There’s something therapeutic about getting glimpses from the wild as you scroll through your smartphone, sitting in the middle of a concrete jungle. For many city dewellers like you and me, these photographs give us a chance to get up close and personal with nature. One of the foremost names that comes to the mind for wildlife photography is Shaaz Jung. A look into his Instagram page swollen with more than 1.5 million followers shows the popularity of Jung, among Gen Z and millennials. Jung is a wildlife photographer, cinematographer, and big cat tracker. On the occasion of World Wildlife Day, he talks about his love for wildlife, big cats, solutions for conservation of critically endangered species and more. Edited excerpts:
What influenced you to become a wildlife photographer and filmmaker?
It is all because of the love my parents have instilled in me for wildlife. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the jungles of South India as they [my parents] set up, resorts. They were passionate about eco-tourism and conservation. So, when I was born they were building their first resort in Bandipur National Park, which is where I was raised. I spent a lot of time with the local wildlife. We had an elephant camp nearby. An elephant calf was born on the same day and year as me. You don’t realise at that time, but it slowly instills that deep passion in you, which I didn’t really know when it would come to life. It did come post university, which is when I studied Economics and went to the corporate world. I realised, that it’s not for me.
You’re a big cat tracker. What’s fascination with big cats?
A big part of ‘why I do, what I do’, is because of the challenge. And photographing and documenting animals that are as elusive as leopards, black panthers, tigers— it’s all about the chase. It’s like a needle in a haystack. Almost, like the jungle is a labyrinth and you are going in there, to uncover its secrets. You put the pieces of the puzzle together, and if you do it right, you win the prize. And obviously the prize is something as beautiful as a big cat. So, going out there and tracking them, and when we say tracking we are talking about pug marks, on the roads, especially when it’s very dry, and there is sand collected or just after the rains. Then, warning calls from a monkey and deer when they sense a predator. Of course, scent marking—the smell of a big cat marking its scent on the trees nearby. So this is how we track wildlife in a safari vehicle. What’s been incredible about all of this is, of course my journey started with leopards. That was my obsession. And still is. Leopards are just the most incredible animals. They are the most feline of all big cats. They are adaptable, intelligent, and extremely beautiful to photograph.It wasn’t easy to find a leopard to photograph one. I had the opportunity to be in Kabini, which slowly turned out to be the leopard capital of the world.
I decided that I need to make use of it and start documenting these animals which in turn made me fall in love with forests all over again. Yes, it’s been an incredible animal. With these leopards, I have been introduced to so much other beautiful life that exist in these forests and how everything is interconnected. You know the flora, the fauna, the weather and I would say that it’s not an obsession anymore but a way of life. Of course, big cats especially leopards are why it all began for me.
World Wildlife Day will be celebrated in 2022 under the theme “recovering key species for ecosystem restoration”. What do you think is the solution to protect critically endangered species?
I wouldn’t say that there is one universal solution to protect critically endangered species. However of course there are several way that effective implementation can successfully protect, all these species. One of them is mitigating the conflict between man and animal. That leads to several other issues which is very deep rooted, and of course one of them is that the fact that deforestation is eroding corridors which connect forests. This can affect the wildlife in many ways, especially the tiger which is very territorial, elephants which are migratory and what it leads to ultimately is a big conflict between man and animal. When I say man and animal, of course, I mean the locals in these areas. And what that does is that creates a lot of resentment from the locals towards wildlife. When it should basically be the opposite.
The key to this is creating successful or healthy dialogue between the private stakeholders which is us, who could come in with proper funding, and then the forest department, the official who holds the keys to it all and of course the locals. So, finding synergy between the three is extremely important for a forest to find equilibrium and success story.
Education is essential. When I talk about educating people, I don’t mean educating people like you and me, or people reading this article. I am again talking about the locals because they ultimately decide the fate of this forest. Helping them understand the socio-economic impact the forest can have and how it can better their livelihood. Understanding the importance of eco-tourism. Understanding the importance of wildlife and nature, in terms of how it dictates the health of this planet. I mean look at the pandemic that we are in. And that’s primarily because of our disrespect to the natural world. So, educating them and instilling a passion and love for wildlife, especially with the younger generation and the kids, is so important. It’s so easy. You just use the right imagery and the right sort of methods in schools. Have the right people visit them and working with these younger generations is just so important. That’s where education really matters.
Which is your favourite location for Wildlife spotting?
My favourite location for wildlife is South India, where I spend a lot of time in the jungles of Nagarhole National Park and Bandipur National Park documenting, filming and photographing wildlife. And of course, East Africa where I spend about 4 months in a year in the Serengeti leading tours and expeditions. Between these two locations it covers just an incredible diversity of wildlife. You see all the animals you have to see in Africa, right from your Rhino to leopards, lions, African wild dogs which are so rare, to see. Name it and you see it out there. In south India, it’s like the real jungle book! I always say that you can take your car out, and go to the forest and you take a blind turn, and you could see a bear, you could see a tiger, you could see a black panther, you could see a leopard, you could see the largest tuskers in the world, you could see herd of gaur, you could see different types of deer, you can see smaller any animals. Just name it! The diversity in South India and East Africa is, magnificent.
Have you ever felt nervous while shooting wildlife?
I don’t think I have ever put myself in a situation, where I have been nervous. I am not going to lie, but elephants are the only animals which scare me and we have to be so respectful of them because of course, they are large and temperamental. You know it’s very important and I learned this early on luckily, as a guide that maintaining the right distance and not trying to get too close, in order to get a better photograph is so important. Because these animals, you have to understand that you are going into their home. Everything they do is for survival. For something as simple as a tiger crossing the road or an elephant going from point A to point B, they are not doing it for recreational purpose or luxury like us. They are doing it because they have to. They either going to water, or to their cubs… It’s all built around survival, their behaviour. You have to understand that and you have to respect that. You have to go in there and maintain a distance. I have kind of realised that I don’t want to be put in any situation, where I have to be nervous because that means, I have broken their boundaries of trust. That is something that you don’t want to be in the wild. Fortunately, I have never had too many of those situations.
You shot the viral picture of the melanistic leopard. How was the experience of chasing and documenting him?
Yes, the melanistic leopard has been a phenomenon over the last 6 to 7 years. I first saw him in 2015 when he had just started to establish territory in Nagarhole, in tourism zone fortunately for us. I didn’t see him. I was not the first to see him. In fact it took me a while, a few months to get a glimpse of him. In fact there were people who were seeing him, and he was impossible to track as he had not established the territory yet. He was popping up in all the corners of the forest and it was extremely frustrating. There were times that I wouldn’t sleep at night and I would rush the next morning when he would be spotted. It took me a while. I mean, that chase was incredible and I miss that now. My journey with the panther began in 2015, and then when I started seeing him more regularly. I started collecting data and I realised that this is an incredible opportunity to be the first people to document a melanistic leopard this intimately. So, I grabbed at the opportunity and pitched it to National Geographic. They were very excited at the prospect of this. Initially we had planned a 6 months shoot but it ended up being a shoot which spanned over 3 years, where we filmed for several months through those years to show the entire journey of an individual melanistic panther , which is by far is the most challenging project that I will undertake and I really don’t think I can ever do that again because we just won’t have an opportunity with an individual. And several lifetimes can pass, just like several lifetimes have passed before, without a melanistic leopard in the area. It’s been an amazing journey to document this animal and understand his behaviour, understand his ways of adaptation in a forest where most believe that he doesn’t belong. I mean, this is a melanistic leopard thriving against the odds of natural selection in a dry deciduous forest where the temperatures, soar to 40 degrees. He wasn’t supposed to be there, yet he was. Also, he wasn’t just surviving, he was dominating. We were seeing him do things that no other leopard did. Like he would court several females at once and he would be incredibly successful with hunts. He would be twice as more aggressive, than other male leopards. It was, as if he knew that he was different, he wanted to kind of spread his genes.
Seven years later, I look back, and he is still around; he is little bit older, of course. But we managed to create an incredible portfolio, maybe the world’s first of a black panther, hunting, courting, doing things that really have never been documented before. We have made a film for National Geographic. I have article coming out. We have worked on research papers. So much has happened. And this is what it’s about . It’s just not about taking photographs. It’s about doing more with your work. Connecting it in several ways, in order to either educate the people or inspire the world. Or do something that creates or sparks a change. This panther did that in my life and it has been an incredible journey.
The author tweets at @Namyasinha