Tuesday, May 19, 2009
The Quest For Tigers
Delving into India’s wilder side, expedition leaders Susi Allison-Lama and Butch Lama give their perspective from the field on where to find and photograph the Royal Bengal tiger
Their deep, rumbling roars echo through the verdant jungles where they hunt. Massive predatory machines that stalk silently and strike ferociously, they sit at the top of the complex food chain as dominant apex predators keeping the ecosystem in balance. For generations, tigers have captured the allure and imagination of people. Like all of the big cats, however, these magnificent predators are facing an uncertain future. With ever-shrinking habitat and the need to venture further afield to find their prey, the pressures on the world’s tiger populations could become too much for the animals to bear.
In India, tiger preservation is a mission of the government and local organizations that are fighting to help the tigers recover. Actual census numbers are in dispute (see the Census Note sidebar), but there’s little doubt that the situation is dire. Fortunately, organizations like Project Tiger and the National Tiger Conservation Authority have been empowered by the Indian government to meet the crisis head on and take action.
Complex and fascinating, India is famous for many compelling images, but none more so than those found in the protected, sometimes remote parts of India. Photographing the Royal Bengal tiger in the wild is an awe-inspiring experience one never forgets. Sighting this symbol of our fragile existence is a mysterious combination of luck, karma and skill.
Where To Go
The simple answer: Go where the tigers are. The better answer: Go where you have a realistic chance of seeing them. Tigers are found throughout India in various types of habitats. The settings themselves can be spectacular even before tigers enter the frame. Habitats both sustain and obscure your intended subject; they also give clues to the tigers’ behavior and the likelihood of finding and photographing them.
Some habitats are vast; others are dense. Each condition is unique, some posing difficulties in sighting and photographing tigers. Your subject may be too far away for all but the longest lenses. The dense jungle may make it difficult to focus on a moving target and starve your camera of light. Still other habitats conceal the tigers completely, seen only if they want to be seen.
In the north and northeast, tigers reside in the Himalayan foothills and Terai belt, where rivers flow in abundance and landscapes are varied and sometimes dense. In Central India, tigers thrive in a variety of settings—wooded streams, meadows, bamboo groves and rocky outcrops. To the west, they survive in the semi-desert state of Rajasthan. In the south, their tropical habitat is woodlands surrounding vast lakes.
Bordering Bangladesh, around the Bay of Bengal, tigers live in perhaps the most challenging of habitats—the swampy mangroves of the Sundarbans, where estuarine mangrove forests change with the tide and weather, making accessibility but one challenge to finding and photographing the tigers there.
Knowing each tiger’s territory means knowing where the water is and where prey is likely to be found. The abundance or lack of either determines how well the tiger thrives. Too little water and they won’t thrive. Too much water means endless places to quench their thirst and hunt for prey—obviously, good for the tigers, but more challenging for the photographer on a two-week expedition.
India has three seasons—cool, hot and wet. Parks, sanctuaries and reserves are open year-round, except during monsoon season. Peak time is November to April. Choosing a more specific time depends on your requirements and preferences. If you have limited time, come in the summer months—late March to June. Hot weather makes tigers somewhat predictable—if not resting in a shaded area, they’re heading to a favorite watering hole unless already there. Otherwise, for more lush backgrounds and better light, plan to spend more time in fewer locations during the cooler months—November through early March.
Getting The Shots
Much depends upon your equipment and your skill as a photographer. Rather than leave the rest to luck, rely on local knowledge. Photojournalists and documentarians do; without local insights, they would be unable to share what they find.
Local insights are drawn from park guides, Jeep® drivers, lodge-employed naturalists and mahouts, or elephant drivers, who spend countless hours tracking and observing tigers. Very often there’s a language barrier, making it nearly impossible to tap these reservoirs of knowledge and experience.
A good option to consider is hiring a personal naturalist/photographic guide to optimize your vantage point before you set up your first shots. Look for someone with the following skills and qualifications:
• Extensive, relevant work experience
• Extensive knowledge of wildlife
• Passion for wildlife and photography
• Language skills; at a minimum, fluent in English and Hindi
• Excellent personal skills, with the ability to draw information out of others
A good photographic guide is keenly aware of what it takes to get the best photograph possible. This requires understanding individual animals, as well as limitations and conditions for stunning images. What a difference being in the right place at the right time makes for getting a superior tiger shot!
Before the sun rises, your search for tigers begins. Experienced guides often return to where tigers were last seen or most likely to go during the night; tigers travel up 20 to 50 kilometers either on patrol, in search of prey or, in the colder months, to help stay warm. Look and listen for clues to the tigers’ whereabouts—pugmarks left in the soft dirt or sand indicate where a tiger is headed, and most prey animals and some birds sound distinctive alarm calls when a predator is nearby.
If the park keeps a stable of elephants, mahouts saddle them up and enter the park before it opens. They have key advantages over the Jeeps®—their head start, their higher vantage point and their ability to go “off-road” just about anywhere in search of tigers. Some parks permit viewing tigers briefly from the elephant—a costly option, as under certain conditions you may be able to reserve an elephant for an entire day(s).
The Unexpected In Untouched India
Should you decide to see the wilder side of India, don’t be surprised if you’re moved in ways you hadn’t expected. With all of the pressures on India, seeing it through the prism of its wildlife also reveals much about the culture and its people in these remote places. It’s not uncommon for photographers and wildlife enthusiasts to return to India’s parks year after year. You’ve been forewarned.
Butch Lama and Susi Allison-Lama are co-owners of Wild India LLC, a travel company specializing in wildlife destinations in India, catering to wildlife enthusiasts and photographers. To learn more, visit www.butchlama.com.
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