Bill Smythies *. (Memorials)

Article excerpt


On 27th June, 1999, the death of Bill Smythies robbed the small and rapidly diminishing band of ex-colonial foresters of one of its outstanding members. Bertram Evelyn (Bill) Smythies was born in 1912 in India, to E.A. Smythies, silviculturalist of Uttar Pradesh and in the 1940s, Chief Conservator of Forest of Nepal, and his wife, Olive, well-known author of The Tiger Lady. After school at "home" in U.K., Bill read botany and forestry at Balliol, Oxford.

He joined the Colonial Forest Service and took up duties with the Burma Forest Service from 1934 to 1948. Here, as a keen amateur ornithologist, in 1940 he was drawn into the task of writing the text for Birds of Burma. After the independence of Burma, Bill was transferred to Sarawak in 1949 and posted in Sibu as Section Forest Officer. At that time the spectacular rise of ramin (Gonystylus bancanus) as an export timber, the ensuing scramble for concessions and the burst of almost uncontrollable logging in the peatswamp forest of the Rejang Delta overshadowed all other forestry development. It was a respite for him when he was seconded for a brief period to the Sarawak Museum to sort, catalogue, and collate the bird skin collection. The project was encouraged by the Governor, the late Sir Anthony Abell, and given financial backing by the late Dato' Lok Wan Tho, who sponsored the ornithological work of the Sarawak Museum and supported an expedition by the British Museum (Natural History) in 1956 to Sabah (then British North Borneo). The result was a 300-page Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Borneo, printed in 1957 and the beautifully illustrated Birds of Borneo, first published in 1960, followed by updated editions in 1968, 1981, and 1996.

The years 1952 to 1959 were professionally, his most satisfying period as State Forest Officer, Brunei, and concurrently, Section Forest Officer, Limbang-Lawas (northeastern Sarawak). Forestry activities in Limbang-Lawas were mainly concerned with the routine of sustainable management under a working plan of the unique deltaic coniferous peatswamp forest in Kayangeran Forest Reserve, Lawas, producing sempilor (Dacrydium pectinatum, Podocarpaceae) timber, controlling and guiding the pioneering steps into commercial logging of Mixed Dipterocarp forests in the hills of the Limbang valley by James Wong, and exploring forest potentials mainly for conservation but also for possible later treatment, protection, and forest production, collecting botanical specimens by the way. In Brunei, Bill enjoyed full political backing by the conservation minded government. Based on the results of the excellent work by foresters seconded from Malaya in the 1930s, Bill was able to initiate a heavy but well-balanced program of soil , site, and forest resource assessment, forest mapping and demarcation, botanical, ecological and sociological exploration, taxonomy, silvicultural trials and silvicultural and management routines. These activities were integrated in 1955 in a 10-year forestry development plan.

The conceptual features of Bill's approach to forestry in the tropical rainforest were the traditional principles of multi-purpose social forestry and the combination of basic natural science and practical silviculture, utilization, management and conservation which is crucial for achieving sustainability. His aim was the prudent use and sustainable development of human and natural resources by integrating prudent conservation, rational management, and social development. Closest to his heart were botanical exploration, autecological observation of plant and animal species, and taxonomy of trees and non-tree plant species. Bill recognized the immense importance of scientific research for forest management, conservation, and development. He cooperated closely with the forest research in Kepong (now FRIM) and Sandakan, in addition to Kuching, and enlisted the help of I.A.N. Hutchinson as silviculturist and P.S. …