Slim Sreedharan is a field ornithologist who has been working in the jungles of Borneo for the past two decades and more. *When he was invited by the Sarawak government in 1985 to make a survey of the birds of the Bako National Park, he practically knew nothing about the birds of Borneo. Armed with the only book with illustrations available then, The Birds of Borneo by BE Smythies, he found that the birds “defied identification”. The illustrations as well as the descriptions were totally inadequate. This was the 1960 edition. He had to carefully identify all the birds he encountered or mist-netted from first principal. He is currently the Hon. Curator of Birds at the Sarawak Museum.
I first met Slim in May 2006 when he was invited by the National Parks Board to train its staff in mist nesting. After all, he is an “A” class ringer with the British Trust for Ornithology since 1973. It was then that he told me about his earlier invitation to talk to the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), now Nature Society (Singapore). I was then chasing plants, not birds, and so was not aware of it.
I have been trying to get hold of the paper for the last few years and only received a faint copy recently.
The points he elaborated in his talk included:
1. “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” appears to be a prevalent theme in Southeast Asian ornithology.
2. Expatriate researchers in ornithology showed an odd tendency to compromise standards in the region. Whereas in England there is a need to give detailed field description, photo or sketch, etc. of a new sighting, as well as an independent verification by a second person who must submit an equally detailed description, this is not so in Southeast Asia.
3. There is a desperate need for a new approach to birdwatching in the region. It is not possible to plan conservation strategies if we only know what the birds look like. We also need to know where they live, what they eat, when and where they breed, how much space they need for a viable breeding habitat and so on. Most jungle species are not fully documented – not just in Borneo, but also in Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore.
4. “I often get the feeling that we have lost out as a result of the current tendency to learn more and more about less and less. In the old Malayan Nature Journal of the 50s and 60s, there were many short letters on bird behaviour. Each trinket, on its own contributed very little to the main body of information, but over the years, all of them put together gives us a better idea of bird behaviour than a purely scientific approach would have done.”
5. “If amateur birdwatchers could harnass their knowledge and publish regularly their observations, no matter how trivial it may be, it will meet two important objectives. Firstly, by being allowed to participate in the data-gathering process, amateur members will no longer feel left out or see themselves as people only needed for their annual subscriptions. Secondly, in about 15-20 years, the accumulated information could result in a truly worthy book on birds of the region, one which will provide a wealth of information about how they have adapted to the urban sprawl, and pin-point the measures needed to protect them.”
Unfortunately, Slim’s message failed to reach the majority of the local birdwatchers. Yes, he did deliver his talk but his message would have reached a wider audience had the text been accepted for publication in the society’s magazine, Nature Watch. I suppose his message must have been somewhat controversial as his paper was rejected. Apparently the editor of Nature Watch consulted with the leadership of the Bird Group, and in their infinite wisdom, decided against its publication. So Slim offered the manuscript “The Problems of Ornithological Research in South East Asia” to the Malayan Naturalist, a magazine of the Malayan Nature Society – published in Malaysia.
More than ten years down the line, the situation has not changed much in Singapore. We have an abundance of field guides but there are still no good reference books on the local avian fauna. And the majority of local birdwatchers still “twitch” and “list” – see HERE.
The formation of the Bird Ecology Study Group in 2005 was an attempt to fill this void. BESG has become the “research” arm, complementing the “recreation” arm that is the Bird Group.
An appeal: My copy of Slim’s paper carries no reference to the year of publication in the Malayan Naturalist, or the pages. I would appreciate if someone can supply this information. Thanks.
Image of Slim comes from his website.
*Corrected after Slim pointed the error to me. Please see “comment” below for a full explanation and the context of his one-eyed man. My apologies to Slim.