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Nayan Khanolkar - Conserving Mumbai's Leopards through Photography!

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Nayan Khanolkar, a Mumbai based photographer is famous in the world of photography today. His entry ‘The Alley Cat’ has won him BBC’s Photographer of the Year 2016 in the Urban Wildlife category and beat over 50000 entries to get there. He is quick to correct us, “I am a conservation photographer, not wildlife.” What’s the difference?

The actual definition of conservation photography is the active use of photography and its products, within the framework of photojournalism, to advocate conservation outcomes. Nayan Khanolkar explains “Wildlife photography is real life pictures of wildlife. If I were to do that, I would have focused on portraits of leopards. Conservation photography tries to show the influence of human elements on wildlife, thus trying to tell a story. How do they relate to each other? How do they interact? After all, across the world, we are the ones deciding the fate of all living species. Conservation photography shows how fragile the wildlife world is and how it depends on us. That is the impact I am trying to create.”

Nayan Khanolkar the alley cat
Nayan Khanolkar – In Aarey Colony, Mumbai

Nayan Khanolkar has been a photographer for over a decade and a half. Always interested in wildlife and nature, the deciding moment for him was while reading ‘The Man-eaters of Kumaon’ by Jim Corbett. He chose to study biology and became an educator in the field of botany. Responding to his calling for the outdoors, he took up an assignment as a researcher with the Bombay National Historic Society. When he was posted at Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur, he would spend hours on the field, in his hide, observing birds and their behaviour patterns. Naturally, along with this, he was witness to many other interesting displays in the jungle as he waited inside the hide. To share this privilege and joy with others, he took to photographing wild life. Since then, he has travelled extensively across India and has covered varied habitats ranging from the cold deserts of Ladakh to the blue lagoons of Lakshadweep; from the hot deserts of Rajasthan to the tropical wet evergreen forests of Assam. While he has been interested in the entire variety of flora and fauna that he came across during his travels, the behaviour of bird species has been his special interest.

Nayan Khanolkar is first and foremost a researcher and strongly emphasizes this. “I learnt photography by trial and error. I took loads of pictures and I just had to look at them to learn my mistakes. They have also served as a progress report showing my improvements over the years.” Pouring over books, websites, studying the work of other master photographers – his has been a journey of self-learning. For him, photography always begins with research. He would focus on a particular species, spend time studying them and then try to understand their habitat and behaviour. He would then identify the right lair and setup his hide. The camera was mainly to help with documentary evidence for his research. “It helps people take your research and findings more seriously” he says.

In 2011, images of a leopard being burnt alive by angry villagers near Corbett Tiger reserve in North India were splashed across newspapers. Nayan was shocked to see the brutality. Closer home, leopard-human conflicts were being reported around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, the largest national park in the world to be located within a highly populous metropolitan city and the surrounding areas of Aarey Colony. In 2013, public sentiment was largely against the leopards – “They belong to the jungle” was the general outcry. No one seemed to be in the mood to look behind the scenes and find out why was this happening. Leopards are extremely intelligent animals, great at stealth and avoiding humans. Why would they attack or enter human territory at will? Nayan decided to explore this further and started his research. Monitoring the areas where these conflicts were being reported was the need of the hour.

Historically, this landscape has been inhabited by tribes such as Warlis and Mahadeo Kolis. These tribes share a close relationship with nature and wildlife and treat it with immense reverence. They believe that harming leopards invites bad luck and have been co-existing with them showing tremendous tolerance. Conflicts were rare and even if some occurred, they did not hold any grudge against the animal. This is how the leopards have been able to survive in this metropolitan jungle. The conflicts being reported did not take into consideration the rampant encroachments of the forest land. Also, wildlife biologist Vidya Athreya’s work highlighted that capturing problem-causing leopards from farmlands and releasing them into forests was the primary cause for attacks. Leopards are extremely territorial animals and an addition of new leopards into the already constrained space was causing the spate of conflicts.

Nayan Khanaolkar the Alley cat
Leopards of Mumbai ( Source Image )

This area now sees a number of high-rises. City dwellers have been attracted to these dwellings with the forest view. Ironically, the forest animals that come with it are unwelcome. However, it is the garbage on the rise here that attracts stray dogs and pigs – easy prey for the leopards. Nayan Khanolkar with his team started a journey to capture the life of these wild cats who now seemed to have adapted to their urban life and have crafted an existence for them in the metropolis. He researched for over a year and a half and frequented the tribal hamlets to find out the routes and alleys that the leopards visited, their haunts and their habits. He then decided to highlight this co-existence which seemed to be the need of the hour instead of conflict. A picture of a leopard in a tribal hamlet against the homes – the perfect image to highlight the adaptability. This is what he set out to achieve. Convincing the locals that this would provide a boost to the conservation efforts, he got them on board.

Nayan Khanolkar the alley cat
Nayan setting up the sensing equipment

Nayan Khanolkar uses remote sensing equipment to capture pictures. Identifying few potential spots, he went about setting up the equipment. Infrared sensors set off a beam. When the animal breaches the beam, it triggers the click. “Placement is mine, the view is mine, the light is mine – but the click – that is their’s” says Nayan. He set the light to ensure illumination but kept the natural, dim yellow glow of the alley. This being Nayan’s self-funded project, he was wary of losing equipment set up in the open which seems to be a common occupational hazard. With this setup, he waited for 4 months. He even lost one of his DSLR cameras and was in despair. But the next day, lady luck smiled as another of his cameras captured a spectacular image of a leopard walking in the narrow alley between two houses. This image titled ‘The Alley Cat’ has catapulted Nayan and the story of the urban leopards to front pages of leading newspapers across the world. “I had just intended to put it on my blog. However, winning the BBC award has been provided a fantastic platform.”

His inbox is flooded with emails from people across 96 countries. The photograph of the city with 20 million people and 40 leopards has completely surprised people. They are unable to reconcile this image with the image of the glamorous Mumbai of Shahrukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan. A 20-member panel from Uttarakhand recently came to Mumbai to meet Nayan after seeing the image. Uttarakhand is notorious for its retaliation against leopards. Till now, they had only been aware of the dangers of leopards. Leopards attack people, kill livestock. But this image has revealed a new possibility. “I have gifted prints of the pictures to them. If they take this back and other villagers see it, it might sow a new idea in their minds. If this can happen in Mumbai, why not here? This is the power of visuals, of conservation photography” asserts Nayan. The ripples of “The Alley Cat” phenomenon continue. When Mid-day published this astonishing story as the front story, it took Mumbai by storm too. When people living in the high rises saw a leopard, they would call and complain, request to capture and take away. “Now thanks to this, they know, there are other people living across the street much closer to these wild cats and they are ok with it. Even a little more acceptance would go a long way” surmises Nayan.

Nayan Khanolkar the Alley cat
The Alley Cat – the photograph that won Nayan ‘BBC’s best wildlife photographer of the year’ award.

With the BBC award and the fame, he has been inundated with questions from budding photographers and ambitious parents. He is nonplussed. “If you want to be a photographer, take photographs. Why bother about the rest?” While he has been photographing for over 15 years, the accolades have come now. “Till then, I have done a job”, he says as a matter-of-fact. His simple, down-to-earth advice is worth heeding and rings well with his conviction especially today when everyone is out for quick solutions. It is something that he has practiced unequivocally. “Study first. Decide your subject, find an interesting perspective – focus on the research. The rest will follow. Camera, lens, technique – these are just tools”, he shrugs. He attributes his success with the Alley Cat to his solid, core research of 1.5 years. Once you know the species, you come to know specific animals. According to Nayan Khanolkar, like humans, each animal has an individual behaviour and when you work with one closely, you will be able to take better photographs. He speaks with gentle reverence of his encounters with Luna and Chandni, the leopardesses. While Chandni recently succumbed to a snare, Luna is a perfect product of this urban existence. Brought up in this very environment, it has even bred successfully. He recounts his face to face encounter with Luna one evening, while setting up a camera trap near a watering hole. On hearing a noise in the bush, he decided to investigate and quietly crawled through the bush. Upon parting the leaves, he was face to face with Luna, six feet away looking at him, maybe wondering what was he upto. In a flash, she turned and was gone, strengthening his belief that that these leopards have adapted to humans. He sighs reverentially, “They are magnificent animals, simply magnificent”. His respect for the wild is evident in his abhorrence for the techniques employed by some wildlife photographers. In the rush to get pictures, they press in on the animal and set the camera on burst mode to quickly capture. “You will never get a good picture like this” exclaims Nayan. “The fear – it will show in their eyes. You have to follow ethics” he states firmly. His traditional approach founded in old-world principles has such strength, such charm that we stand humbled.

For Nayan Khanolkar , the focus stays the same. There is lot more work to do on this project. This will keep him busy for the next 2-3 years and he has time for nothing else. Juggling work as an academic and passionate for the urban cats, all his weekends for the next 6 months are packed with a flurry of activities. “I haven’t planned anything. Let us see where this takes us” he says, signing off with a smile.

Want to read more on Wildlife photography? A Passion for Shooting Tigers (with a camera of course) – Debashish Dutta.