In memorium- Kushal Mookherjee
Kushal Mookherjee had once been described as a wildlife crusader, campaigner, photographer and researcher. Remembering the man who spent his life protecting and campaigning for nature.
My first introduction to Mr Kushal Mookherjee was during my time as a member of the Phylum Nature Club of Calcutta Boys’ School,when we were doing some studies on wetland birds in Kolkata. It was 1993 and I had been given his introduction by Ms DevikaKar, then Education Officer of WWF Eastern Region, and went across to meet him. It took me some endeavor to find his then residence near Deshapriya Park. I was somewhat apprehensive, bearing in mind how an established and distinguished wildlife biologist would react to a novice school student taking his first steps in the world of natural history. I need not have worried, for Kushal Mookherjee put me completely at ease in his presence and slowly introduced me to the fascinating world of animals and plants that formed the bedrock of his investigations and research. During that first visit, I also saw some beautiful wildlife images in Kushal Da’s residence that remain alive in my mind till day, including a framed photograph of a snarling Fishing Cat. Thus, the seed was sown for establishing a relationship with a man who was among the most knowledgeable, yet most humble and courteous luminaries in the world of wildlife conservation I have ever come across.
Over the years, thanks to Kushal Da, I got introduced to the work of Prakriti Samsad, an NGO for naturalists that had been started by Kushal Mookherjee and some other wildlife lovers in Kolkata. Kushalda, as he was fondly known to those surrounding him, gave us as insight into varied aspects of natural history and visits to the Prakriti Samsad meetings became a regular affair. There were guest lectures by many individuals, and they covered a panoply of subjects, ranging from the Giant Squirrels of Bhima shankar by Sujan Chatterjee to the reptiles of South East Asia by Indraneil Das. These were the days before Microsoft Power point, so it was a novel experience watching slide shows by the guest speakers. Inevitably, Kushal da would make his presence felt with his observations on particular species and distinctive patterns of animal behavior, during the presentations. I was awestruck with the depth of his knowledge, the total commitment he exuded toward saving wildlife and his willingness to answer questions from anyone who was willing to explore a topic further. During his meetings, it was also an opportunity to make acquaintances with many established wildlifers from Kolkata and beyond and also meet new and upcoming faces in the fields of wildlife conservation and research. I vividly recall it was Kushal Mookherjee who introduced me to the Zoological Survey of India ornithologist, Srikumar Chattopadhyay and elephant researcher, Kisor Chaudhuri. Both Sri kumar da and Kisor da are no longer with us, nonetheless I had the good fortune of working with Kisor Chaudhuri closely on some issues regarding elephants, particularly captive elephants, a work that continues to this day in my present professional capacity.
A reminiscence of Kushal Mookherjee would be incomplete without his recollection of meeting Gerald Durrell in Kolkata in 1978, and this narration thrilled me as an individual who was and remains obsessed with the work of this naturalist who set up Jersey Zoo. I told Kushal Da that I was determined to visit Jersey Zoo to undertake a training course in captive wildlife management at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust(then known as Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust) and in 2015 when he attended the launch of my book, ‘Dreaming In Calcutta and Channel Islands’ based on my experiences surveying zoos in North East India and Jersey Zoo, he told the audience, “Shubhobroto kept his word of visiting Jersey Zoo that he had told me earlier.”Kushal Da’s comment was one to relish and he later phoned me and told me he liked the book.
Kushal Da enchanted me with the accounts of work with several species of wild animals that involved many luminaries in conservation, pygmy hogs and his pid hares with William Oliver of Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, birds with Dr Biswamoy Biswas and cranes with George Archibald of the International Crane Foundation. I vividly remember visiting the Alipore Zoo in Kolkata with him on the Wildfowl census conducted in winter, identifying birds and flowers at the Botanical Garden and also attending his walks at the Nature Study Park in Loudon street. Incidentally, I was with Kushal Mookherjee when the Hill Mynahs in Loudon Street were noticed for the first time. My favorite image of Kushal Da is peering through the viewfinder of a telescope to watch birds in Nature Study Park in Loudon Street. Years later, when I wrote to Kushal Da about the presence of Hilly Mynahs in Botanical Garden in Shibpur, Howrah, he wrote to me in his typically self-deprecating way in an email dated 12 November 2017:
“Hill Mynas are not natural inhabitants of southern West Bengal. Earlier we have occasionally seen them in Nature Park (Loudon Street), Botanic Garden (Shibpur) and also The Alipore Zoo, where a pair was seen entering a nest hole! I occasionally see them, even recently, in Tollygunge Club. We think that they were escapees from the pet trade or people illegally keeping them as pets. But a flock of 10-12 birds is a different question. Either they are successfully breeding in our area or due to certain changes (may be climate change or habitat destruction) they are extending their range, like the handful of new species, never recorded in our area, are appearing in certain places like Rabindra Sarobar. So many species that were not in the bird list of Kolkata like Crow-billed Drongo, Brown-breasted Flycatcher,etc are still now in Rabindra Sarobar. The Asian Stub tail has also been recorded a few years back from the area, a first record for our country. Some people believe that now so many bird photographers visit the area every day that any bird passing through the area is recorded photographically, which was missed by earlier birdwatchers. This could have been true in earlier poorly birded areas but I used to spend 2 to 3 hrs every morning looking for birds from 1980 to 1992, mapping bird distribution and I have never recorded these birds. I do not think I am that bad a birdwatcher, having started serious bird-watching since 1970!
The thing is it is a serious matter and may be we should just now enjoy the growing bird list of Kolkata, but try to fathom the root cause of change in distribution of so many species.”
In 2017, when Mrs Lee Durrell came to India and I coordinated her Kolkata trip, Kushal Da was prominently present with Mrs Durrell at the Indian Museum and Tollygunge Club where he regaled her with his unique friendship with the resident jackals of the Tollygunge Club and also during the presentation of Mrs Durrell on the work of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. His conveyed his appreciation of my role in having Mrs Lee Durrell visit Tollygunge Club and it was a gratifying experience for me. On hearing of the death of Kushal Da, Mrs Lee Durrell wrote tome the following message :
“Thank you for letting me know that Kushal has passed away. How sad – he was an important force for nature conservation and a very nice man. Please pass on our condolences to his family.
With best wishes,
My most vivid memories of Kushal Mookherjee include debating the subject of captive breeding and zoos with him and he always took these exchange of ideas in good humor. Kushal Mookherjee was also the man who introduced me to the BBC Wildlife Photography contest. Showing enormous magnanimity, Kushal Da lent me his portfolio of the magazine where one of his own photographs had been published. It was early days during the time that I knew him and I was very moved by his trust. The introduction of that issue of the BBC Wildlife Photography contest had been written by Gerald Durrell and ended with following words :
“You can only congratulate them[the wildlife photographers] on their brilliance and thank them for the permanent pleasure they have provided all of us.” An impeccable gentleman for the twenty six years I knew Kushal Mookherjee, those words ring true for the life of this dignified naturalist as well, for today we can only thank Kushal Da for his brilliance in the field of natural history and thank him for the permanent pleasure of enjoying the natural world he has taught all of us.