Ram Brahma Sanyal
|Ram Brahma Sanyal
Ram Brahma Sanyal
Mahula, Murshidabad District, Bengal Province, British India
|Died||13 October 1908 (aged 50)|
|Occupation||Zoologist, Animal trainer|
Ram Brahma Sanyal (1858 - 13 October 1908) was the first superintendent of the Alipore Zoological Gardens in Kolkata (then Calcutta). He was a pioneer in captive breeding, and was one of the first zookeepers trained as a biologist. He was a corresponding member of the Zoological Society of London and wrote a handbook on keeping and breeding animals in captivity - A Handbook of the Management of Animals in Captivity in Lower Bengal (1892) which was reviewed in the journal Nature (4 August 1892). This was the standard handbook for zookeepers for over 50 years until Lee Crandall published The Management of Wild Mammals in Captivity in 1964. His scientific methods led to the rare birth of a live Sumatran rhinoceros in 1889, an event that was not seen in captivity until 2001.
R. B. Sanyal was born in the village of Mahula in Murshidabad District of present-day West Bengal in 1858. Son of Baidyanath Sanyal, he passed the Entrance examination from Baharampur College. He came to Calcutta for studies, and joined the Calcutta Medical College, probably in 1870. He gave up his studies on the recommendation of doctors as he developed eye problems. Among early influences on his career was that of Dr. George King, noted botanist and the superintendent of the Indian Botanical Gardens in Shibpur (then the Royal Botanic Gardens), who was a faculty at the Calcutta Medical College.
Initial years at the zoo
Sanyal joined the Alipore Zoological Gardens from its inception in the winter of 1875 - 1876 as a casual worker, probably due to the influence of George King, who was a member of the Honorary Managing Committee. In the first few months, he was responsible both for the upkeep of the animals, and for looking after the needs of the visitors to the zoo. His hard work paid off, and by September 1876 he was made a "head babu" (head assistant) with wages of rupees forty (a significant sum of money in those days).
In January 1877 the Managing Committee decided to start a daily register noting animal habits and behaviour in the zoo on a day to day log book basis. Sanyal was chosen to assist three Europeans including Carl Louis Schwendler, one of the honorary governors who donated animals from his menagerie to form the zoo's nucleus. Sanyal took a lot of notes and referred to the existing literature of the time, mainly to T. C. Jerdon's Animals of India and Birds of India. Some of Sanyal's duties were lightened when an additional gardener was recruited during this period.
Meanwhile, the zoo management was looking for a new superintendent, and in spite of Sanyal's prowess, were keen on appointing a European to the post. The minutes of the Managing Committee meeting held on 19 July 1877 document that:
"Babu R. B. Sanyal is unfit to have the job of the management of the Garden and that it is necessary to approve a European head keeper ..."
The committee was, however, forced to give him superintendent status due to lack of a qualified European candidate.
At this juncture, besides writing the daily register, Sanyal had to keep a daily account of the number of animals fed, quantity of food fed, and the cost of the food over and above all his other duties among which was feeding (sometimes handfeeding) every animal in the zoo three times a day.
Meanwhile, Sir Alfred Croft, Director of Public Instruction, visited the gardens regularly and got acquainted with Sanyal. Impressed by his abilities, he offered Sanyal a job which Sanyal accepted, handing in his resignation to the zoo on 25 July 1878. The zoo management, loath to let Sanyal go in view of impending expansions to the zoo, refused to accept his resignation on the grounds that he was already in government service, even though Sanyal's job was not pensionable.
Additional duties for Sanyal over the next few years included supervision of the new construction at the zoo, and overseeing a project (starting 1883) for interbreeding Australian cattle with native stock to improve the quality of the stock, both of which Sanyal performed efficiently.
Publication of the handbook and other writings
Upon 10 years of keeping the daily register, the Honorary Secretary of the Management Committee requested Sanyal to write a series of English articles on the basis of the logs he kept. The new Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, Sir Steuart Colvin Bailey requested in the Annual Report of 1888 - 1889 that the records of the superintendent be published as a handbook that could aid other individuals and zoological gardens. The findings of Sanyal were thus published as A Handbook of the Management of Animals in Captivity in Lower Bengal in 1892.
The work was groundbreaking in its field, and was divided into two parts - one for observations on mammals and one for observations on birds. In all, the work looks at 241 kinds of mammals and 402 kinds of birds. It was reviewed by the scientific journal Nature in the issue dated 4 August 1892, and caused Sanyal to become known for the first time outside the Indian zoological community. The handbook caught the eye of the Vice President of the Zoological Society of London W. T. Blanford. Nature published a favourable review of the book, stating that:
" ... on the whole we must allow that this volume is a remarkable production, considering the circumstances under which it has been prepared and that its author deserves great credit for the pains bestowed on its composition and for much valuable information contained within it"
During this period, Sanyal wrote a significant number of popular science articles in his mother tongue of Bengali in the children's magazines of Sakha (18 articles in the period 1887 - 1890) and Mukul (18 articles in the period 1895 - 1900). He further followed this up with a second book Hours with Nature, published in 1896 for a target audience of schoolchildren. Sanyal also published notes based on observations at the zoo in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.
With the recognition of Sanyal in the zoological community, he published in quite a few scientific journals and attended conferences and was part of trips to other zoos in different parts of India and the world.
Among Sanyal's most notable scientific publications were three scientific papers published in the Proceedings of the London Zoological Society in the years 1893 - 1895:
- Notes on a hybrid between the Semnopithecus phayrei Blyth and S. cristatus, November 1893 pp. 615 – 616
- Notes on Cynogale bennetti Gray, March 1894, pp. 296 – 297
- On the moulting of the Great Bird of Paradise with brief notes upon its habits in captivity, June 1895, pp. 541 – 542
In 1894, Sanyal visited the zoological park Jijamata Udyan (then Victoria Gardens) at Mumbai (then Bombay) based on an invitation from the Secretary to the Bombay Municipal Corporation. He submitted a report to the authorities at the zoo suggesting improvements.
Sanyal also took up the project of the analysis of snake venom, with the possibility of discovering antivenom with Dr. John Anderson in the period 1895 - 1896. He later continued this research alone in the final years of his life in around 1905.
Sanyal was sent to Europe in June 1898 for a first-hand look at the great zoological gardens of Europe, and attended the Fourth International Congress of Zoology in Cambridge, England in August. He made several important observations and built up a significant network of peers on these travels.
On return to India, Sanyal was made a Rai Bahadur. Sanyal also presented a detailed report on the housing, feeding and treatment of animals in European zoos. One of the most notable aspects of this work was to highlight the reasons for success in captive breeding in European zoos for species which had failed to reproduce in captivity in Calcutta.
Sanyal was also made an Associate Member of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta. He often presented live demonstrations and gave lectures at the Society's monthly meetings, and placed scientific papers in the society's well-known journal.
Sanyal became widely known in zoological circles on account of his work and publications. He travelled to Yangon (then Rangoon) to plan the zoo facilities there. In June 1902 Sanyal was finally made a member of the honorary committee. Failing health caused Sanyal to ask for a retirement by January 1906. The replacement nominated for the post of Superintendent was also an Indian - Pasupati Mitra. However, in late 1905, Mitra was called back by his department, causing the zoo authorities to extend Sanyal's stay in office by a couple of years. Sanyal continued office duties despite failing health - including hazardous and strenuous duties like working on snake antivenom, and conducting autopsies on dead animals to ascertain their cause of death.
In his final years in office, Sanyal outlined plans of acquiring animals from other places like South India and Africa, based on a system of exchange and purchase. He died while holding office, on 13 October 1908.
Sanyal was also a pioneering member of the Brahmo Samaj, a Hindu reformist movement of the late 19th century centered in Kolkata. Sanyal donated a large amount of money for the purchase of land for building the Brahmo Sammilan Samaj.
Ram Brahma Sanyal's seminal handbook was reprinted by the Central Zoo Authority of India. A biography of R. B. Sanyal was written by Dilip K. Mittra in Bengali while another was written by Shakunt Pandey who also wrote a story loosely based on Sanyal's life that was published in The Statesman's', 21st May 2017, titled "The Superintendent's Last Wish".
- Walker, S.: Ram Brahma Sanyal – the first zoo biologist. Zoos' Print Journal Vol. 15, No. 5 (1999): p. 9.
- Kisling, V.N.: Zoo history and the Sanyal legacy. Zoos’ Print Vol. 14, No. 4 (1999): p. 2
- Rhino loses fetus, Cincinnati Post, 14 November 1997 (Cincinnati Zoo recorded the next live birth in 2001)
- Transcript of R. B. Sanyal interview at SOS Rhino
- Staff reporter, A big, beautiful baby, Cincinnati Post, 21 September 2001
- Sengupta, Subodh Chandra and Bose, Anjali (editors), (1976/1998), Sansad Bangali Charitabhidhan (Biographical dictionary) Vol I, (Bengali), p486, ISBN 81-85626-65-0
- D. K. Mitra, Role of Ram Brahma Sanyal in initiating zoological researches on the animals in captivity, Indian Journal of History of Science, 27(3), 1992
- Sanyal, R.B. (1903) Notes on Animals Observed at the Alipore zoological Garden No.III. Melanic apecimens of Common palm Squirrel (Sciurus Palmarum Linn). Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 71(3):137-138.
- Sanyal, R.B. (1903) Note on Animals Observed at the Alipore Zoological Garden No. 2. a brief note on the “Doctrine of Telegony” with Reference to facts Observed in the Zoological Gardens Calcutta. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 71(3):132-132.
- Sanyal, R.B. (1903) Notes on Animals Kept in the Alipore Zoological Garden. No. I. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 71(2):92-93.
- Sengupta, Subodh Chandra and Bose, Anjali, p486.
- Website of the Brahmo Sammilan Samaj
- Pandey, Shakunt (2014). "Unsung man of science. Ram Brahma Sanyal 1851-1908". Science Reporter. 51 (8): 53–55.
- Sanyal, Ram Bramha. (1892). A hand-book of the management of animals in captivity in Lower Bengal. (scanned book on Archive.org)
- Sanyal, Ram Bramha (1896) Hours with nature. (scanned book on Archive.org)
- Kisling, V. N. (2001) Zoo and Aquarium History: Ancient Animal Collections to Zoological. CRC Press. ISBN 0-8493-2100-X Google books