RISHI VALLEY EDUCATION CENTRE
September 14, 2004
S. Rangaswami - The Naturalist: A Tribute


It gives me much pleasure to pay tribute to Mr. Rangaswami and his many decades of selfless work at the Rishi Valley Education Centre. Mr. Rangaswami’s tall ramrod straight figure, with binocular strung around his neck is now eighty-four years old, but looks much younger – a living example of Salim Ali’s observation that those who watch birds need not age. Though Mr. Rangaswami’s range of interests is very wide: teaching children about nature, admonishing their parents against the use of plastics, creating a national course on conservation and ornithology, bending over to remove parthenium weeds, planting trees, working with gardeners, creating compost pits, conducting systematic surveys of the local flora and fauna, ministering to a flycatcher’s broken wing, devouring works on philosophy and nature, writing books and letters to the editors of newspaper, lecturing to diverse audiences and drawing eminent naturalists to the School — all these come within the compass of his vision. It is birds that stand at the centre of that vision.


It is in Rishi Valley; located in the drought region of Rayalseema, that Mr. Rangaswami’s vision, of a green world filled with bird song, found fulfilment. A touch of magic has always attended this naturalist’s relationship with birds —a Paradise Flycatcher, with its white beribboned tail flitting through the trees, heralded his entry into the Valley. It was flying, Mr. Rangaswami clearly recalls, from the office into the ravine near Palm House. He had come to Rishi Valley, in 1973, to take on administrative duties as Bursar, having sought early retirement from the Air Force. On weekends he had shed his Bursar’s duties to communicate his passion to students, during bird-watching expeditions. In that inhospitable landscape, he methodically listed almost 90 species of birds. He also presided over water conservation programmes, strategically locating small ponds and tanks for thirsty birds to drink from in the summer, planting peepals for them to roost on, and nectar-bearing erithryna for the hair-crested drongos. He had left Rishi Valley in 1977, leaving behind a legacy of flowering trees and a band of students who would introduce casual visitors to the flora and fauna of the region.


I became closely associated with Mr. Rangaswami in 1990, when, after an absence of almost 12 years, he returned to the Valley. He came this time without any specific designation, but with a well-defined purpose — to create an officially recognized sanctuary for birds, and to continue his field ornithology work along scientific lines. His survey indicated that the number of species in the Valley had more than doubled — earlier years of conservation seemed to have paid off. (The most recent bird count taken in December, 2001 stands at 201). In 1994, Mr. Rangaswami celebrated these events with a book, Birds of Rishi Valley and Renewal of Their Habitats. Richly illustrated, with photographs by his friend and co-author S. Sridhar, the book won favourable reviews in many leading newspapers and journals. Harry Miller called some of the prose magical, Sanctuary Asia magazine proninently featured a chapter of the book and Mahesh Rangarajan of the Nehru Memorial Library in New Delhi described the writing as ‘... vintage natural history, reminiscent of the late M. Krishnan.’


In April1997, Mr. Rangaswami’s established a Department of Bird Studies as part of Rishi Valley School. In order to create a permanent presence for the department, he upgraded it to its present status, an Institute of Bird Studies and Natural History. The Institute, which lists the eminent ornithologist Dr. Shantaram on its faculty, draws visiting naturalists from different parts of the country to the valley and engages in conservation activities. Mr. Rangaswami extended the range of the Institute’s activities still further by creating an ambitious Home Study Course on ornithology. He single-handedly wrote out all 23 out of the 25 chapters of this course in two months, in a period of feverish creativity. When the designing of this course and production of the study material presented additional problems, he switched roles and became an assiduous fundraiser. The funds he collected now support a scholarship scheme for prospective students, which include housewives, senior citizens, and school going children, as well as underprivileged members of society from almost every state in India. Mr. Rangaswami plans to conduct training courses in ecological restoration, bird identification in the field and bird census surveys in the summer, when students are out of school and college. ‘He is a role model to all of us,’ wrote Professor M. S. Swaminathan of Mr. Rangaswami’s work.


Mr. Rangaswami won the Sanctuary ABN Amro Green Teacher Award for 2001. The citation described him as ‘an educationist first and last, he represents the emergence of a powerful new force for nature conservation — teachers.’


In February 2002, Professor M. S. Swaminathan invited Mr. Rangaswami to become Visiting Professor of the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation. He is to guide the Foundation in developing an Educational Tourism Programme in the Gulf of Manner Biosphere. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Dr. Jayalalithaa, has accepted one of Mr.
Rangaswami’s main proposals in the Report he wrote, namely, to establish an Institute for Bird Studies in the Gulf.


Mr. Rangaswami’s presence at Rishi Valley School has enriched the lives of students and teachers. He has made us aware of a source of beauty that we might otherwise not have seen or heard. He has taught us to care for the natural world. His achievements stem from his dedication to wisdom, to beauty and to the well being of all living things. Through his writings he has spread the environmental message in the country. The comment of another great naturalist, Roger Tory Peterson’s may help to explain the passion of Rangaswami’s life: “If we are to save the birds, we have to make as many people as possible aware of the threats to their survival.... We must save the birds, and in saving them, we will save the earth.”

Dr. Radhika Herzberger
Director

Rishi Valley Education Centre

 

 

 

RISHI VALLEY EDUCATION CENTRE

October 1, 2003

 

Mr S Rangaswami’s contribution to Rishi Valley’s Ecological Regeneration

 

In the course of seventeen years that Mr. Rangaswami has spent at the Rishi Valley School, he has contributed in myriad ways to the cause of environmental regeneration, at local, regional and national levels. Mr. Rangaswami is essentially a teacher, with a rare capacity to communicate his love of nature to different classes of people: villagers, gardeners, rural and urban students, professional teachers and amateurs. He is also a writer with wide interests. Above all, he has a catholicity of outlook that wins over people to the cause he espouses. He has dedicated all his talents to service of the environmental cause. I briefly list his achievements in what follows:


• On the national level, Mr. Rangaswami has created a Home Studies Course in Ornithology that attracts students from Nagaland to Gujarat and Jammu to KanyaKumari. The course is extremely detailed and supplements the textual material with short-term field study courses meant to familiarise participants with conservation, habitat management and biodiversity enrichment practices.


• As author, he wrote Birds of Rishi Valley and Renewal of their Habitats. The book won several favourable reviews in the leading newspapers of India, including Frontline, Hindu, Hindustan Times and Times of India.


• On the regional level, he has helped enthuse nearby villagers who play host to painted storks and other migratory birds that visit the region. The aim of this grassroots work is ‘To monitor the status of nearby wetlands and ensure protection of the avifauna including migrants which depend on these water bodies for sustenance and survival.’

 

• Mr. Rangaswami is Advisor and Visiting Professor to the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, with a brief to develop an Educational Tourism Programme in the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve area.


• Mr. Rangaswami’s proposal to establish a Centre for Bird Studies in the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere area was approved by the Hon. Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Dr. J. Jayalalithaa.


• As a hands on activist, he has built several small ponds and lakes for the birds and animals of the region and helped nurture many rare species of plants, shrubs and trees, including those with medicinal uses. His interest in creating sacred groves has led to the planting of trees with religious associations, like the banyan, peepal and bilva all over the Rishi Valley Campus. In 1992, he was the instrumental in declaring Rishi Valley a Bird Preserve and in 2001 established the Institute of Bird Studies and Natural History. The Institute is presently undertaking a study of the endangered Yellow-throated Bulbul. Thanks partly to his efforts Rishi Valley School earned the Indira Priyadarshini Award for 1997.


• With the help of the students of the school, he made a detailed checklist of the birds of the valley and its immediate environment. Several generations of students have been taught to record breeding patterns, behaviour and distribution of birds in a scientific manner. Mr. Rangaswami received the Green Teacher Award in 2001, granted by Sanctuary Magazine and ABN-AMRO Bank. He was cited as representing ‘the emergence of a powerful new force for nature conservation — teachers.

Dr. Radhika Herzberger
Director

Rishi Valley Education Centre

 

 

Excerpts from Letters of

 

Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, Chairman,
M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai - 600 113


My dear Shri Rangaswami,


Meeting and hearing you inperson about the ecological “miracle” which has taken place in Rishi Valley will always remain an unforgettable experience. What you, Mr. Naidu and others have achieved is not a miracle in the sense that this term is normally used. It is a miracle achieved by hard work and by identifying oneself totally with nature…


Many thanks for a copy of your wonderful book written with S. Sridhar. Also, thanks for the article of Robert Kaplan. The following quote from you cited by Kaplan needs to be included in every school text book in our country in bold letters.


“Birds are the litmus test. The return of the Yellow throated Bulbul to Rishi Valley constitutes the official proof of the ecological renewal here”.


This is a simple biological indicator of supreme significance in measuring the relationship of humans and nature.


I wish you many more years of active, healthy and happy life, so that you can spread the joy of true living to numerous young girls and boys.

 

 (18th January 1999)

 

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I particularly thank and congratulate you on initiating the Home study course in ornithology. I find this course most interesting and timely since it not only fosters a culture of love and care of birds, but also serves as a course in environmental education. The study material for this course is very user friendly. No wonder many candidates from all parts of our country have enrolled for this course.

What we need urgently are opportunities for the economically and socially underprivileged sections of our society to participate in this fascinating programme. I hope you will be able to get adequate financial support for establishing a corpus fund and for awarding scholarships to the needy. I wish this timely and well-planned Home Study Course in Ornithology great success.


(26th February 2001)


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Meeting and spending some time with you help to restore and rekindle my faith in the ultimate human destiny - harmony with Nature and with each other. The citation for the Green Teacher Award given to you has rightly stressed that you are a “Teachers’ Teacher”; your passion and dedication for the cause of creating reverence and love for all the inhabitants of planet earth are contagious and have helped to breed a new generation of youth committed to the care of birds and trees. The message you gave me under the Banyan tree will always remain with me and I shall do my best to follow it.


You have demonstrated that the songs of birds and bees are the best indicators of the health of an ecosystem.


(28th January 2002)


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You are a role model for all of us. In my lectures now to the younger generation I quote your words “the songs of birds and humming of bees are reliable indicators of the health of an ecosystem”. I was recently in Thiruvannamalai and saw the wanton destruction of the unique Arunachala Ecosystem. I mentioned to them that they should invite you some time to take your guidance on achieving the dream of Bhagwan Ramana that Arunachala should be preserved for posterity in its pristine purity.


(24th September 2002)


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Mr. S. Rangaswami, Chief Warden Rishi Valley Bird Preserve reading out the Declaration


RISHI VALLEY DECLARATION - July 1991
A landmark in the ecological history of Rishi Valley


Declaration of RISHI VALLEY as a “PRIVATE
BIRD PRESERVE”


We solemnly declare that Rishi Valley shall henceforth be considered as a PRIVATE BIRD PRESERVE under the direct control and supervision of the Management of Rishi Valley School for the purpose of preserving, protecting and enriching the avifaunal wealth, habitat diversity and flora of the Valley as a whole, appreciating their interdependence.


We undertake to offer our co-operation for promoting increasing understanding of Rishi Valley’s bird life in all its aspects among the Students, Staff and others with the object of bringing them closer to Nature and developing in them an abiding interest in preserving its Beauty and Purity in the light of the Teachings of Krishnaji.


We shall always endeavour to promote a high degree of environmental awareness among all Residents of Rishi Valley and to encourage Bird Study and Birdwatching on scientific lines-among students and others elsewhere.


Signed this Twenty Seventh day of July 1991 at Rishi Valley under the Sacred Banyan Tree.

 

Dr. Radhika Herzberger, Prof. Hans Herzberger, S. Theodore Baskaran, S. Sridhar, Mrs. R. Thomas, M. Thomas, Mrs. Tilaka Baskaran, S. Rangaswani, M.A. Hamid, S. Sundaram, Visaya Yalaku, V. Santharan, K. Praveen Karanth, Dr. A. Kumaraswamy, Dr. S.A. Shirali, Mrs. Geetha Iyer, Karthik Shankar, Mivedita Scuddea, N.S. Naidu, Mrs. Sudha Sridar, Sarah John.

 

 

 

A GARDEN OF KNOWLEDGE

Nuria Verde
Planeta HUMANO
No.18 - August 1999

Madrid Spain
“Ideas That Change The World”

 

(Translated from Spanish)


Mr. Rangaswami could be a character from a Garcia Marquez novel - his life is pure magical realism. He is a sage who speaks with birds and trees. Each afternoon, he goes out walking, with binoculars around his neck, to talk with his creatures…… Rangaswami is full of enthusiam, overflowing with energy, and he has never lost the capacity for amazement. His themes of conversation run from imitating the love-songs of birds to talking about Socrates and Schopenhauer. He is an expert on birds and also supervises the gardeners. His sense of design and feeling for beauty has been instrumental in the greening of the school campus…


We go walking with him, his forehead high and his white hair brushed back. He is a very tall man wearing a polo sweater, the colour of red earth. We make our way through the lianas of a banana plantation in a late afternoon air scented with warmth and serenity. Suddenly his eyes open wide: “Look! - a beautiful kingfisher”. He peers through the binoculars. “And over there the white egret has returned. He had to come back here.”…


We walk among st calendulas, bougainvillea, hibiscus and sandalwood trees. Then he stops and says, “My enthusiasm in my eightieth year is the same as when I was a boy. I still have the same love of life, the same curiosity. My mind is intact and that’s a blessing. There is so much work I still want to do at Rishi Valley.”


In Rangaswami’s house we find fresh limes scattered on the table amidst a chaos of papers and books. “Forgive the mess. It’s because I live alone’, he apologises. There is also a large photo of a lady with a sweet expression looking compassionately at the disorder in which Rangaswami lives. He becomes quietly sad when looking at that photograph, of his late wife. “What have I learned in this life? Always look with your inner eye — that’s what I have learned” is his refrain.

 

 

Excerpts from
THE ENDS OF THE EARTH-


A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century by Robert D. Kaplan
(Part VI, Chapter 24, Rishi Valley and Human Ingenuity, Page 354-368)


The Naturalist, Mr. Rangaswami, binoculars dangling from his graceful, six-foot-plus frame, ambled out of the woods and began talking, sweeping me along with his commentary for a brief forty-five minutes: It was the overture to my valley experience.


“Birds are the litmus test,” Mr. Rangaswami declared. “The return of the Yellow throated Bulbul to Rishi Valley constitutes the official proof of ecological renewal here. Before we heard that warble for the first time some years back, we just couldn’t be sure of anything.” Mr. Rangaswami led me through a rich undergrowth of vines, ferns, red sanders, sandalwood, custard apples, tamarinds, acacias and lemon grass. “There has been a 300 percent biomass increase. Notice the red sanders. They are drought-resistant and grow absolutely vertically. We chose them because their roots anchor the soil without interfering with the other greenery…


Mr. Rangaswami went on about solar panels, organic vegetable gardens and replacing butane with the gas released by cow dung, while at the same time pointing out parakeets and a group of owlets. With his winglike arms constantly in motion, his plume of iron-gray hair and lilting Indian voice, he seemed to be one of the “150 species of returned migratory birds” he so loved. Especially as he had never really introduced himself but, rather, had swept down into my presence. Suddenly, he stopped his lecture and put his finger over his lips, admonishing me to keep silent as though I were the one who had been talking. “No, that’s only a white egret”…


Mr. Rangaswami, in his seventies… discovered his true vocation in Rishi Valley, where he took up bird-watching and became the “honorary chief warden” of the nature reserve. Ecentric he may he, but Mr. Rangaswami is not a super-romantic. He is part of a movement that believes ecological renewal is essential to cultural renewal.

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