On 15 September 1883 eight gentlemen residents of Bombay—Indians, Englishmen, and Anglo-Indians—met on the premises of the Victoria and Albert Museum and constituted themselves into the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) which eventually became the premier conservationist organization in Asia. The first secretary of the group (1883 -1886) was an Anglo-Indian, Edward Hamilton Aitken, who commonly wrote under the acronym “EHA.” The most prominent naturalist among the founders was the lepidopterist, Charles Swinhoe, also a colonel in the Indian army. (Another founder of the group though not a participant at the first meeting, was the wine merchant, H. M. Phipson, who became its second secretary [1886 -1906] and lent a part of his wine shop at 18 Forbes Street for the monthly meetings. Wine and, especially, ale seem to have been central to the early functioning of the BNHS.) The BNHS’s logo became a hornbill named William which is supposed to have lived around the Society’s early premises.
Aitken eventually became Vice-President of the BNHS. The BNHS’s reputation was based largely on its journal (Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society) which was once the most respected natural history journal in Asia though, now, it seems trapped in a bygone era unable to move with modern science. Aitken was one of its first Joint Editors and published extensively in its pages. The BNHS was relentless in its promotion of natural history throughout the Indian subcontinent. For instance, in 1911, R. C. Wroughton, an Indian Forest Service officer and BNHS member, organized a mammal survey of the entire subcontinent using members spread across the region to obtain specimens. This was almost certainly the first collaborative biological survey in the world. Fifty thousand specimens were collected over twelve years resulting in the identification of several new species. There were at least forty-seven publications usign the data and the first delineation of biogeographic boundaries within the subcontinent.
I have been a member of the BNHS for over a decade and will have much more to say of it later. Returning to Aitken, the author of A Naturalist on the Prowl and the inspiration for this sequence of entries, he was born in Satara (India) on 16 August 1851, the son of a Scottish missionary. He was initially educated at home but subsequently earned a B. A. and an M. A. from the University of Bombay. For a while he was Reader of Latin at the Deccan College in Pune (then Poona). He then entered the Customs and Salt Department of the Government of Bombay, a job that took him to Khargoda, immortalized as “Dustypore” in his first book, a collection of writings published as The Tribes on My Frontier in 1883 .
In Bombay, Aitken maintained an aquarium and made Sunday-morning expeditions to the ravines of Malabar Hill searching for mosquito larvae to feed his fish. He investigated the larva-eating abilities of a small surface-feeding fish with a white spot on the top of its head, which he had found at Vehar. With some effort he managed to identify this fish as Haplochilus lineatus, which he called "Scooties" for the rapidity of their movements. He then stocked the ornamental fountains of Bombay with this fish to prevent the water from becoming breeding grounds for mosquitoes carrying malarial parasites. These fish are still often used in India for the same purpose. In 1902 Aitken was asked to investigate the prevalence of malaria at the Customs stations along the frontier of Goa. During this expedition he discovered a new species of anopheline mosquito which was subsequently named Anopheles aitkeni.
In 1903 he became Chief Collector of Customs and Salt Revenues in Karachi and, in , 1905, was appointed Superintendent of the District Gazetteer of Sind. After retirement in August 1906, in a somewhat strange decision, Aitken “returned” to Scotland apparently to search for his roots. He died on 25 April 1909 in Edinburgh after a short illeness.
Though Aitken’s original contributions to natural history are relatively minor—and primarily limited to the discovery of Anopheles aitkeni—he is remembered as the finest nature writer British India ever produced. Perhaps his best-known collection is The Tribes on My Frontier: An Indian Naturalist’s Foreign Policy, written during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878 -1880). But I prefer A Naturalist on the Prowl from 1894 , among other reasons because, unlike almost all nineteenth-century naturalists, Aitken accepted the necessity of collecting and killing but decried the wanton killing of animals to obtain trophies and specimens:
“So I take my gun, and net, and go where the leaves are spread. The gun or net I would gladly leave behind, but they cannot altogether be dispensed with. Without a collection a man’s knowledge of natural history becomes nebulous and his pursuit of it dilettante. . . Cherish a tender place in your nature which feels a pang when you pick up a little corpse, so happy two minutes ago. And when you have killed enough, stop. . . . . Beware also of the snare which lurks under the intoxicating pleasure of collecting lest you degenerate into a collector and cease to be a naturalist. . . . As soon as you begin to feel that a rare bird or butterfly is not so much a bird or butterfly to you as a ‘specimen,’ you have caught the distemper and take measures to check it ”
But there are also many passages in Tribes that embody Aitken’s style at its best, for instance his use of the crow and other species in metaphors gently mocking how the various tribes of Afghanistan were then being vilified in the Anglo-Indian Press:
“Many of my frontier tribes have unpleasant traits of character. . . . But the crow differs from all in that it is utterly abandoned. I have never been able to discover any shed of grace about a crow. . . . Even a consistent career of crime must be less demoralizing than the aimless vagabondage by which it maintains itself.”
But other tribes compensate for the crow’s vagabondage:
“Of all my guests there is not one more dainty, or more modest than the hoopoe, which sits unostentatiously in the corner, with even its gorgeous crest folded decently down, waiting to pounce on an ant lion in its subterranean refuge.”
Perhaps the most moving passage is one in which Aitken bemoans how little his contemporaries, in particular the European colonists, knew of the land surrounding them:
“It is strange that Europeans in India know so little, see so little, care so little, about all the intense life that surrounds them. The boy who was the most ardent of bug-hunters, or the most enthusiastic of bird-nesters in England, where one shilling will buy nearly all that is known, or can be known, about birds or butterflies, maintains in this country, aided by Messrs. B. &. S., an unequal strife with the insupportableness of an ennui-smitten life. Why, if he would stir up for one day the embers of the old flame, he could not quench it again with such a prairie of fuel around him. I am not speaking of Bombay people, with their clubs and gymkhanas and other devices for oiling the wheels of existence, but of the dreary up-country exile, whose life is a blank, a moral Sahara, a catechism of the Nihilist creed. What such a one needs is a hobby. Every hobby is good—a sign of good and an influence for good. Any hobby will draw out the mind, but the one I plead for touches the soul too, keeps the milk of human kindness from souring, puts a gentle poetry into the prosiest life. That all my own finer feelings have not long since withered in this land of separation from 'old familiar faces,' I attribute partly to a pair of rabbits. All rabbits are idiotic things, but these come in and sit up meekly and beg a crust of bread, and even a perennial fare of village moorgee cannot induce me to issue the order for their execution and conversion into pie. But if such considerations cannot lead, the struggle for existence should drive a man in this country to learn the ways of his border tribes. For no one, I take it, who reflects for an instant will deny that a small mosquito, with black rings upon a white ground, or a sparrow that has finally made up its mind to rear a family in your ceiling, exercises an influence on your personal happiness far beyond the Czar of the Russias. It is not a question of scientific frontiers—the enemy invades us on all, sides. We are plundered, insulted, phlebotomised under our own vine and fig-tree. We might make head against the foe if we laid to heart the lesson our national history in India teaches—namely, that the way to fight uncivilised enemies is to encourage them to cut one another's throats, and then step in and inherit the spoil. But we murder our friends, exterminate our allies, and then groan under the oppression of the enemy. I might illustrate this by the case of the meek and long-suffering musk-rat, by spiders or ants, but these must wait another day. . . . The 'poor dumb animals' can give each other a bit of their minds like their betters, and to me their fierce and tender little passions, their loves and hates, their envies and jealousies, and their small vanities beget a sense of fellow-feeling which makes their presence society. The touch of Nature which makes the whole world kin is infirmity. A man without a weakness is insupportable company, and so is a man who does not feel the heat. There is a large grey ring-dove that sits in the blazing sun all through the hottest hours of the day, and says coo-coo, coo, coo-coo, coo until the melancholy sweet monotony of that sound is as thoroughly mixed up in my brain with 110° in the shade as physic in my infantile memories with the peppermint lozenges which used to 'put away the taste.' But as for these creatures, which confess the heat and come into the house and gasp, I feel drawn to them. I should like to offer them cooling drinks. Not that all my midday guests are equally welcome: I could dispense, for instance, with the grey-ringed bee which has just reconnoitred my ear for the third time, and guesses it is a key-hole—she is away just now, but only, I fancy, for clay to stop it up with. There are others also to which I would give their congé if they would take it. But good, bad, or indifferent they give us their company whether we want it or not.”
The purpose of this sequence of entries—The Prowling Naturalist—is to celebrate the same spirit, looking at nature wherever I can find it, in the streets of Austin or beyond.
 Aitken, E. H. 1883. The Tribes on My Frontier: An Indian Naturalist’s Foreign Policy. London: Thacker’s.
 Aitken, E. H. 1894. A Naturalist on the Prowl. London: Thacker’s.