Archives of Contemporary India

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S.P. Shahi Papers

S.P. Shahi Papers

Wild life enthusiasts spend night after night just to get a glimpse of this magnificent animal, and those keen on photography have often waited many years for their chance. Being a photography enthusiast myself, it has been my great ambition to photograph tigers in the wild; and in this pursuit I have spent countless nights in the hide-outs both in extreme cold and intense heat…

An ardent wildlife photographer and one of the foremost wildlife experts of his time, Suresh Prasad Shahi (b.1917-d.1986) is best known for his role in bringing back the wolves from the brink of extinction in India. He was perhaps the first conservationist in India to raise an alarm in the 1960s that the wolves were hurtling towards ruin and annihilation.

After a stint at the Indian Forest College in Dehradun, 1940-1942, S.P. Shahi joined the Bihar Forest Service as a timber supply officer. By dint of sheer merit and hard work, he got out of turn promotion to the rank of Conservator of Forests in 1955 and the Chief Conservator in 1960. He served in this position for fifteen years, one of the longest tenures in the country.

Initially, he was of the view that ‘the animals in the forests were meant to be hunted for pleasure’ and he arranged shoots, especially of tigers and panthers for his seniors. He took pride that he ‘never took more than one shot’ to kill a tiger. But as he grew older, he began to ‘evince a revulsion against shikar’. Remorse and regret led him to give up shooting altogether and take up instead wildlife photography. He spent the last five years of his service capturing some breathtaking photos of wildlife, especially grey wolves and their habitats in the Bihar forests.

During his tenure as the chief wildlife warden of Bihar in 1975-76, 63.25 sq. km of wolf habitat was notified as the Mahuadanr Wolf Sanctuary (situated now in Latehar district of Jharkhand) for the protection of Indian grey wolf population, the only sanctuary dedicated to wolf preservation in the country.

Besides conservation of wolf population, his contribution to the prevention of large-scale destruction of forests of Bihar and preservation of tigers and the Asian elephant is remarkable. Several areas in Bihar were declared protected areas as a result of his study and recommendations including Palamau, which was declared a tiger reserve in 1973.

S.P. Shahi retired in 1976. He pursued his passion for forest conservation even after retirement and was part of several committees formed for management of the protection of wildlife. He was one of the founding members of IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group and played a major role in elephant conservation especially in surveying and making recommendations for conservation of the seriously endangered elephants in central India. He was Project Coordinator of the Asian Elephant Project for Bihar. In 1984, he was also appointed leader of the study team to investigate the elephant management problem in Assam and to recommend measures to deal with them. 

S.P. Shahi has contributed articles and scientific papers to various wildlife journals and magazines. His book Backs to the Wall – A Saga of Wildlife in Bihar (1975) contains photographs taken by him during the course of the last five years of his career and documents the wildlife of Bihar.

About the Collection: The collection comprises mainly rare wildlife photographs, negatives and slides captured by S.P. Shahi between 1970 and 1975. In addition, the collection includes his much acclaimed book Backs to the Wall: Saga of Wildlife in Bihar-India (1977) and an article on the Indian Grey Wolf (1979). The collection provides a glimpse into S.P. Shahi’s passion for wildlife, conservation and photography. It is a treasure for wildlife conservationists, researchers and scholars.

Donor: Rishika Shahi (granddaughter of S.P. Shahi)
Acquisition: 2022