Nagarhole National Park, situated in the districts of Mysore and Kodagu, was named after a winding river that runs eastwards through its centre. Home to a variety of wild animals, it is located to the northwest of Bandipur National Park, with Kabini reservoir separating the two. Majestic animals living in this exotic wilderness have for long enchanted people from around the globe.
Social media has been abuzz for the last few days with images of a kingly black panther -- Saya, no less than an alter ego of The Jungle Book's Bagheera. The black fur with the captivating eyes have triggered a murmur among netizens.
Think about the kind of hard work, perseverance and diligence one would need to capture a moment so flawless.
Behind the camera that captured Saya is the Leopard Man of India - Shaaz Jung.
A professional wildlife photographer, cinematographer and big cat specialist, Shaaz's connection with the wilds of India is decades old. Shaaz belongs to the royal family of Central India - known for its breathtaking flora and fauna.
Shaaz studied Economics and Law, but chose to pursue his childhood passion for wildlife. He spent his years photographing and studying wildlife, especially leopards. Shaaz has helped establish eco-friendly wildlife camps in South India and East Africa.
Having spent the last decade guiding safaris, Shaaz now specialises in documenting melanistic leopards.
Talking to The Logical Indian, Shaaz opens up about his life and experience in the wilds.
"I was born in 1988 and my parents started their first wildlife lodge in the same year. I journeyed through the 1990s with them in the jungles. I was exposed to the wildlife as a child and I fell in love with the mystery intertwined with the tangled vegetation, the thick bushes, the wild cats and the melodious birds," says Shaaz.
The Tale Of Saya The Black Panther
"He who holds the two crescent moons, the shadow that summons light, darkness nears but the stars must wait, for he becomes the night."
Shaaz's Instagram posts on Saya, with splendid captions describing the royal black panther, have been lauded by all.
"The panther has been in Kabini in Nagarhole for the last five years. He was first spotted in 2015," Shaaz says.
The pictures that are going viral were taken by Shaaz between the end of 2017 and January 2020, while he was directing a National Geographic feature film called The Rare Black Panther. Shaaz and his team had a filming and research permit to go inside the park and gather footage of him.
"I have spent nearly every day of the last two and a half years trying to shoot the panther, and I would be happy if I saw him once a week. One good picture a month would mean a lot to me," Shaaz says.
"We would be in a vehicle -- me, a forest guard and the driver. The thrill is baffling. It's not just the sightings but also the fact that you learn a lot about animal behaviour. These animals would never attack you, because they respect you and they understand the balance of nature. They are unlike us humans, who want to go out there and hunt everything," he adds.
Pictures of the black panther have taken the internet by storm. A picture, however, is much more than just the snapping of a camera and a glossy print-out. It involves hours of patience, a strong resolve and constant tenacity.
"A Sighting Never Repeats Itself"
The forest is a massive area, a perplexing maze that is unknown and undisclosed. It is a web of tree cover, canopies, sunshade and wild beasts.
"But that's the beauty of the forest," says Shaaz. "It's like a puzzle. You never know exactly where to wait for that perfect shot, so you spend days in the wilderness trying to put the puzzles in place. The day you are able to do it, you are rewarded - the reward being a memorable moment captured."
"The beauty of wildlife photography is that you have to go out there and chase your subject. It's not readily available, and no amount of equipment or money can get you that sighting. A lot of it depends on being at the right place at the right time. The magnificence is that a sighting never repeats itself. You get it only once. So when you get a picture, it's like you're immortalising a moment in time. It's unbelievable," he adds.
Talking about memorable experiences in the forest, Shaaz talks about this particular leopard, which is about 10 years of age now, with whom he began his journey into the wild. He says that every time he spots the leopard, it brings back memories of the best times he has spent in the jungle.
"Although a big cat specialist, I have spent hours observing elephants and I believe that humans have a lot to learn from them. They are the most beautifully and socially complex animals. They are so intelligent, it's so beautiful to watch them and the dynamics in the herd. People would usually stop for a few minutes to look at them and then drive away, but what I have learnt is that if you spend time with a herd of elephants, you will learn to admire how they have a hierarchy and how each has their responsibility," Shaaz says.
Kerala Elephant Incident -A Result Of Increasing Man-Animal Conflict
"A lot of people overlook the possibility that the next biggest issue the country and its wildlife might face is man-animal conflict. The forests are shrinking. What's happening is that whatever few forests that have been notified as tiger reserves are well-protected. Now these parks, due to good management, are seeing the population of animals like elephants, tigers, leopards increasing," Shaaz explains.
"These are migratory and territorial animals that need to move. But with shrinking forests and eroded corridors, where are they going to go?" he adds.
Shaaz says that the rising population of animals coupled with shrinking forests is a major issue that needs to be addressed, as the animals have no option but to move through cities and villages.
"To help mitigate these problems, the government has to pass new laws and do away with the old draconian laws," he says. "And it has to be done while understanding and respecting the locals."
Saying that the Kerala elephant incident, where a pregnant elephant died after eating a pineapple stuffed with crackers, is extremely unfortunate, Shaaz explains that it is a result of the increasing man-animal conflict, and incidents like these will only escalate if they are not addressed right now.
"It is very easy to blame the locals for being angry with the wildlife, but we have to understand that their livelihoods depend on agriculture and livestock. If an elephant comes and destroys a sugarcane field in 30 seconds, that's an entire family's wealth for an entire year. If a leopard comes and kills a family's goats, that's wealth again,'' Shaaz says.
"In and around a forest, man and animal have to co-exist, and for that to happen successfully, there needs to be dialogue between the locals and the forest officials and us, who are private entrepreneurs and stakeholders in the forests. Creating awareness and dialogue is the key to mitigating conflict," he adds.
"Use The Camera To Spark Change"
"You know, photography is very personal. It is a journey of self-discovery. It's how you see the world." Shaaz says."Go out there and use the camera as a tool to immortalize moments, to relish life, but most importantly, use the camera to spark change. Use it as a tool for conservation, use it as a tool to create awareness."
Till date, in ten years of his photography, Shaaz has taken numerous award-winning photographs, but he has never submitted his pictures in a photo competition. Shaaz says that he does not believe in someone else telling him how to capture a moment, because no one but you yourself can shape your vision.
To aspiring photographers, Shaaz says: "Go out there and enjoy your work. It does not have to be a black panther or a leopard. Chase a butterfly, chase birds. Go out there in the hope that there is a bigger meaning to what you're doing."
With a potential to capture moments like none other with a camera that's inseparable from him, Shaaz's resilience and firmness of purpose inspire the young and the old alike. Here's hoping that the Leopard Man's magic remains everlasting.
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