Journal of Threatened Taxa | | 26 July 2016 | 8(7): 8989–9003







Can philately sensitise people to wildlife / conservation? An introduction to thematic philately and a visual treatise concerning the variety of philatelic material available on owls (Aves: Strigiformes)

M. Eric Ramanujam

Principal Investigator (Faunistics), Pitchandikulam Bioresource Centre / Pitchandikulam Forest Consultants, Auroville 605101, India







Editor: Stephen D. Nash, Stony Brook University, New York, USA. Date of publication: 26 July 2016 (online & print)

Manuscript details: Ms # 2479 | Received 21 December 2015 | Final received 20 June 2016 | Finally accepted 12 July 2016

Citation: Ramanujam, M.E. (2016). Can philately sensitise people to wildlife / conservation? An introduction to thematic philately and a visual treatise concerning the variety of philatelic material available on owls (Aves: Strigiformes). Journal of Threatened Taxa 8(7): 8989–9003;

Copyright: © Ramanujam 2016. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. JoTT allows unrestricted use of this article in any medium, reproduction and distribution by providing adequate credit to the authors and the source of publication.


Funding: None.


Conflict of Interest: The author declares no competing interests.


Author Details: M. Eric Ramanujam has been a wildlife illustrator for over two decades, and has a background in the advertising industry. Since 1997 he has been involved in full time conservation and research. His major sphere of interest is the natural history of the Indian Eagle Owl Bubo bengalensis. From the time he was a young adult, he has been a keen philatelist and has won many state and national titles. He gave up competitive philately after winning the gold medal at the nationals (INPEX 1993).

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank P. Karunakaran, Sekar Babu Nagappa and Tushita Singh for helping me in the production of this article, particularly the Images and Image layouts.



Since the world’s first postage stamp (the ‘Penny Black’ issued by Great Britain on 1st May 1840 and featuring the profile of Queen Victoria) the majority of the early stamps depicted busts of reigning monarchs. But as time passed, these miniature works of art began to have a wider range of designs. Though busts and coats of arms predominated, bears appeared on provisional stamps in St. Louis in 1845, the ‘Basel Dove’ (symbolizing peace) was issued by Switzerland in the same year, the ‘Three Penny Beaver’ was issued by Canada in 1851, and the ‘Black Swan’ by Western Australia in 1854. All these are collector’s items today, and command prices at auction of many thousands of pounds, but it was heartening to know that some individuals and organizations identified themselves with their native wildlife to go to the extent of portraying these animals on their first postage stamps.

British India narrowly escaped. Though the Scinde District had its own special issues since 1852, it was decided that British India should have its own prepaid stamps. In 1853 the decision was taken to have ‘proofs’ made of a ‘Lion and Palm Tree’ for a half anna stamp. These were engraved from steel on thin laid bitonne paper in various colours and presented for official sanction. At the same time a steel die was engraved for a one anna value stamp with the head of Queen Victoria wearing a Gothic Crown. The Lion and Palm Tree lost out to British royalty, and in 1854 the first stamps were issued depicting the head of Queen Victoria (Anonymous 2005).

During the early days of stamp collecting (as philately is known), collectors concentrated on stamps of the whole world, as at that time there were comparatively few issues. This would be impossible today due simply to the quantity of stamps being churned out - one has only to peruse the stamp catalogues to realize the enormity of the situation (e.g., Gibbons 2015). Hence collectors began concentrating on a geographical area, a particular country or period of time. Though the first category has few followers (again due to the sheer numbers of stamps being issued), there are many in the latter two, defined as ‘traditional philatelists’, and many fine collections exist to date in nearly all parts of the world wherever collectors had access to the material.

In the early 20th century a few philatelists decided to organize their collections based on the design of the stamps rather than their country of origin. These early pioneers were dubbed ‘thematists’ in Europe and ‘topical collectors’ in the USA. Thematic, or topical, collecting has been around for over a century, although it has burgeoned since WWII (Hayward 1998). Animals, plants and birds provided the most material to collect, and other philatelic material was soon added to the collections to enhance their appeal, and make them more interesting - for example, postal stationery, hand stamps and booklets. In fact, the range of collectible material has become so vast that FIP, the governing body of international philately, had to step in and restore order by drawing up ‘codes of conduct for exhibitions’ under its aegis. To a person intending to take up the hobby it is imperative to consult some seminal works and updates on the subject (Gupta 1989; ven den Bold 1994; Morris 1998) and more importantly understand the complexity of philatelic material, and the special terms associated with the subject (Mackay 1987). To reiterate: the essence is ‘philatelic material’, and picture postcards and other ephemera do not belong to philately, though they may have gone through the post. One should be particularly wary of what is referred to as ’undesirable’ or ‘black-listed stamps’: some countries or provinces (often without a postal system) issue stamps that have no postal validity; these are targeted towards the unsuspecting collector who purchases them believing them to be the genuine article. A casual perusal of the Appendix section in a Stanley Gibbon’s Simplified Catalogue will show one the so-called countries to be avoided when collecting stamps.

The thematic collector is primarily concerned with the subject portrayed on the stamp and other philatelic material, and not usually with geographical area or date of issue, and collecting by subject is the ideal format to attract new members to the hobby. Choosing a theme to collect is a personal choice. The subject one chooses may be work-related: a structural engineer may collect ‘bridges’, a doctor ‘medicine’, a driving instructor may form a collection on ‘the history of the motor car’ and a wildlife biologist a collection on his preferred area of specialty. I would personally warn the biologist not to try to tackle the entire gamut of wildlife - it seems to be the most popular subject at this point in time. The choice is vast, ranging from evolution to, well, you name it, and specialisation is the key as there is a plethora of literature to fall back on for guidance and identification (e.g., Arakawa 1979; Bearse et al. 1977; Ridgeley & Eglais 1984; Eriksen et al. 1988; Lera 1995; Springer & Raash 1995; Walker 1995; Aggersberg 1999; Phillips & Waddell 2003; Wright 2014). Perhaps one may have wanted to do something such as go exploring with Charles Darwin or Alexander von Humboldt, which is of course not possible, and hence thematic philately offers such people a fulfilling ‘route of discovery’ - in choosing a theme, especially concerned with the natural world, imagination is the only limit.

Stamps and other philatelic items not only provide the means of effective communication but also serve the cause of conservation, both in the field of sensitizing the general public to the fate of the threatened environment or biota but also raising funds (Eckert & Grobois 1999; Ramachandran 2009; Forsman et. al. 2012). Even semi-postal and non-postal ‘cinderellas’ have been effective in generating funds. The classical example sited of late is the 2011 issue by the US Postal Service with the help of WWF, Fish and Wildlife Service and some other conservation-based NGOs. This semi-postal stamp which costs 60 cents generated a revenue of $ 1.5 million in one year itself and will continue to be in circulation until the year 2017 as per the ‘Multinational Species Conservation Fund’, which was an Act of Parliament passed with overwhelming bipartisan support (Anonymous 2011). However, philatelic material had even earlier been instumental in fund-raising: a case in point was, and continues to be, the series of stamps issued concerning WWF which continues to generate considerable awareness, which in turn will impact funding (Groth 2013 ); India, too, has issued a set of four stamps on the Asiatic Lion Panthera leo persica in 1999. Fund-raising is of crucial importance in conservation, and even postal departments are realizing the need to contribute, which is heartening. Some countries are even releasing limited edition art prints whose sale proceeds benefit wildlife.

My present area of scientific research is centred on owls, hence I naturally began to acquire philatelic material on these birds, casually at first, but more intensively later. Here I use imagery with supplementary text to take readers through my experiences concerning these collectables, and I hope it inspires some to take up the hobby of thematic philately. The identifications are based on present updated international literature, which takes into account molecular analysis (Konig & Weick 2008; Mikkola 2012).

Once a basic collection has been formed, a collector may be keen to display or competitively exhibit his or her items. For that it is better to join a philatelic society where one can be guided by seasoned philatelists, and who can introduce one to other like-minded collectors. As the level of competition increases, one will have to resort to specialized literature concerning guidelines for exhibiting. The Federation Internationale de Philatelie (FIP) has put together special guidelines: General Regulations for the Evaluation of Philatelic Exhibits at FIP Exhibitions (GREV) and Special Regulations for the Evaluation of Thematic Exhibits at FIP Exhibitions (SREV). I have chosen not to elaborate on these regulations since they are beyond the scope of this article, and because I was primarily concerned with the scope of thematic philately influencing wildlife and conservation education. I have principally confined myself to giving a brief synopsis of materials and methods concerning owls, since there are just a handful of known collectors internationally who specialize in this particular subject.

Thematic philately may prove to be one of the keys to appeal to potential collectors. How can one sustain ‘collecting’, however? After all, philately has been called the ‘Hobby of Kings’, and it entails some fundamental expenditure to enable one to realize a certain degree of fulfillment and success, and furthermore it does not involve any substantial monetary gain, even if one gets an international award – the bottom line is that it is financially draining as a ‘stand alone’ concept. One compensation for this may be the satisfaction one derives when one’s collection has been given a degree of recognition and, if one is a conservationist, the degree of impact it has on those who view and appreciate a collection. Owls are definitely not a priority of specialization among thematic philatelists, but a degree of success has been achieved by some. One noteworthy case is Jesse Chevrier from Canada, whose exhibit was given the 2013 ‘Youth Grand Champion of Champions’ award by the American Association of Philatelic Exhibitors (AAPE).

Finally, I would like to convey my best wishes to those who get into competitive philately. After all, thematic philatelists owe Mary Ann Aspinall Owens (1928–2005) a lot for popularizing thematic philately (especially among those collectors concerned with wildlife) through her extraordinary collection of elephant-related items. In 1969, she was awarded the Distinguished Topical Philatelist Award by the American Topical Association, and in 1978 she was elected to the Wisconsin Philatelic Hall of Fame. Her crowning glory came when she was named to the American Philatelic Society Hall of Fame posthumously in 2007 - the only thematic collector to break through the ranks of traditionalists.





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Anonymous (2011). A Stamp to Protect Wildlife <>

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