After an illustrious career spanning nine decades, Dr. J.C.Uttangi passed away on 4 January, 2014 - a fortnight after this interview was published. He will be fondly remembered by all of us.
Please tell us something about your childhood.
My childhood was one big picnic. As a child, I was fascinated by birds. During my schooling days at Hubli, I would often wander in the grain market and watch sparrows eat grains and build nests in the rafters of the godown's ceiling. Later on, at Dharwad, I used to wander around the country-side chasing colourful birds, of which I knew nothing. I would also relish eating some of the wild berries that grew around Dharwad. The outskirts of Dharwad had plenty of good forests which are now under the yoke or have become residential layouts.
Please tell us about your academic qualifications and professional life.
I did my B.SC in Zoology & Botany. For my thesis during M.SC, I studied protozoans in the intestines of frogs. For my PhD degree, I worked on Ciliates, Flagellates and Gregarines in frogs, millipedes and termites from Bombay-Karnataka and North Gujarat regions. I received my PhD in 1955, having done pioneering work on termites that affect paper. In 1956, I was deputed to represent old Bombay-Karnataka (present day North Karnataka) as a trainee in fresh water fish. In 1957, I took over as H.O.D of Zoology at the Karnataka College, Dharwad (KCD) and later became principal of the college in the year 1970.
Looking back at your illustrious career and the enormous body of work you have done, which achievements do you hold special?
The museum at KCD, Dharwad was a project that was very challenging, but a very satisfying achievement. Even now, it has one of the best collections of birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and insects, among other things. To collect some of the marine specimens, we travelled to Pirotan Island near Pillani & Crusadia Islands near Chennai. For the other specimens, we went all over the southern peninsula. The bird survey of Mahadayi valley (in 1993) and the survey of birds of Anshi Wildlife Sanctuary were the projects that give me immense satisfaction.
Can you elaborate on these two projects?
During those times (i.e. the 1970s), roads were not good; transportation was a major handicap and a basic lack of infrastructure was a huge hindrance to the project. We could not get good images during the survey due to the lack of proper equipment; this was one handicap which I still rue. Yet somehow, with a lot of perseverance, we could complete the project to everybody's satisfaction.
In the 1970s there was a proposal to dam the Mahadayi River. This had all noted environmentalists up in arms. Dr Yellappa Reddy, a noted environmentalist, and the Oriental Bird Club (OBC) asked me to do a bird-survey of these areas; the data of which he could use to stop the proposed dam project. Sadly, the project is now being implemented, resulting in a considerable loss of forest cover and ecological imbalances, especially in the Mahadayi River and its riverine habitat.
Tell me about your association with the late Dr. Salim Ali.
Dr. Salim Ali had come to Karnataka University to give a lecture on birds and had arranged for a bird documentary film. On hearing about the Natural History museum at KCD, he came to visit our campus. It was here that I met the great man. He was truly impressed by the collection and asked me to come to work in Mumbai, which I politely declined. Dr. Salim Ali was a very witty person with a short temper. But his passion for birds and his understanding of birds was phenomenal. I also had the privilege of meeting the late Zafar Futehally several times; he was also instrumental in taking my birding skills even higher.
How do you see birding in the current scenario, compared to the earlier times?
In our times, maintaining meticulous birding records was a given. Now, birders are a little less serious about it. There were hardly any good bird-books, except one by Salim Ali. Logistics was a problem; so was birding equipment. Fortunately, all that has changed now. A lot of forest cover has been lost. The only good forest covers left intact are in protected areas. Therefore, conservation of habitats and micro-habitats, with the involvement of the common man, is vital.
Are you fond of any particular bird and are you partial to a particular habitat?
The Indian Pitta has always been my favourite, although I love all birds. Regarding habitats, I always enjoyed birding in mountainous forests.
Sir, at the age of 98, do you still have the same fascination for birds which you had earlier?
Oh yes, definitely. I birded extensively till I was 90. Now that I am 98, the body no longer permits it, although the mind still wants to bird.
Any tips for young bird-watchers?
Bird-watching can be both pleasurable and productive. In this context, I would advise young bird-watchers to keep meticulous records of their birding trips. Respect nature and play your part in conservation.
JLR Explore would like to thank Dr. Parimala, Mrs. & Mr. John Deodhar, Mr. Gurunath Desai, Mr. Anto Christy, Mr. Ashok Mansur and Mr. Samad Kottur for all the help rendered in putting this story and the pictures together.