From trigger happy to a bigger picture

When I first started photographing, I did it for the sheer joy of being in the jungle and the gratification of reliving the moments after getting back home. To be honest there was some kick in having your photograph up on the internet and having people look at it, comment on it. The recognition was also sub-conisously driving me to produce more content. But intrinsically it was some sort of selfish joy all through. And over time the interest in observing animals and their habitat increased. My curiosity made me more a naturalist than a photographer.

(Pic courtesy: Amit Rawal)

If you do anything for a longer period of time, the question of why you are doing what you are doing strikes prominently at some point. And of-course it did. That’s when I slowly started thinking about the larger picture and what I wanted to do.

We all agree that awareness is the key to a better planet, and as photographers we try to bring about a real picture of our world. But all through, one thing that bothered me was that the content I was publishing was mostly for people who are interested in it and more importantly people who had access. And at this point I started thinking about how to take the story to a new audience.

I identified two sets of people. One who did not have access to mass media and internet and the other which wasn’t interested in wildlife content and documentaries in the serious or academic form. This is when I started my  work with CEE (Center for Environment and Education) and addressed the first issue. We did a lot of work with the forest department in wildlife reserves and nearby villages, setting up interpretation centres and teaching photography to folks from the forest dept. were a few of those initiatives.

With CEE and MOEF (Ministry of Environment and Forests) one of the most fulfilling projects I worked with was the Science Express. This train, a mobile exhibition of  bio-diversity hotspots of India toured across the country, showcasing Western Ghats among other hotspots through photographs to people all over India. Children from local schools and people who might not have ever known of the existence of western ghats could finally see and partly get an idea of the natural wealth we have. Over 2 million people have over a year seen this mobile exhibition.

While these are projects I continue to do, I now wanted to focus on the second problem. Taking the content to mass media in a not-so-serious way. The though was to take the content to people in ways that they are already comfortable with and like. Music was one such medium. With the launch of Karnataka Anthem, which was broadcasted over 6 kannada channels and got a viewership of more than 2 million, we were able to showcase our rich bio-diversity to people across Karnataka in their local channels through an Anthem, in the hope that they will remember the natural wealth every time they hum the song. The most common response we heard was that people wouldn’t  believe that all the animals show on the video were found in Karnataka!

This was the essence of the article in Education times today. Working on a very interesting project on the same lines. Watch this space for more soon!

Why the blanket ban on tourism in tiger reserves is a bad idea

For someone who fell in love with wildlife at a Tiger Reserve, the Supreme Court’s ban on all tourism activities in the core areas of the Tiger Reserves comes as a huge shock. My tryst with wildlife started at the Nagarhole National Park and at Bandipur National Park, both Tiger Reserves. I spent 6 months volunteering as a naturalist at Bandipur, which quickly became my second home. Over time, the increase in crowds to these parks due to Tiger tourism and my own need to explore different habitats, made me travel lesser and lesser to Tiger Reserves and more to the unexplored and lesser known rainforests of the Western Ghats. Tiger tourism is different from tourism in Tiger Reserves. While one focuses on promoting the spotting of the big cat, the other is tourism in Tiger Reserves to see the different kinds of flora and fauna. While I completely support the idea of very restricted and well controlled tourism in these areas, I think a blanket ban is a bad idea.

The Supreme Court says no to tourism in “core areas” of Tiger Reserves. To rephrase this correctly, it means almost no tourism in any Tiger Reserves. Most of the buffer zone in which tourism is now intended is usually the neighboring village settlements and secondary forests and in most of these buffer areas one hardly gets to experience the full richness of the bio-diversity. Like most extreme measures this too has its own set of problems. Most of the conservationists, researchers, wildlife photographers and filmmakers I’ve met, first fell in love with the Jungles through the eyes of Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson followed by frequent trips to the wild to spot elephants, tigers and leopards. Since spotting animals in the Indian jungles is difficult, some slowly started looking up at the birds, some below to snakes and frogs; and some to the plants and trees around. Controlled wildlife tourism has been a powerful tool to increase the awareness among people about our bio-diversity leading to conservation.

I have been involved in teaching children about bio-diversity and can confidently say that the love and connect happens when they see and experience these animals for real and not on television or Ipads. The sparkle in the eyes, the racing heartbeat and adrenaline rush when someone spots an elephant herd or a tiger is hardly the same as watching a documentary. So how will the next generation of researchers, conservationists, photographers, filmmakers and policymakers fall in love with our bio-diversity? Like Baba Dioum said “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” So who are we protecting our forests from? Poachers, land sharks and development or our future. In the last few years of my time in the wild, I’ve come across very few cases of poaching in tourism areas. Poaching tends to take place in areas where there’s little or no access. A few tourists with cameras have in fact served to document our rich biodiversity not to mention irregularities and administration failures in National Park. In fact, our under-staffed and under-equipped forest department can use tourism to their advantage.

Most tourists who travel to these exotic wildlife destinations spend anywhere between Rs. 5,000 – Rs. 20,000 per person per day to get a glimpse of the rare cat or spot some animals and birds. Until now there was a simpler, more controlled mechanism for everyone to travel through governed bodies to these National Parks. Now with the ban, the pressure on the forest department to utilize forest guest houses for entertaining those with the ‘connect’ will only increase. The already lean staff force who are neither trained nor equipped to handle tourists will now be burdened with aspects of hospitality when their time can be better used for the protection of forests. Those National Parks that have not yet been declared Tiger Reserves and don’t come under the ban but do have healthy animal populations and are also fragile habitats will now be under extreme pressure and will lead to more drastic problems.

Most resorts near the Tiger Reserves have provided excellent employment for locals. A lot of the hunter/gatherers in neighboring areas have now stopped venturing into the forests because of wildlife tourism. This also means that there is lesser human activity in the jungles from local settlements to gather firewood etc. The ban can suddenly change the whole balance in these areas, with thousands of people losing jobs, many who can then potentially indulge in activities that could be illegal/detrimental for the survival of the very animal that this ban is trying to prevent.

Wildlife tourism also brings in large revenue to the forest department, most of this goes directly to the local range in which tourism happens. A significant part of these funds are also used for betterment of local communities in the surrounding areas. Some of the resorts also assist the forest department with their jeeps and man power for maintenance work in the National Parks. These resources have come in extremely handy in times of forest fires and have possibly saved hundreds of acres of forest.

Why must all our steps be extreme? Africa has some of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world which are extremely well preserved and protected. At the same time their major source of revenue is tourism. They use tourism and the revenue it generates to maintain the parks, rehabilitate poachers as guides and workers. Some wildlife reserves in Africa are now facing unique problems because of thriving Elephant population. The solution lies in striking the right balance. Controlled, regulated tourism can be a great tool in preserving and conserving our forests and its bio-diversity. I completely agree with this article “Come clean or clear out”, it brings together some great points on how we can regulate and keep our forests clear of the mayhem we create. As history teaches us, most extreme measures have been recipes to disaster.

Mumbai street photography on a mobile phone

I have always wanted to try street photography. A big camera (read DSLR) unfortunately is not the tool for it I’ve realized, the attention the camera seeks takes away from the natural expressions and ruins almost all opportunities for a candid shot. Recently when I upgraded my mobile phone to a Samsung Galaxy SII with an amazing camera and visited mumbai simultaneously, it was the perfect time for me to try my hand at street photography. This experiment is also to reiterate that the a DSLR is not always the solution and even a mobile phone can produce some amazing results…

Marine drive walkway

Juhu chowpatty

Sunset at Juhu chowpatty

No trip to Mumbai is complete without Masala Pav

And ofcourse the famous colas

Ganapati immersion procession

Boys who take the Ganapati for the immersion

The old and new, mills that make way for malls – Phoenix mall

Contrasting worlds

Madh island, the escapade from the bustling city

The ever growing city and its needs… The sealink

Experiments with technology and media

The last few months have been very interesting and exciting. Coming from a technology background and having worked with photography and filming, I’ve always felt that the line between different types of media has been fast diminishing. There are times when you want to freeze that moment and show a photograph to tell a story, other times you need the brilliance of motion and audio. There are also times when you feel you could have shown a panorama of the place to establish its beauty. Recently I had the opportunity to work with Microsoft Research Labs on their new platform which combines different types of media to create a whole new method of interactive story telling. Digital narratives is where the new technology “Rich Interactive Narratives (RIN)” is being showcased. I worked on stills, 360 degree panos, synths and video for the Hampi narrative, take a look at it and tell me how you liked it. The technology is very new and these are just some pilot projects, hopefully will be able to work on narratives for wildlife soon.

Also the new Nikon D7000 has been proving extremely good. Great image quality and amazing video. Been working on some new video projects with it which should be out soon.

Hide and Seek

Leopards are masters of stealth and that’s what helps them hunt and survive in the thick forests of southern India. They are known to hide and ambush than chase and hunt. These are some pictures of leopards from different trips, which show the brilliant stealth capabilities of the leopard.

This Leopard came running across the jeep track and hid between the tree stumps beautifully and then ran inside the bushes and watched us for a while.

The same leopard above which went into the bushes and watched us.

A leopard in the paddy fields near Daroji, hiding but still wants to watch.

Leopard in Kabini watching us from inside the thicket.


Evolution is what has kept many species from disappearing from the planet. Some have evolved in the right way quickly and have managed to share this world with their predators and other threats.

Here is a brilliant example of evolution. What you see is a caterpillar of the butterfly Blue Mormon, its very difficult for caterpillars to survive to become butterflies, given their susceptibility to predators. But this caterpillar in particular has developed different strategies to survive.

The eyes you see are false eyes and helps the caterpillar look like a snake. The face in totality looks similar to a snake, you would think this is enough to keep the predators at bay. But wait until you watch the video below.

This is how the caterpillar behaves when it senses threat, it pops out a ‘Y’ shaped organ that resembles a snake’s tongue. Called Osmeterium looks like a snake’s tongue to prevent a predator attack. That’s not all, this organ emits smelly compounds believed to be pheromones which are highly pungent in nature even to humans.

The monsoons are here

The monsoons are back and so are the lush fresh greens, the ticks are gone and the leeches are here.

The frogs start out calling for their mates, Alice night frog (Nyctibatrachus cf. aliciae) waits for its mate

Millions of butterflies start migrating from the wet, cold ghats to the warmer plains and thousands end up getting killed on the road.

A road passing through a forest almosts fragments the forest into two, causing road kills and also fragmenting the habitat. Each day hundreds of animals, thousands of insects and amphibians get killed on the road all over India. You can read up further on the study done on insect roadkills here and amphibian roadkills here

Musician of the western ghats

The call of the Malabar Whistling Trush, is one of the most melodious pieces of music I’ve ever heard in nature. I’ve always wanted to photograph this bird for a long time. Photographing them can be quite challenging given that they make their homes in the deep forests of western ghats and that they are shy. Valparai is one of the best places to photograph them, as they are all around the town.

Click the play button to hear the call of the Whistling Trush

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Photography and ethics

Recently I came across an article on 10 famous doctored photos. If you read that, you'll see one of the images in that has won an award. Now my question is how's anyone to judge this photograph which may be photoshoped/orchestrated/setup? This is one reason I usually refrain from photography contests. Here's a set of images photographed at a zoo. I know this is an age old debate but when I read today that a possibly doctored image had won an award I couldn't resist.

For the first time I've submitted some photographs to a competition. I hope they take into consideration all the above mentioned factors and have the right people from the field to judge. I guess I shouldn't turn too cynical without even giving it a shot :)