I hope he didn’t suffer too much in the end.

My condolences to the family, to his students, to BNHS, which was his home for many years, and to the larger naturalist / ornithologist / conservationist community of which he was such a crucial part. He is the third figure I have lost this year from among my early influences in field biology, all in one painful long year.
May the new year bring us all better news, and good riddance to this pathetic one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *