One of his citations reads that a list of his contributions and achievements would demand a separate chapter by itself. Yet, this outstanding civil servant, an octogenarian, is a symbol of humility, eager to share his stories with a twinkle in his eye, and keen to learn more about his favourite subjects: nature and wildlife.
Seturam Gopalrao Neginhal, popularly known as S G Neginhal, is a pioneer in urban forestry. 36 years of his life were devoted to serving the Karnataka Forest Department, during which his most significant achievements include authoring the management plan for Bandipur Tiger Reserve and planting 1.5 million trees in Bangalore – no mean feat! His publications include books on flora and fauna, and several articles in journals such as Newsletter for Birdwatchers, Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society and My Forest. He is an ace wildlife photographer, recipient of Artist of Federation of International Photographic Art (AFIAP) and International distinction by the Federation Internationale De L’ Art Photographique, Holland, in Nature Photography.
In conversation with Rana and Sugandhi, S G Neginhal takes a walk down memory lane.
1. When did you first connect with nature?
I come from a forest officer’s family. My father was also a forest officer. Right from my young age, I have been spending a lot of time in the forest. During the British rule, my father was in Dehradun for Range Officers’ training. After he returned, we spent most of our time in North Canara. I belong to Belgaum and was educated in Dharwad. I got an opportunity to join the forest department in 1951, in the erstwhile Bombay State. 1951 onwards, I was trained in forest management and after the reorganization of the states in 1956, I was posted to Karnataka. During those days, wildlife didn’t have much importance. It was all about trees, flowers, fruits, plants. Of course, we used to see tigers, panthers, wild dogs, elephants, leopard cats and many smaller animals in the Dandeli area. But all we did was see and enjoy. Watching them was of secondary importance for a forest officer at that time. Later, slowly, wildlife started gaining importance.
2. When and how did you begin bird watching?
In 1965, I came across Salim Ali’s Book of Indian Birds, which got me interested in bird watching. With only a pair of binoculars and no one to tell me what bird I was looking at, I began birdwatching with the help of Salim Ali’s book. I was at Dandeli then and published an article, “Birds of the Dandeli Sanctuary”, in Zafar Futehally’s Newsletter for Birdwatchers. Y M L Sharma, a great forest officer who developed Bannerghatta, saw that article and sent me for wildlife training. At Dehradun, I had a very good professor, S R Choudhury (Saroj Raj Choudhury). He was a great man, perfect in wildlife management, and very practical in field management.
After the training, Mr. Sharma posted me to Mysore to look after BRT hills, Bandipur, Nagarahole and Ranganathittu. I was there for six years and with my scientific background of wildlife management, I could my increase my knowledge and also study behaviour of animals.
3. When Project Tiger was initiated and you were in-charge of Bandipur, what challenges did you face while having the park declared as a Tiger Reserve?
They wanted to include nine sanctuaries of India into Project Tiger initially, with one from South India. I prevailed upon M Krishnan and Sankala, the then steering committee members that Bandipur is better than Mudumalai and Wayanad, which were also competing for inclusion. Though the animal density was less at Bandipur and more at Mudumalai, there was felling of trees in Mudumalai. The Maharaja had already stopped tree felling in Bandipur in the 1940s. Wayanad had lot of encroachments and poachers, and for that reason it was not considered. Bandipur was declared a Tiger Reserve. They asked me to write a management plan for Bandipur Tiger Reserve. This is the first management plan written in 1972, reviewed by M Krishnan and others.
In this plan, I have referred to Nagarahole National Park as well. The Kabini dam had not yet come up. It was under construction. I had seen Periyar Sanctuary in Kerala where the dam had come up. The trees were sticking out of the water and it was very difficult for boats to move about. I urged the territorial DFO in-charge to immediately clear all the trees near the Kabini dam, because once the water level rises, you cannot do anything. They had already removed some of the trees which had timber value and then cleared the remaining.
4. What is the story behind Kokkarebellur?
One day, on my way from Mysore to Bangalore for a wildlife meeting, I found many long-legged birds in a tank. I stopped my jeep and went closer to take a look, and saw Painted Storks. I thought, if there are hundreds of Painted Storks here, they must be breeding somewhere nearby. On my way back to Mysore the next day, I stopped to look again – not a single bird was there in the tank. I went in search of the birds and reached Bellur village. I found these Painted Storks on all the trees and on the house tops in that village. While looking at these birds, I saw a bird landing awkwardly on a tree. It was the Grey Pelican! That was a record. At that time, they were breeding in Burma, Kaziranga and in Andhra Pradesh, and this was the fourth record.
At Ranganathittu, I made a list of all the birds and trained the boatmen on how to identify them. Salim Ali had come to Mysore in 1937-38 for the survey of the birds of Mysore on invitation by the Maharaja of Mysore. At that time, he discovered Ranganathittu but he had not come across Kokkarebellur. I am still surprised as to how he missed it! Perhaps it was waiting for me <chuckles>. When Salim Ali had come to Mysore again, I took him to Ranganathittu, BRT hills and Bandipur and that’s how I came in contact with him.
With Dr. Salim Ali at Ranganathittu
Image source – Sanctuaries and wildlife of Karnataka by S G Neginhal, First reprint (2010)
5. Did you have to convince local people that these birds are important?
No, no, no, no! They convinced me. It was the other way round. When I went there, the villagers yelled at me, “You fellows, why have you come here? Get out!” The birds would get frightened because we were wearing trousers. They were used to people in dhoti and kurta. The villagers were the custodians of the birds. That was in 1976.
6. What other such achievements are close to your heart?
I had already discovered the Great Indian Bustard in Ranebennur and made a report about it. I used to count 15 bustards in one simple early morning drive. Now not a single one is found there. During those days, there were wolves at Melkote and so, I had made that into a sanctuary. It was the first wolf sanctuary in India.
7. What brought you to Bangalore?
In 1977, they brought me in as curator to the Mysore Zoo. Having seen wild animals, I didn’t like being among captive animals. After a year, I left and went away to my place in Yellapur. I came back to Shimoga with a posting at Thirthahalli as a wildlife officer in charge of Lakkavalli, Sharavati, and Shettihalli sanctuaries. In 1981, Gundu Rao was the Chief Minister. Bangalore was getting barren in those days because of new housing layouts coming up and old trees being cut. He asked his commissioners of Corporation, BDA and Forest Department on how many trees they can plant to make Bangalore city green. BDA said they could plant 2000 trees per year. Corporation said they could plant 3000-4000. They asked the then PCCF Shyam Sunder, who said, “I can plant lakhs provided you give me a separate division for this.” So, a division was created and they were in search of an officer who can do this work. This is when they brought me from Thirthahalli to Bangalore, in 1982. I started nurseries and used different and innovative techniques to plant trees. Each nursery used to have two crore saplings at that time. I made this drive very popular by involving the public. This project got the Indira Priyadarshini Vriksha Mitra award.
8. What techniques did you use to make it popular and successful?
The works taken up by BDA and Corporation were not successful because they were planting small saplings (1 – 1.5 feet in height). The Holstein cattle, which used to roam around in the city, could eat the saplings at six feet height. I actually took a tape and measured the height when the cows lifted their heads. I realised that for the plants to survive, they have to be six feet and above. For tree guards, they used concrete drums costing Rs. 650. I invented a new guard with four poles and chicken mesh that costed only Rs. 22. I was able to save a lot of money and used it to plant more trees instead.
I used to go to houses and request the public, “Please come and do the planting yourself. We will dig the pits and keep them ready.” That became a big hit. TV and media also gave a lot of publicity to this work, so much so that corporators used to stand in queue outside the office asking me to visit and plant in their area.
I opened tree-banks in all the areas, so that people did not have to come up to the forest areas to collect saplings. I involved school and college children. I also involved politicians, appointing them as honorary tree wardens and gave them badges. These are some of the novel ideas that made this project successful.
9. Did they take this idea to other cities also?
Oh yes! District collectors, governors, forest ministers and foresters would rush to Bangalore to see my work. They would go back and say, “They are doing it in Bangalore, why are we not doing this?” One day it so happened that in New Delhi, when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister, he wanted to make Shakti Sthal, the samadhi of Indira Gandhi, beautiful by planting trees. But they didn’t have saplings to plant. The Director of horticulture who was planting trees in Delhi went to different cities to get saplings but could not get any. Someone told him to go to Bangalore and that he would get it. He took the next flight and came to Bangalore and met Shyam Sunder. When I was introduced to the Director, he asked me for saplings of 6ft and above. I asked him how many he wanted. He was surprised by my question. He took wagon-loads of tall saplings back to Delhi. 80% of the trees that you see at Shakti Sthal are from Bangalore.
10. When you were planting here, what species did you select?
I mixed both Indian and exotic species. Only planting neem or mango will not be attractive to people. They needed flowering trees as well. There were already native flowering trees, so I mixed Jacaranda, Gulmohar, Badminton-ball and other trees, with Indian trees like Indian Laburnum, Champak, and such. There were mixed species for the planting drive but on each road, we planted only one species.
11. Are there any interesting stories from the planting drive?
In those days, if you passed through Anand Rao circle and the Majestic areas, it used to be barren, with a lot of traffic and people. Even at night, it was busy and crowded till 1:30 AM when the last movie show ended. Again at 4 AM it used to get busy. There were hardly two hours of peace and quiet. I had very dedicated field officers and subordinates who were concerned on how they could plant in those areas. I told them not to worry. We went to the nurseries and loaded lorries with 12-15 feet high saplings. One lorry would carry labourers and another would carry water and implements. At 1:30 AM when the roads were empty, we started digging – dig the pits, plant, water and move to the next area. I don’t think we have planted trees at midnight anywhere else. The next morning, people were pleasantly surprised by the trees that had “appeared” overnight. Now when you go to Gandhinagar, you will see many trees and it is so green. Much of the credit should go to my field officers and subordinates.
Officers need to find such novel ideas. The government provides us with everything – labour, funds, vehicles, subordinates. Why can’t people work? Unless the officer goes to the field, the subordinates will not go. Honesty and sincerity is very important. I thank the government, for having selected me and brought me here. You can almost say this planting was the hallmark of the last century.
Until this time, planting in village areas was done under social forestry, not for cities. Because of the planting done here, the planning commission added urban planting in the five year plan. From my experiences, I was able to write 3-4 books on urban and city planting. For the forest officers and people, I wrote two field books on Forest Trees of Western Ghats and Forest Trees of South India. Based on my experiences in wildlife, I wrote another book on the Sanctuaries of Karnataka which was first published in 2009 and now, the 3rd edition is in print.
12. You were talking of midnight tree planting, but this is the age of midnight tree-cutting!
It’s not midnight tree-cutting; it is murder in daylight. There is no accountability at all. The BDA and BBMP officers give consent without reviewing cases, which they should not. It so happened that in Malleshwaram, there was a tree that they wanted to cut. I had said that no one can cut a tree unless they take permission. All the tree-cutting files were submitted to the respective range officers and I would tell them to not approve unless I see them. I used to visit the location and review each case in person, and examine the tree. Once, I met a lady in Malleshwaram who said, “Birds come to the tree and create a nuisance. I want to cut it.” I told her that people travel 100-200 miles to watch these birds, study and photograph them. They visit your backyard, but you want to cut the tree and drive them away. Don’t cut the tree.
When people say that a branch is in the way, I would say after proper inspection, don’t cut the tree; cut only the branch. Just like a human being gets a trial in court before a death sentence, a gazetted officer should go to the field and see the tree before he gives it a death sentence.
13. How can we generate the love for trees in the common man?
It is heartening to find so many NGOs taking interest in tree planting. Neralu habba and other such events should grow. We need to support such things.
14. How did you develop an interest in photography?
When I was in Bandipur, I used to spend time with Ghorpade and some other photographers with big lenses. I told Perumal to get me a camera because I spend more time in the field; if I find an interesting animal behaviour or incident, I must record it. In those days, it was very difficult to get cameras, and even if you did find one, you would never get lenses. He managed to get a camera and a 200mm lens from Bombay. After I retired in 1987, this interest has sustained as a hobby till date.
15. Can you share any favourite image or stories about making some of them?
Once, Perumal, Jayaram and I were camping in Bandipur after I had retired. Three days had gone by and we hadn’t seen a single tiger. I suggested we take a ride on the main road and go up to Mudumalai. While returning to Bandipur, we saw a tiger coming out on to the highway with three cubs. It was trying to cross the highway to go to a watering hole on the other side. It would try to hide the cubs in the bushes and wait to cross the road.
On the same day, at Minister Gutti, there was a tiger that just moved off the road on seeing our vehicle. We moved about half a km away and stopped. After 20-25 minutes, the tiger came back and went into the pond to cool off. We then had a good sighting of it. Understanding of wildlife and animal behaviour is very important. People spend more time in front of computers. They should get out and go into the forest, study and understand the behaviour of animals and birds. You should know the sounds that an elephant makes. When an elephant is charging, you should know what to do.
Dr. Salim Ali with S G Neginhal
16. Who has been your biggest inspiration?
My biggest inspirations were Salim Ali and M Krishnan. Some of you may not know of M Krishnan. He had perfect knowledge about any animal, plant or bird. He was thorough in everything and was an excellent naturalist.