Slim Sreedharan: Field ornithologist extraordinarie

on 11th September 2008

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.

YC Wee
September 2008

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.

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

Other posts by YC Wee

10 Responses

  1. The quotation is from Gerard Didier Erasmus (1465-1536) in Latin: “Scitum est inter caecos luscum regnare posse” – “It is well known, that amongst the blind the one-eyed man is king.”   I don’t understand Sreedharam’s use of it because it means, obviously, that someone with one eye has an advantage, a tremendous advantage, over people who are blind, enough for him to be the king. How does that fit in to his paper?

  2. Thanks David. You are absolutely correct. A one-eyed man is a great leader for the blind. However, I cannot claim to know exactly what Slim meant by his reference to this. Was there a one-eyed man around at that time? In the 1990s? I wonder.

  3. Dear Yeow Chin,

    Thank you for sending me the link to the BESGroup website – presumably put up by you? In any case, thank you very much, even if I think you do me too much honour!

    I have just visited the site, and note that there have been a couple of comments on it, with reference to my use of the quote ?It is well known, that amongst the blind the one-eyed man is king?.

    Robertson is quite correct in saying that it is a translation of the Latin: ?Scitum est inter caecos luscum regnare posse? a quotation from Erasmus’s Adagia, even if he was quite perplexed as to why I had used it.

    The answer to that lies in the context of its use in my paper.

    The opening paragraph of your piece starts as follows: “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 birds.

    This statement is, sensu stricto, not correct.

    MY opening paragraph went: “In 1985, when I was invited by the State Secretary for the Sarawak Government to make an ornithological survey of Bako National Park, I knew practically next to nothing about the birds of Sarawak, and had to rely almost entirely on The Birds of Borneo by B. E. Smythies. First published in 1960, it was then the only book on the birds of Borneo with illustrations.”

    I was already a full-fledged field ornithologist by then, but it was the birds of Sarawak I knew practically next to nothing about!

    When I was working in India, for four years before coming to Borneo, I was just one among several hundred full-time and amateur ornithologists working all over that huge sub-continent! In Sarawak, I was the only full-time ornithologist. And, even if I were to spend another twenty or so years doing more field work, it still would not be enough! Sarawak is too large a place to be covered by any one person!

    The one-eyed man reference was relative to the fact that I, the only full-time ornithologist in Sarawak, knew next to nothing about the birds of Sarawak!

    Thanks for your link. How goes things with you? Retirement from field work is becoming quite tedious now, and I do very little now apart from writing annual; papers for the SMJ.

    With best wishes and regards,


  4. You said, “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.”

    The details are as follows:

    Title: The problems of ornithological research in South East Asia, MALAYAN NATURALIST 49(2) : 29-33 ; Jul 1996

  5. Hi slim, I’m Hari (formerly member of expedition in Bentuang Karimun National Park and Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary) I hope you still remember me. I want to know about alpha and beta diversity of birds. Thanks

  6. My word, Hari, of course I remember you and the time we spent up on Bukit Chondol! Contact me at punritai at Going on a field trip next month in Sarawak if you are interested!

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