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Profile: T. J. Roberts

Thomas Jones Roberts is acclaimed as an authority on the wildlife of Pakistan. His lifelong research on the subject has also produced such works as The Birds of Pakistan, the first complete account of the avifauna of Pakistan, and a landmark in the field of ornithology, and The Mammals of Pakistan, which has been recently reprinted by the Oxford University Press, Pakistan, in a fresh edition commemorating the fifty years of independence. His other work on the butterflies of Pakistan is also complete and ready for publication, while he has also edited a book on the flora of Pakistan written by two distinguished Pakistani botanists. Apart from being a founder governor of the World-wide Fund for Nature (Pakistan), he is also an honorary member of the Zoology Society of Pakistan. All this might sound rather unusual for a British expert but T.J. Roberts has some roots in this region.

"I actually landed in Bombay in January 1946. And in August 1947 I was in Baramula, Kashmir. My family had a timber business up there. "

His father came out in the Indian Agricultural Service in 1906 and did research on cotton near Bombay. Much later on, the British established the first agricultural college of the sub-continent in Layallpur and the elder Mr. Roberts became the first principle of what is now the Faisalabad Agricultural University. But he was young and restless (and ambitious) and wanted the job of the Agricultural Commissioner of Punjab resigned when the authorities informed him that the post was reserved for the Indian Civil Service (ICS, or what is the CSS). "[The ICS] knew nothing about agriculture but they were the elite," remarks Thomas. "My father had all his degrees. And so he was disgusted." He was, however given a land grant near Multan if he would run it for pure seed production. "They were colonising – irrigating – the land at that time." Hence it was this zamindary business that young Thomas was born into. But his major interests lied elsewhere. 

"My lifelong passion has been the wildlife. Birds, butterflies, reptiles, snakes – I have enjoyed them all." His voice is filled with the excitement that comes out of an old man’s pleasure to look back at his years with a feeling of satisfaction. This soon disappears when he comes to the state of the environment on this planet. He chooses some examples from the country he knows as best as an expert: "There is great … degradation of the habitat. The rivers are being dammed, the scrub-thorn forest is being chopped down. Even in the hills in the Northern Areas the deodar forest (the Indian cedar) is rapidly being exploited. I have a special plea: recently the Pakistan Government has announced its decision to make deodar the national symbol of Pakistan, so value it. It is a slow-growing timber, very sweet scented. And it is highly prized for making doorframes and windows and things like that because it would take a lot of stress, which the other quicker growing wood does not. In places in the Challas District, Kurrum Valley and even in Chitral it is being cut at an alarming rate. It will soon disappear. Trees are one of the filters against hydro-carbon emissions, which cause global warming."

Even worse is the plight of the wildlife, and that was one of the reasons that prompted him to collect his observations in the form of specialised books. "To my great shock I discovered that it was disappearing." It was worthwhile to record whatever was known, and whatever more could be found out, about these animals before it was too late.

The research for The Mammals of Pakistan took him well over a decade. ("A book like this one doesn’t come out of your head," he is quick to point out.) Through the late 1950’s and throughout the 1960’s he kept detailed diaries and field notes, and supplemented them with specimen. "For example, there are forty-four different types of bats – chimgadar [his knowledge of the vernacular must have helped him a lot in the field] – so I set traps where I knew bats would come to feed at night. Same with other small creatures like rodents." In the process he also came upon quite a few species that hadn’t been recorded before, especially bats. He remembers getting a bat in the Shalimar Gardens that had not been recorded before.

Luckily, the adventures that Thomas, and his wife Frances met on their journeys were limited to getting stuck in the middle of a river or falling off snow-drifts in Kaghan valley, from which they could get off without serious injuries. This was still better than getting caught with a dangerous animal. "One animal I would be very afraid of is the wild boar. They are very shortsighted. They don’t see danger, but if they do they are apt to discharge an attack." 

Incidentally, it wasn’t the wild boar but a pair of leopards that would actually give him the fright of a lifetime. And that, too, long after the completion his Mammals. In 1984, as he was trying to record flying squirrel outside his cottage in Dounga Galli (Murree Hills), he observed a pair of leopards at a wildly close proximity. "I could feel my hair pricking up," Thomas recalls. Luckily for him, the leopards were mating and unwilling to concentrate on anything other than each other. 

However, animals were not the only things the Roberts were to observe in a lifetime of wandering. "I think I can boast that I have seen the whole of Pakistan," Thomas says with a chuckle. His observation about the people may sound simplistic but certainly carries the air of experience. "The poorer the people, the more generous they are – willing to share their last thing with you." 

The Mammals of Pakistan was ready for submission to the publisher in 1974 and took another three years in the production. 

Birds were a different game, slightly easier, since they come out in the daytime unlike some of the mammals that have to be observed at night. But this would hardly serve as a measure for the effort that must have gone into the two volumes of The Birds of Pakistan. "What I have tried to do is to put down all that is presently known about the status of all the birds and all the mammals of Pakistan, and all the butterflies. And I know that a lot of these things are fast disappearing. So its value will be to give a baseline data to ask: where is this creature, is it still there?"

Already, one could notice that his precaution wasn’t very unrealistic. A good many of the animals he listed in his books have become extinct. The fishing cat of the lower Sindh is one example. "It is a highly specialised cat because it can swim and has webs between its claws. I fear it has become extinct." The photograph that appears in his book was taken of one that was trapped near Haleji in the 1960’s by some animal exporters who made a business out of selling it to zoos. That has probably caused the extinction. 

Another example of unlucky creatures is the Indian wild ass, once found in the Thar Desert near the Rann of Kuchh. "I remember speaking to a young commissioner at Mirpur Khas who had a suite case made of the hide of this animal. Because he was a high official, someone had presented him with this tanned skin and he got a suite case made out of it. That was in the 1960’s. But these animals have shared this planet with us for millenia, and 1960’s is just a blink in our existences, a matter of a fraction time. So these animals have become very recently extinct." 

As a man who had an opportunity to observe this land for over fifty years and from more than one perspective, Thomas feels that the one positive contribution of the Raj was the British judicial system. "We did build up some civil system of justice, which I think is wavering a bit now – it’s too easy to get postponements. But justice delayed is justice denied. That is the deterioration that has happened over the last fifty years. I think the common man in the old times could get some sort of results. Now there is no hope." He also acknowledges the mistakes of the Raj. "Possibly we made mistakes while building the canals so that the seepage is led to water-logging. And problems like that." Speaking in more general terms, he adds. "And we probably invented red-tape, which is getting worse and worse."

"We lived in good times. There was less traffic and it was easier to move around the country. Law and order situation was also better. I never had any gate on my compound where we lived. It was open, people would come and go. Now in the same house, where I don’t live anymore, there is a guard and a cabin; there is a padlock on the gate, you have to ring a bell if you want to go in. Law and order is not so good. But then it’s the same in our own home in Britain. You can’t just pick up one country."

"My lifelong passion has been the wildlife. Birds, butterflies, reptiles, snakes – I have enjoyed them all."

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