Ramki, my wife Vishnupriya, and I were out of breath. We were birding at 4,200 metres at Se La in Western Arunachal Pradesh, high above the treeline. It was June 2011, and Ramki had exactly 20 “p-lifers” (his acronym for his “photography lifers”) on his wishlist. However, there was one particular species which was his number one target – he was after a tiny bird, with reddish-chestnut upper parts, a dark vermiculated belly, full of small white arrowheads resembling stars in the night sky. By now, most birders would have guessed it correctly – it was a Gould’s Shortwing. Two years earlier, Per Alström and I had found them breeding at Se La. Before that, the species had only been seen a few times in its wintering grounds, and the most reliable sighting in its breeding grounds was a two-day trek at Langtang in Nepal. It didn’t take long for Ramki to get cracking images of the bird. From today’s perspective, plenty of birders and photographers routinely see and photograph the Gould’s Shortwing. However, in 2011, Ramki had been a trailblazer, for this and for many other species.

Ramki’s early experiences were rather eclectic. He graduated from the University of Madras in 1992 with a Bachelor’s degree in Physics. Then he spent a year creating political cartoons for a local newspaper, before doing an MBA in marketing from SPJIMR. He then went on to sell razorblades in rural Karnataka before becoming the brand manager of Ariel in Procter and Gamble. Later, Ramki co-founded two companies – Intercept Technologies, an online advertising firm in 1998, and Marketics, a marketing analytics company in 2003. He was hobnobbing with some well-known Fortune-100 clients, when he chose to sell his company, largely retire from the corporate world, and focus on his lifelong passion for wildlife. He was only 36. He once told me, “I had aimed to retire at 35, but it took me an extra year.”

Photograph courtesy of Shashank Dalvi

After retirement came an avalanche of wildlife trips. In the next three years, he made more than 50 wildlife trips to photograph and document birds across India. This journey took him to the shola forests of the Western Ghats, the deserts of Rajasthan and Kutch, coniferous forests of western Himalayas, evergreen forests of Arunachal Pradesh and everything in between. True to his character, Ramki strategically planned every single trip and created target lists by location.

I first met Ramki and his wife Swarna in Eaglenest in 2006. Since then, I’ve seen him in action for most of his Northeast India trips and we’ve travelled extensively across the region. Back then, no one really knew where to find most of the species. With a combination of good homework, guesswork, and hitting the right habitats at the right time of the year, we started knocking down near-mythical species one by one. Notable mentions would include the Bugun Liocichla in 2006 (the very same year when it was described), and the Yellow-throated Laughingthrush (there was just one known record of the bird since it was last collected in 1929, and none from India). For some species, Ramki’s photographs were one of the first ones from India, like Spot-breasted, Brown-capped and Moustached Laughingthrushes, Spot-breasted Parrotbill, White-cheeked Partridge, Grey Peacock Pheasant, Hodgson’s Frogmouth, and many of the Wren-babblers. He was the first person to photo-document over 1000 species in India, and he was a generation ahead of the other photographers.

Gould’s Shortwing (Heteroxenicus stellatus)

I remember many evenings, after a great day’s birding in the northeast: we would sit outside the tent, a glass of single malt in our hands, listening to Pink Floyd and discussing and debating about all our diverse interests – from basketball and Kobe Bryant to music and Ilaiyaraaja. Of course, the conversation circled back to birds, as it often did. I had been amazed by Ramki’s choice to leave a lucrative career behind, pick up his camera, 500mm lens and monopod and spend so much time in the northeast – it was an extremely rare sight back then. So I asked him about it. Ramki said, “All the science folks know about these places in Arunachal and describe its beautiful birds. But where is it in popular culture? No one in India knows about them.” I wouldn’t credit him in entirety, but Ramki surely played his part, and we have a far more diverse birding culture today.

As an artist himself, Ramki’s love of birds also extended to art. Anybody who walked into his house would witness a curated collection of some of India’s best bird lithographs. But in my biased opinion, his portrait of Salim Ali, that sits framed close to his work desk, is as valuable as any of his rare lithographs.

Portrait of Dr. Salim Ali by Ramki.

During the years of birding trips and photography, Ramki’s interest in conservation began to grow. He purchased a beautiful coffee farm on the edge of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve and let it grow wild. It is now mostly a naturally regenerating forest with very little active coffee cultivation. Over the years, Vishnu and I have spent a lot of time in this estate and witnessed almost every large mammal, endemic bird and amphibian of the region, within the property.

By December 2011, he stopped the chase of bird photography and did something much more personally and socially meaningful. Together with wildlife filmmaker Shekar Dattatri, he set up an online portal – Conservation India (CI). The idea behind CI was both simple and novel. He wanted to create a platform where every Indian citizen could access multiple case studies, toolkits and best practices for wildlife conservation. In his own words, he wanted to provide “the fire power” required to make conservation happen on ground. CI ran nearly 25 wildlife conservation campaigns. Some of them were species oriented like Narcondam Hornbill and Great Indian Bustard, while others were location or habitat-specific, like Hesarghatta, Pulicat and Bhagjan oil spill. CI also began campaigns to influence government bills such as the amendments to Forest Conservation Act, Indian Forest Policy, Compensatory Afforestation Bill, and many more.

Along with evidence-based scientific reasoning, each campaign held another common theme. The mantra which Ramki lived by was “go beyond the pretty picture”. The ‘Amur Falcon Campaign’ was definitely a direct result of this. When in 2012, Ramki, Bano, Roko, and I stumbled upon the Amur Falcon massacre at Doyang Reservoir, we immediately began video-documenting the daily slaughter. Ramki and Bano also devised a conservation plan to save the species within 24 hours of documenting the hunting. I vividly remember Ramki calling up Shekar from ground zero, and the ‘Amur Falcon Campaign’ was born on CI. The campaign eventually engaged government officials at the national and state levels and local communities of the villages. This resulted in a complete ban on Amur Falcon hunting in 2013 at Doyang, where hunters became the guardians of the Amur Falcon. Ten years later, Amur Falcons are now protected by local communities across many places in Northeast India.

Photographing Amur Falcons in Nagaland. Photograph courtesy of Shashank Dalvi

After Ramki’s passing, I received condolence messages from many friends. One was from Lipen, a conservation educator from Pangti village (near Doyang). His Whatsapp display image today is that of an Owlet Moth – of Ramki’s many legacies, surely this is a striking one.

There are many things for which Ramki will stay close in my memories. Over the years, we built a bond as close as any family kinship, and I was privileged to have shared many of my life’s best moments with him. As I looked back at shared memories on Facebook, I found his image of a Pied Thrush from Nandi Hills in 2015. Vishnu had reshared it in 2017 saying “2 years later, and we are still birding together!” To this, Ramki quipped “What 2 years? We bird for life!!!”

And so we shall. To honour his memory and his legacy.