With sad demise of Lalsinghbhai Raol, we have not only lost a venerable grand master of ornithology but possibly the last specimen from a bygone era when bird watching was actually about watching birds.
As I am not part of the wild-lifer/lover community of Gujarat, I had met him only couple of times, but it is the first encounter that is etched in my mind.
It took place by chance almost thirty years back due to a painted stork opting to land in the wetland that once formed near Gandhi Labour Institute and my opting to stop my rickety old bicycle to watch it.
As painted storks are a bit large and ponderous birds, the landing was not too graceful, so it led to a rather small hen-like bird getting startled and flying out of the water-hyacinth maze.
Before I can identify the bird using my rudimentary bookish knowledge about birds, I heard a voice behind me saying “Jasana chhe, Jasana”. As I turned around, I saw a small group of youngsters accompanied by the owner of the voice.
As bird-watchers even in those days came from privileged group of rich kids and not plastic slippers-wearing urchins like me, I was not really keen to engage, but for three facts.
First that they had a binocular, a super-luxury item owned by very few in those days, second, because my bookish learning had failed me in recognising the bird, but it had armed me with the true pronunciation of its name, i.e. Jacana (pronounced Ja-Ka-Na), and third that it was a bird on top of my list to see because it really lived a dream life of the feminists (at least, of that era).
As I opened the conversation with nesting behaviour of the bird (a prude-unfriendly story of sexual role reversal where larger females keep a harem of males), I could see a twinkle in his eyes, but before we could discuss further, a young girl from the group got worried about missing out from adding name of one more duck to her checklist and forced us to part without me being able to convert my textbook knowledge of ornithology into what I would like to call ornis(bird)-ethology(study of animal behaviour) that Lalsighbhai was a master of.
With Lalsinghbhai gone, I feel a sense of loss because not too many people today recognise ethology to be key part of ornithology as birds have now moved from wilderness to (most often) photoshopped images to be posted on social media.
It is entirely possible to meet a self-proclaimed ”birder” or “naturalist” armed with a three hundred plus bird checklist and thousands of Facebook likes for bird “pics” but having no interest in understanding why pigeons outside his window are fighting.
We need to recognise that adding a few more bird names to personal checklist or adding one more photo of CHE (ps: if you want to “belong” to the elite group, you must call your changeable hawk eagle CHE) to the thousands that already exist on Facebook is nothing more than an extension of hoarding instinct that leads us to collect things sans purpose.
It is a sad reality that cameras and social media have now become the biggest threat for the fine amateur legacy of bird “watching” that people like Lalsighbhai once indulged in.
Though his memory is stuck in my mind because of “jasana”, I know it fully well that a matters zit if it is jasana or jacana, because what really matters that Lalsighbhai actually understood its behaviour.
As we stand a cusp of history where our understanding about nature will decide if we are going to hang around or depart from the face of this planet, we need to wake up. The world needs millions of Lalsinghbhais to thwart the rising tide of social media bird-collectors.