Sunday, October 9, 2011

From slingshot kills to SLR shoots

Sunita Raghu

He might well have been a modern-day Angulimala. Only, instead of people he killed creatures—birds, reptiles and even amphibians. And while the compassion of the Buddha saved Angulimala, for Kolkata-bred Sajal Bar, the road to redemption has been quite different. As a veterinarian and animal activist, his karmic debts, if any, seem to have been repaid in full.

Today, Sajal is the toast of the birding/butterfly/reptile community, a great spotter as they say, and has most certainly come a long way since he played hunter. Ask him when he decided to trade in the slingshot for a camera, and he says, “I killed not for sport, but out of hunger, my family being too poor to keep me well-fed all the time. Hence a good many creatures ended up as my meal—birds, snakes, mongooses, palm civets, water monitors, Indian pond frogs, etc.” Once he killed a male spotted dove during the mating season and the female stayed put near the body. “I was overcome with remorse,” says Sajal. Around that time, well-meaning friends kept dragging him along for birding trips. Soon he joined an NGO called Nature Mates, and his mind was finally opened towards conservation and preservation. Says Sajal, “I owe everything I am today to Bikramadittya G Roy, president of Nature Mates who has taken me under his wing and even funded my expenses.”

Given his hunting background, the stocky 40-year-old’s choice of profession might seem paradoxical, but then again, perhaps it was meant to be. Recollects Sajal, “Once I got two Doberman puppies hoping to raise and sell them for a profit. However, both developed severe diarrhoea and one even succumbed to it for want of a vet who could administer the puppy saline.” Saddened by the loss, Sajal decided to become a vet himself. Easier said than done, considering that he had hardly any education worth the name! However, just by observing and learning under a trained vet, he learnt the ropes of the job. Soon, NGOs were knocking at his door to help save injured animals and even birds. “The other day, I managed to plaster together the broken wing of a Coppersmith Barbet,” he says. Neutering street dogs and cats is another line of work.

His love for nature and photography sees him rising with the birds and going to a nearby forest where he spends time spotting and photographing all living creatures. “Sajal has a keen eye; he is indeed an asset to the birding community,” says his naturalist-friend Arjan Basu Roy. It’s a sentiment shared by avid birder and wildlife photographer Sumit Sen, who feels that Sajal is a good observer of behaviour and patterns and by recording everything, gives an opportunity to others to interpret the same. Vijay Barve, moderator of the e-group ButterflyIndia, says that Sajal is amazingly good at spotting insects and myriad small creatures.

The proudest moment in Sajal’s career must have been when he shot a picture of the Black-browed Reed Warbler in the reed beds of Joka. It was an extraordinary feat, when one considers that prominent American ornithologist Pamela Rasmussen said in her book Birds of South Asia that its presence in India was ‘hypothetical’.

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