'Wanted to put forests of south India on the map'

Photographer Shaaz Jung says photographs are important but not enough to get people to care for their environment
Last Updated : 17 August 2021, 07:06 IST

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This past week, pictures of Saya, the elusive Black Panther that has made Nagarhole its home, made its way into social media. Captured by naturalist and wildlife photographer Shaaz Jung, these images have gone viral. Shaaz tells Metrolife that the new-found media attention has been overwhelming.

How did your fascination with the jungle begin?

I have always been obsessed with leopards. I was on my way to the corporate world after graduating from university in 2010. But I decided to come spend some time with my parents who had just set up ‘The Bison’, a wildlife lodge in Kabini. I saw my first leopard around this time and I never left!

When did Saya come into the picture?

He was spotted in 2015, not more than 10 km away from where we were. It took me another year to spot him. This gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study and document an animal that was an enigma.

Most panthers are found in inaccessible evergreen forests and so research has been done through camera traps. What was unique about Saya was that he was in a deciduous forest. Half the year they are bone dry and hot, and he could be seen and was vulnerable. But not only was he surviving, but he was thriving against the odds of natural selection. I wanted to know how. In 2017, our film for National Geographic got the green light and I spent 12 hours everyday in the jungle to film this cat.

You seem to have named every leopard in Kabini, how do you distinguish between them?

We tend to put all leopards under one umbrella, but each of them have their own personalities. You realise that when you spend time with them. Suppose your friend has two identical dogs, as someone seeing them for the first, you might find it impossible to tell them apart. But your friend can easily distinguish them either by small physical markers or even by personality. It’s the same way for me with the leopards.

What drew you to creating images?

It was almost a year and half into being a naturalist when I first picked up the camera. I realised that the lack was hindering my ability to learn. I used the camera initially as a tool to document and identify different individual leopards.

As I evolved as a photographer, I realised it was much bigger than just taking a picture. There is power in it, it has the ability to immortalise a moment and more importantly to spark a change.

I wanted to use my photos as a tool to inspire people and hopefully encourage them to protect the wilderness.

Another goal was to put south Indian forests on the map. It gave me immense pleasure to do that.

You’ve mentioned that the photographer gets too much credit, why so?

The animal of course deserves the most amount of credit, it is their beauty that makes the image. Then comes the forest department, they maintain and protect these extremely sensitive ecosystems. That allows us to freely explore. Only then do we come in. The buzz around these photographs is great, it creates more awareness about these animals, but it’s important to credit who makes them possible.

Do you think India’s environmental laws are strong enough?

Over the last few years, it’s been made absolutely clear what India is aspiring to be — a country that puts economic growth above environmental damage. The recent EIA draft is an indicator.

Are photographs enough to make people care about the environment?

I think photographs help in showing people that our country has this kind of flora and fauna. It’s amazing that so many people had no idea that a black panther wasn’t a character in ‘The Jungle Book’. It’s important to play on emotions and build a deeper connection, but in order for it to have an impact we have to have a cultural shift. Our lack of respect for nature has led to the gravest warning possible — Covid-19. The youth needs to understand the importance of nature. The generation before me created the problems we face, my generation pointed out the problems but was never able to come to a solution. It’s up to the youth to create solutions.

Published 17 July 2020, 17:12 IST

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