Zafar Futehally

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Zafar Futehally (2013)

Zafar Rashid Futehally (19 March 1920 – 11 August 2013) was an Indian naturalist and conservationist best known for his work as the secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society and for the Newsletter for Birdwatchers a periodical that helped birdwatchers around India to communicate their observations.


Zafar Futehally (at left) in Kerala in January 2002

Zafar Futehally was born in Andheri in 1920. He studied economics at St. Xavier's College in Bombay and worked with Dynacraft Machine Company from 1942. The company was run along with his brother and cousin. His maternal grandfather was Badruddin Tyabji, the eminent lawyer and president of the Indian National Congress and was a distant cousin of Salim Ali and was married to Laeeq Futehally (1921-6 July 2014), a niece of Salim Ali.[1] They had a son, Murad; and two daughters Zahida (Zai) and Shama who also took to writing. Zai wrote biographies of Romulus Whitaker and Salim Ali. Shama who died in 2004 was the author of novels "Tara Lane" and "Reaching Bombay Central", a translator of the Meera Bhajans and Urdu poetry apart from numerous other literary works.[2][3][4] In 1973 he moved to Bangalore where he lived for a while in the Palace orchards area before moving to a farm house in Dodda Gubbi on the outskirts of Bangalore, but a dacoit attack there forced them to move to Kodaikanal with their daughter Zai for four years before returning to live in Koramangala in Bangalore.[5] In 2013 he left Bangalore to move back to his home in Kihim. He died on 11 August 2013 at his home in Kihim, following a bronchial infection.[6]

Ornithology and conservation[edit]

He founded the Newsletter for Birdwatchers, a periodical, in 1959 and became Honorary Secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society, a position that he held until 1973 when he moved from Bombay to Bangalore. The "Newsletter" included Salim Ali, Biswamoy Biswas and other eminent ornithologists of its time on the editorial board and was for many years mimeographed and distributed to subscribers in India and outside. In later years the covers were printed and still later the entire issue was printed. The newsletter encouraged an essay style of writing and some authors like Ramachandra Guha found their first opportunity to publish in it. The Newsletter for Birdwatchers continues to be popular among birdwatchers interested in the India region.[7][8] The newsletter also pioneered large-scale collaborative studies on birds.[9]

In 1965 he was involved in organizing the IUCN meeting at New Delhi and became a member of its executive board in 1966. He became Vice-President of the IUCN in 1969, received the Padma Shri in 1970, Order of the Golden Ark in 1980 and the Karnataka Rajyotsava award of 1983.[1] In 1973, Futehally was a member of the committee that was set up to study the impact of a dam on the river Kuntipuzha which threatened to destroy the forests of the Silent Valley region.[10] He was also a steering group member of Project Tiger, during the early years of its establishment.[11]

He served as a trustee with several organizations including the Bangalore Environment Trust.[12] In December 2000 he underwent a by-pass surgery[13] Towards the end of 2003, following a cataract removal, he allowed the first few issues of the 2004 Newsletter for Birdwatchers to be guest edited[14] however this led to differences between the guest editors and the publisher leading to a break up of the Newsletter.[15] A new newsletter was launched and he became an emeritus editor for the periodical, Indian Birds.[16]

Conservation debates[edit]

During his position at the BNHS and the World Wildlife Fund he was able to lobby for action, chiefly by influencing the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.[17] His letters to the government helped in the establishment of Karnala bird sanctuary in Raigad in the 1960s, instead of being earmarked for industrial development.[18] In the 1970s, he supported Dillon Ripley and the Smithsonian Institution for a project that proposed to radio-collar and study tigers in India. The project met with considerable resistance, with Kailash Sankhala and Madhaviah Krishnan suggesting that Indians could conduct such studies on their own. Ripley's past in the OSS and politics related to PL 480 grants in India were also to influence the refusal of the Indian government to permit Smithsonian research. Futehally, who was then in WWF-India, was criticized for his support since the IUCN and WWF international did not support the Smithsonian proposal. Ripley subsequently engineered a coup in WWF-US which involved the overthrow of its president, C. R. Gutermuth, on the ground that he had taken up a conflicting position as president of the National Rifle Association. The Smithsonian tiger tracking project was finally funded in part by WWF-US but were able to obtain permission only in Nepal.[19][20]

In later years, he continued to write about conservation issues particularly in Bangalore. In one issue, the government of Karnataka handed over lakes (particularly Hebbal Lake) within the city to private hoteliers and water-based entertainment companies. This was opposed by many citizens as being contradictory to the role of government in public welfare. Zafar Futehally held the view that private enterprise could be conservation and welfare-oriented, a view which did not receive widespread support.[21][22][23]


Futehally wrote numerous popular articles in the media. One of his early publications on a Paradise Flycatcher inspired the Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel to write a poem about it.[24][25] As the founder and editor of the Newsletter for Birdwatchers, he selected articles from bird enthusiasts and friends in India as well as from outside. The articles were selected for readability rather than dry scientific communication although many scientific observations were made in its pages. He also edited and published an anthology of writings by Indian birdwatchers, "India through its birds", which was published in 2007.

In 2014, his memoirs were published as a book, The Song of the Magpie Robin.[26]


  1. ^ a b Futehally, Zafar (1985). "Profile". Newsletter for Birdwatchers 25 (1&2): 12. 
  2. ^ "Bookshelf: Shama Futehally". 
  3. ^ Deshpande, Shashi (2 Jan 2005). "Memories of a friend". The Hindu (Chennai, India). 
  4. ^ Singh, Khuswanth (28 January 2006). "This above all: All about the write choice". 
  5. ^ "Newsmaker: Zafar Futehally". 2000. 
  6. ^ "Veteran naturalist Zafar Futehally passes away". 2013. 
  7. ^ Guha, R (26 October 2003). "The bird men of India". Chennai, India: The Hindu. 26-October-2003. 
  8. ^ Guha R (1970). "An excursion to Roorkee". Newsletter for Birdwatchers 10 (5): 12. 
  9. ^ Gadgil, Madhav (2013). "Zafar Futehally (1920–2013)". Current Science 105 (9): 1302–1303. 
  10. ^ Rangarajan M. (2009). "Striving for a balance: Nature, power, science and India's Indira Gandhi, 1917–1984". Conservation and Society 7 (4): 299–312. doi:10.4103/0972-4923.65175. 
  11. ^ Lewis M (2005). "Indian Science for Indian Tigers?: Conservation Biology and the Question of Cultural Values". Journal of the History of Biology 38 (2): 185–207. doi:10.1007/s10739-004-1486-8. 
  12. ^ Bangalore Environment Trust
  13. ^ Futehally, Z (2001) Editorial. Newsletter for Birdwatchers. 41(2):14
  14. ^ Futehally, Z (2003) Editorial. Newsletter for Birdwatchers 43(5):62-63
  15. ^ Sridhar, S (2004) Editorial. Newsletter for Birdwatchers 44(1):1
  16. ^ Indian Birds volume 1
  17. ^ Lewis M. (2003). "Cattle and Conservation at Bharatpur: A Case Study in Science and Advocacy". Conservation and Society 1 (1): 1–21. 
  18. ^ Futehally, Zafar (1997). "A fifty year journey". Development Alternatives. 
  19. ^ Benson, Etienne (2010). Wired Wilderness: Technologies of Tracking and the Making of Modern Wildlife. Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 96–98. 
  20. ^ Lewis, Michael (2002). "Scientists or Spies? Ecology in a Climate of Cold War Suspicion". Economic and Political Weekly 37 (24): 2324–2332. 
  21. ^ Futehally Z (7 August 2007). "Secrecy shrouds the Hebbal lake". Deccan Herald. 
  22. ^ "Who’s in charge of our lakes?". Deccan Herald. 7 July 2009. 
  23. ^ Futehally, Z. "Soup bowls, good or bad?". Deccan Herald. 
  24. ^ Futehally, Z (2004). "Recoveries from the Newsletter for Birdwatchers – 2. Newsletter for Ornithologists 1(4):57–58". 
  25. ^ Ezekiel, Nissim (1965). "INDIA-Paradise Flycatcher". English 15 (90): 224–225. doi:10.1093/english/15.90.224. 
  26. ^ "Book Launch: The Song of the Magpie Robin". Rupa & Co. 

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