(A note post the Nature Wanderers Bandhavgarh Photo Tour in May 2010)
I entered Bandhavgarh with a heavy heart as the Jhurjhura female death had shocked wildlife lovers across the globe. Had always admired her photographs and the beautiful moments that my fellow photographers spent with this majestic queen and her cubs were flashing in front of me as I was passing through the buffer zone of the reserve. The last thing I wanted was a phone call that disturbed my thought process. 2 things you can’t ignore in life – wilderness calling and wife calling!
“A leopard just crossed the road in front of me!” remarked Kahini who was leading a group of photographers a few kilometers from my vehicle. There couldn’t have been a better welcome for this group of shutterbugs who had flown from across India to shoot in Bandhavgarh National Park.
As I was getting ready for my early morning ride in Bandhavgarh, apprehensions were setting in. With half of the forest closed because of the Jhurjhura incident and a dry sighting period that had lasted for around 5-6 days (which is surprisingly high considering Bandhavgarh standards) I was wondering if the forest God would shower his blessings.
For tiger researchers and photographers nothing gets better than getting the opportunity to follow one tiger for a significant amount of time and closely observe its behavioral and character traits and thereby document them in the form of photos. There are some legendary tigers who do give you that kind of an opportunity and Bandhavgarh does boast of names like B2 and the late Jhurjhura female. However, this eventful morning had something else in store.
As we moved uphill crossing the thick bamboo forest amidst loud peacock calls and a few long billed vultures hovering over my vehicle, something distracted my driver as he slowed down the vehicle. A slight movement in the bushes around 150 yards from the vehicle and out walked a young striped queen. She bent down, gulped water from a water hole which was not visible. Her golden quote and prominent marking were shining brightly in the soft morning light as her back was visible from the point I was observing her.
She lifted her head and as soon as she started walking towards the left towards the open patch of dry grass, I was ready to shoot. Little did I know that this young tigress known as the Banbhai female would give me 45 mesmerizing minutes that I will remember for the longest time…
She walked gracefully and disappeared behind the rocks. Anticipating her movement and direction, I moved the vehicle near a nullah around 100 meters away from the spot from where she was quenching her thirst. I breathed a sigh of relief when a couple of cheetal called informing me that she was still on the move. My eyes were glued to a spot which looked like a tiger track and I expected to see her there. She however surprised me as she emerged inches away from my vehicle.
Crossing the fleet of 3 vehicles from a distance of 10 feet, she walked royally in the middle of the road, smelling and sent marking trees before disappearing in the bamboo. I backed my vehicle and waited for around 10 minutes and the cheetal again called.
Seeing a tiger emerging from a dense forest and walking towards you is the most amazing high for a wildlife photographer. The Mirchani female was not done with her territory patrol yet. She walked out, stopped and looked straight into my lens. Through my view finder, I could see the pupil of her eye shrinking and shining brightly as the sun rays fell straight on her face.
She took a few steps towards the vehicle and then slowly walked past. Minute by minute the distance between the majestic predator and my lens was decreasing. I was now finding it difficult to focus with my 500mm as she was getting too close and quickly swapped bodies to get a better view. She bent and marked her territory again this time using her scat. A slight movement in my vehicle attracted her attention. She snarled and with her eyes on the vehicle she slowly moved away and with a couple of leaps she disappeared inside a cave.
These are moments that remain embedded in a photographer’s memory for though we do miss seeing the wild drama through naked eyes, the lens and the camera acts like a amazing bridge that brings us closer to the unique and exquisite wilderness of our country. The Big Bs of Bandhavgarh are a photographer’s dream and I would like to dedicate these shots to the legend of Jhurjhura… may your soul rest in peace!
Shooting with remote triggers or in-camera timers at low shutter speeds in order to avoid camera shake can definitely be tried on subjects other than landscapes (where you intend to take those long exposure shots of streams or a night sky). Here is an example.
Sharing the smallest subject I shot in Bandhavgarh during a visit last year (and one of the most interesting moments)…
What’s the Cicada Spray all about
Do you always wonder from where do tiny droplets of water fall on your body when you are patiently waiting for a bird shot or a tiger in the forest. You look at the the cloudless sky to check if its drizzling. Here is the reason…
Cicadas are the culprits. Clinging on tree tops, Cicadas apart from making the loud buzzing sounds drink tree sap. Tree sap is the principal food of cicadas. they take the necessary nourishment and water from the sap, with waste matter and fluid accumulating in a rectal pouch. If it is necessary, the waste can be released and disposed of all at once through the anus.
Story behind the picture
Here is a Cicada caught spraying in Bandhavgarh. It took quite some effort to shoot this one as this guy was at some distance and even the biggest lens were not effective enough to get the effect. The subject was near but too far and small for the long telephoto. It was far for a macro lens as well. Experimenting with various combination of equipments, I finally decided to use the cropped sensor of a Canon 7D and mounted a Canon 100-400mm lens along with a 2x converter to shoot this one. The frame was perfect but at 400 ISO the shutter dropped to 1/20 which was not good enough.
Using a remote trigger we tried to time the shot with the timing of the spray but the 10-15 odd attempts were unsuccessful. Finally, we decided to use the interval-meter and let the camera take a shot every second for a minute or so. This was the one spray shot that we got right in the series.
Co-authored with Aditya Singh (Published in Sanctuary Asia Feb 2011 issue)
A warm summer evening. A drive through the picturesque Kumaon forest. The Gypsy you are in comes to a sudden halt. There is excitement in the air as a chital herd belts out frantic alarm calls. Not too long after, a majestic tiger walks toward the river. A few metres across, a herd of elephants slowly approach the river for their evening drink. As your eyes shuttle between these two magnificent species, two aerial acrobats vie for attention. A pair of Pied Kingfishers hovers right above the middle of the river in search of an evening snack. This is the true magic of Corbett National Park… the land of roar, trumpet and song!
Over the ages, Corbett has fascinated thousands of wildlife and nature lovers across the globe. Home to some of the most stunning landscapes and rich wildlife, the Dhikala zone of Corbett is one of India’s prime natural wonders. With mixed vegetation that comprises dense sal cover and vast stretches of open grasslands, Dhikala offers a viable habitat for the tiger and the Asiatic elephant. Abundant water resources in the form of glacial rivers and thick forest cover houses hundreds of resident and migratory birds.
As India’s first tiger reserve, Corbett is also an example of how tourism and conservation can be at loggerheads. Close proximity to major cities such as Delhi and wayward tourism have had an impact on the park’s ecology. Over 70 odd private properties have cropped up in and around the Corbett Tiger Reserve. With wildlife and adventure tourism being a flourishing and profitable business, surrounding towns like Ramnagar depend on this as a major source of income. For the locals, even slight changes in forest laws can therefore hamper their economy, making survival tough in the seasonal business of tourism.
WHEN TOURISM HURTS
Over the years the phalanx of resorts on the eastern boundary of Corbett has cut off the corridors used by wild animals to access the Kosi river and the forests of the Ramnagar Division. Most of the resorts have a high ecological footprint, from producing enormous waste to catering to loud, rash tourists. The park’s management has often been under political pressure generated by the tourism lobby to bend rules. Increasing road traffic on the highway from Ramnagar to Mohan has also resulted in roadkills. Dhikala, in particular, has borne the brunt of runaway tourism.
Following condemnation from the wildlife community and reports by forest officials on how they are unable to handle the tourist pressure in Dhikala, the MoEF proposed the closure of the Dhikala zone in Corbett National Park for tourism. However, considering the economic and even conservation implications of this decision, is closing a zone the only solution to the problem? Shouldn’t a more viable long-term solution be considered?
Our Protected Areas were created to safeguard our last remaining vaults of biodiversity. It is unfortunate that market dictates do not permit protection for protection’s sake. But rather than creating a complete washout, we could consider a broader triple bottom line – market, environment and society. The reality is that tourism has more often than not served as the only ally of conservation, whether we like it or not. This is not to say that its flaws should be ignored. But the positive aspect of tourism is that it can be made into a winning formula, if we are truly committed to using it for the advantage of wildlife.
HOW TOURISM CAN HELP
With vehicles roaming inside the park boundaries on a regular basis, the forest is under constant surveillance as tourists indirectly patrol the park regularly. This is important as it keeps a check on any illegal activities inside a forest. In addition, tourists also act as information banks for the Forest Department as they are the eyes and ears of the forest. Information such as predator movement inside the park, locations of last sighting of mammals, reptiles and birds are handy records for keeping track of the forest health. This is why there have even been proposals to open up core areas of the park that are barred for tourists as of now and it would be worthwhile to have a larger debate on whether this can indeed reduce impact on tourist zones like Dhikala and also ensure that the core zones come under the tourist surveillance radar.
Tourism in a controlled and regulated manner can serve to bring much needed economic support if funds are ploughed back to our Protected Areas. Dhikala – as a matter of fact – is one of the few forest zones in India where due to its magnitude and size, night stay is permitted and mandatory for tourists. Unrestricted day trips to Dhikala have been curtailed with only a few canters permitted to better control the tourists. Perhaps a middle ground can be found whereby a restricted number of tourists are permitted for day and evening drives as is prevalent in other parks in the country.
CONSERVATION AND TOURISM
Tourism is the only ‘industry’ that pays for biodiverse, standing forests. Tourists are also a very effective de facto anti-poaching unit in many Protected Areas in India, possibly the most effective given the poor track record of patrolling. It is little wonder then that tourism zones seem to harbour the highest tiger densities. Dr. Raghu Chundawat, tiger scientist, has stated that the Tala zone of the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh held a greater density of wild tigers (by far the highest in the world) than he had ever believed possible in such a small area. Of course, the Tala range also happens to support one of the highest tourist densities of all our tiger reserves.
Tourism, to a large extent, was responsible for the revitalisation of African wildlife. In a developing country like South Africa, wilderness tourism generates US$12 per acre per annum, while agricultural land yields just US$3 per acre. Furthermore its national parks are virtually financed by tourism revenues. Mountain gorillas ‘earn’ $200,000 per annum in permit fees alone for the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, and the indirect revenue is probably 30 times greater. Living Kenyan elephants will help bring in $1,000,000 in tourism revenue in their lifetimes, while a local poacher will earn less than $300 for the value of elephant ivory.
Let’s move to tigers. What is a tiger worth? The tourism zone of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, which has around 20 tigers, contributes over one billion rupees – directly and indirectly – to the Indian economy, every year. However, what must be considered is how much of this money helps to protect the species and how much reaches locals living around the reserve. The unfortunate truth is that over 40 per cent of this amount never reaches anyone in Ranthambhore and barely three per cent actually goes to the park. This must change… the money must be channelled in an honest and transparent manner to benefit wildlife and locals and it is both the tourism industry as well as the government’s responsibility to make sure that this happens.
To make wildlife tourism an effective conservation tool in India we – conservationists, the government and tourism professionals – must change our own archaic thought processes regarding both tourism and conservation. There are no magical solutions but there are a few things that we can do.
Visitors are able and willing to pay much more. The entrance fee in some parks is even lower than the price of bottled water in a mid-range hotel. And there is nothing wrong with charging special-interest tourists including photographers and birdwatchers, more for the privilege of longer, carefully supervised excursions and permissions to use hides or guard outposts. We should explore the idea of developing a tourism buffer within the forest buffer area. In most parks, for instance, agricultural fields begin right where the forest ends, leading to human-wildlife conflict. If hotels in wildlife areas were only permitted to set up facilities in harmony with the land on just two per cent of their land holdings, they could be persuaded to manage the rest of their land holding with the same strict rules that are implemented within the national park. If this were done, within a few short years, we would have a high biodiversity tourism buffer on the periphery of most parks. This would not only add to the forest area but reduce the tourist pressures at today’s over-crowded entry points. And, of course, ‘tourist cash’ would automatically reach locals.
Secondly, while the core zone of each Protected Area should definitely not be turned into a free-for-all, there must be a debate on how tourism can help to protect the core areas. Field biologists and forest officers need to work together to come up with a plan that suggests how ‘controlled’ tourism in core areas in some parks can be turned into a monitoring exercise for a few days each month. Most wildlife offences including poaching, cattle grazing and woodcutting take place in the core zone where offenders have free rein. In Ranthambhore, the poaching incidents that took place between 2003 and 2005 only came to light because poachers started targeting tigers in the tourism zone, after they had wiped out tigers from the inaccessible core. If tourists are asked to actually monitor the core area for perhaps a few days each month but asked to pay for the experience, the revenue generated could pay for 24×7 patrolling, 365 days a year. Core areas were created to allow wildlife the solitude they deserve but given the magnitude of threat from poaching and illegal grazing, we must take a fresh look at what can ensure them greater safety.
THE FUTURE OF CORBETT
For a forest like Corbett, some tourism rules are already in place and have been effective in several zones of the park. Caps on tourist vehicles entering the park, designated hours for morning and evening safaris inside the park, pre-conditions for tourists who are willing to go for a whole day drive inside the park – Corbett has seen it all over the years.
The Corbett Tiger Reserve has always been known for its best practices and highly efficient forest management that have set bench marks for other national parks in the country. It has also witnessed a dramatic rise in tiger numbers in the last census. A detailed analysis of what can curtail the ills of tourism there and ensure better practices that do not result in dismal conservation is the need of the hour.
(Published in Deccan Chronicle, June 2011)
As my car passed through the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra, the sight dampened my spirits. Massive mining and quarrying operations on the wild lands dents the buffer zone of Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve – the Jewel of Vidharbha. The apprehensions died down as soon as I entered the reserve with the sun rays filtering through a lush green forest that was sparkling after the monsoon showers.
The highlight of my Tadoba visit could easily have been those 4-5 minutes I spent with the striped queen who walked in front of my vehicle marking her territory and majestically patrolling the picturesque Telia Lake. The highlight was not the pair of wild dogs that came out in the middle of the road from no where. It was not even the two sloth bears I saw on 2 consecutive days. The hours that followed these short and sweet sightings had something amazing in store which became the feature of the visit.
The weather was a bit cloudy and the trees and bushes were buzzing with activity as the avionic wonders of Tadoba had just started their daily chores. We passed through the scenic Tadoba lake looking for some traces of the big cat and the sudden cheetal alarm calls caught my attention.
Taking refuge under a huge banyan tree, I strained my ears for alarm calls that were slowly dying informing us that the predator has either settled down or left the area. The intensity of the anxiety of the cheetal called for a waiting game and we were holding our breath in anticipation.
In the midst of the excitement that a predator movement can cause in a forest, you tend to ignore the action going on around you. A flameback woodpecker suddenly took off from a tree towards the back of our vehicle and flew towards this peepal tree drawing my attention towards this chirping patch of vegetation where the woodpecker joined its companion perching itself on a nearby branch. As I was observing the hops of the woodpecker pair, a golden oreole darted inside the tree flaunting its bright yellow coat in bright sunlight.
Further scanning of the tree revealed a pair of black drongos calling each other on adjacent branches. The drongo conversation was intervened by their specie counterpart as a white bellied drongo perched itself right on the branch above. On the right hand patch of the tree, the tree tops were dominated by a parakeet family. In the beginning it was just a couple of rose ringed parakeets that were feeding in the golden morning light. Within minutes, a pair of plum headed parakeets joined the party and before I could take the entire family in one frame, an Alexander parakeet caught hold of the top most branch to make it a complete family picture.
With eyes glued at the top of the tree, I missed some action in the center where purple sunbirds were flying in and out of the bush in search of flower nectar in the bushes behind the tree. The buzz inside the patch forced me to lift my binoculars for a closer look. Oriental white eyes, red vented bulbuls, jungle wabblers were the reason for hustle and just as I was lowering the binoculars, a blackish silhouette perched itself on the left hand corner of the tree.
I caught hold of my camera and as the lens focused on the patch, a beautiful pied cuckoo emerged from behind in bright light with a caterpillar catch as its morning breakfast. Hoping from one branch to another, it relished its breakfast and finally came out in the open posing in front of me for some good couple of minutes.
The peace and tranquility of a tree for a few minutes made it a hot spot for birds around the location but the peace was momentary. The predator somewhere in the deep and dense bushes decided to continue its morning walk and the cheetal gave frantic alarm calls yet again. The drongos were the first to leave and were followed by the parakeets. Within seconds a tree that was sheltering around 40 odd species of birds stood bird-less… this was another form of nature I witnessed for the first time – natural shelters are momentary!
Mesmerizing stretches of grasslands that extend till the horizon, lush green and dense saal covers that tell a compelling natural tale and a sparkling river that garlands this entire forest belt, the mysteries of Corbett National Park are never-ending. Though I consider the striped cat as the ghost of Corbett, one subject that actually spices up the mysticism of Corbett is the Asiatic Elephant.
A unique combination of majestic yet raw power, family bonding, animal emotions – these unsung rulers of Corbett are extraordinary subjects to shoot in the wild. A decent elephant herd in Corbett can keep you engaged for hours as this is one subject that allows your to experiment and innovate continuously. Having shot elephants in this stunning landscape over the last few years, this note talks about different aspects of shooting the gentle giants of Corbett.
The typical good elephant sighting (from a photography perspective) can be broadly classified into 2 categories. If we take the Dhikala zone as an example, you may encounter bull tuskers or a family herd on the 30 odd kms main road stretch that opens up in the Dhikala grasslands. Such stretches can also be seen in the saal forest belt of Kamarpatta which is again a good stretch for elephant. Sightings on these patches automatically lead to some outstanding frames for the saal cover give a natural frame which looks great vertically as well as horizontally. The challenge however is the light.
According to me, one of the key elements of shooting elephants in the wild is maintaining distance. Though elephants at time allow you to come closer but the risk and danger of a mock charge has an impact on the shoot. Close range shooting is definitely an adrenal rush for photographers but it acts as a big hindrance as well. The slightest movement in the vehicle (if you wish to change bodies or angles) may provoke the elephants and the following mock charge will invariably result in shaky pictures specially in the patches of road mentioned above.
Using a combination of long and medium tele-photo lenses you can create amazing elephant perspectives from a distance. In case of an elephant sighting with the saal backdrop I normally maintain a distance of 30-50 meters from the subject. My most preferred lens in the 70-200mm f2.8 for it can account for the lack of light and still maintain the sharpness. However I have used the 100-400mm in the past and with proper bean bag support you can create superb pictures as well. Your ISO in this case would depend on the time of the day but typically you should be hovering in the range of 400 to 640. Another important factor is the angle from which you are shooting. If your vehicle is facing the elephant, you would probably have to rest your beanbag on the gypsy rod which elevates the angle. I would however prefer the gypsy to be turned the other way round so that I can shoot using the backseat support which is a lower angle.
If you are carrying multiple bodies, I would also recommend to keeping a wide angle ready from the elephant(s) would cover the distance in no time and before your driver moves further away you can quickly target frames as soon as the subject is within the 15 odd meter distance.
Regular Corbett visitors would know that elephant herd crossings on the saal patched main road just before the Dhikala FRH are frequent. Typically in the morning the light is very low in this patch. But the beautiful forest backdrop is inducing enough to try some shots. A few experiments with slow shutter on this patch can create some very interesting perspectives.
Moving to the other broad category of elephant sightings in Corbett. It’s a known fact that the Dhikala chaur is the best area to shoot elephants in India specially during the months of March to June. The short green grass, plenty of ambient light, soothing neat backdrops make it a hot-spot for photographers. Some of the best action shots of elephants have been created in these grasslands.
Again I prefer maintaining distance and using a combination of lenses because of the reasons already mentioned. Typically a long telephoto like a 500 or 600mm gives you nice images with wonderful backgrounds. Medium telephotos can be used when the herd is crossing the road to reach a different patch of the grassland. Talking of the grasslands, I have observed that the light is conducive in the morning in the mota saal area and the rest of the areas of the chaur like the Kaal road and the areas near the reservoir are well lit in the evening.
With change in angles you can also experiment with back-lights in the grasslands. In fact, if you are passing by the High Bank area in the evening, it would be a good idea to check the presence of elephants in the evenings for this area for me is a great location for silhouettes as well.
I believe that elephant photography in Corbett can be very engaging but requires focused attention. If one wants to specifically go for dedicated elephant stock, probably you should park the big cat thought for those days. Though there are sizable herds of elephants and their sighting may not be cause of concern. However photographing elephants like any form of wildlife photography is again a game of patience and luck as you need to find them in the apt vegetation and light conditions to work on and create innovative images. Who knows that with your mind engulfed with elephant frames, you may have that unexpected cat encounter as well!
It was a morning filled with anticipation, expectations and enthusiasm. It was my first morning in the African savannah and for me nothing could be bigger than this. It was a number game as the numbers grew from hundreds… to thousands… to millions. Specks of dust particles rose to form clouds of dust as nature prepared itself for the biggest wildlife spectacle on this planet. Through my lens I could see some nervous faces on the other side of the river. Though they were cautiously approaching the river, their nervousness was overpowered with their enthusiasm to reach the opposite shore in search of greener pastures.
The Great Annual Migration of Masai Mara is much more than a mere river crossing. It is a phenomenon in itself for it is here you see the best of nature and its various forms. The African savannah is flooded with wildlife and numbers can sweep you off your feet. Over 1,240,000 wildebeests, 200,000 Burchell’s zebra, 18000 elands and 500,000+ Thomson’s gazells – the statistics are staggering and at times I felt the need of some specially designed super wide lens that can capture the entire mood of this natural wild exhibition.
Even after witnessing and photographing around 14 river crossings I still wanted more… for the entire hysteria around the Mara River is beyond human imagination. In addition to being a visual delight, as a photographer one goes through multiple emotions during the entire process – right from the build-up, the anxious initial steps, the final plunge and the splashing waters.
This is a period when predator behavior in Mara changes on a daily and weekly basis. While the mean Nile crocs have a feast during the initial river crossings their responses become slower as the migration progresses. With more and more wildebeests covering the entire landscape of the Mara Triangle, the lion action heats up. I realized that in Mara you can’t take a sleeping lion pride for granted as within minutes the group dullness can transform into some dream breathtaking action. The ever curious cheetahs can spring up with some surprise act before you can react to their fast moves.
Life in the savannah is hectic – both for a visitor/photographer and the denizens of the forest.