Tiger Trek

An acclaimed wildlife photographer goes to India in search of its national treasure

As a photographer at the United Nations for 30 years, John Isaac traveled the world documenting major news events. Now his focus is photographing tigers and other indigenous wildlife found in his native India. His images have helped raise awareness about the challenges facing tigers and India’s other endangered species.


The routine is always the same. Once I’ve decided to leave my home in New York to travel to my native India to photograph the tigers, I know I have a long haul in front of me. It’s a 16-hour nonstop flight to New Delhi and then a four-hour train ride the next day to get to the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. If I’m planning to go to Bandhavgarh National Park, some 500 miles away in Madhya Pradesh, the trip is much more arduous. From New Delhi, I have to take an overnight train to Katni, and then it’s a rough five-hour ride on a Jeep® to get me into the jungle.

I’ve been photographing the tigers of India since the 1980s, and every time that I’m lucky enough to spot one in the wild, the thrill is there. The beauty of India’s national animal never fails to elicit excitement and wipes out all the fatigue I may feel from the long trip. I’m ready and willing to get up every morning at five to go into the jungle for five or six hours, driving around in a Jeep® with a trusted guide, but with no guarantee that we’ll see a tiger. Then we return to the lodge for a late breakfast and a little rest. After dusting off the cameras, it’s back out to the jungle for the late-afternoon run. There’s always the hope that at dusk we’ll spot a tiger or two at a watering hole.

According to a recent study by the Wildlife Conservation Society, only about 3,500 tigers are left in the wild worldwide and less than one-third of them are breeding females. Scientists urge conservationists to focus on protecting tiger populations in a few concentrated breeding grounds in Asia instead of trying to safeguard vast, surrounding landscapes if they want to save them from extinction. Most tigers are clustered in just 6% of their available habitat, especially where they breed.

The latest figure for the number of tigers left in India, where over half of the world’s tiger population lives, is about 1,400. This is according to a 2008 census by the National Tiger Conservation Authority. But many conservationists dispute this figure and say the reality is that only 800 tigers are left in the wild. Last January, the World Wildlife Fund placed the tiger on its list of “10 Species to Watch” and launched a Year of the Tiger campaign to coincide with the Chinese Year of the Tiger, which begins each February.

It’s ironic that China has a Year of the Tiger. Although the shrinking habitat of the tiger is a big problem, many say the biggest threat to the tiger in India is China’s hunger for tiger parts and the poaching that’s done to get them. Tiger bones are in high demand for use in traditional medicine and as an aphrodisiac, and one tiger skin can sell for up to $20,000. In Ranthambore, which in the early 1990s had nearly 50 tigers, the number is now down to about 30, but that number is hard to confirm.

On this particular visit to Ranthambore, I’m with my guide and a new friend who’s passionate about tigers and wants to help me get some good sightings. I’m here for a total of 15 days straight, hoping that going out into the jungle every morning and evening will increase my chances of seeing a tiger and, hopefully, cubs. There’s a lot of excitement buzzing around the lodge where I’m staying about some cubs having recently been born.

Of the 42 key areas that have tiger populations with the potential to grow, 18 are in India, which has the most tigers. The Malenad-Mysore landscape in southern India is home to 220 adult tigers, one of the largest populations in the world.

I use Olympus equipment for all of my “shooting.” The Four Thirds System is perfect for me since my lenses are double in focal length compared to a full-frame camera. When I use a 300mm ƒ/2.8 lens, it’s actually equivalent to a 600mm ƒ/2.8 lens on a full-frame camera. Olympus also has image stabilization built into the body of its E-3 cameras, and that’s a big help since it stabilizes all of the lenses that I use.

Dust is one of the biggest problems with using cameras in the jungle. It’s bound to get into every nook and cranny just from bumping around on the tracks and picking it up from the tires. Olympus has great dust-reduction technology, but just to be sure, I wipe off my cameras after each run.

When I’m in the jungle, I can’t be bothered with a huge tripod or monopod. I like to handhold and shoot as this gives me incredible flexibility. You always have to be ready at the spur of a moment in case a tiger happens to come into view. That’s why the Olympus stabilization feature works great for me and is one I definitely need.

Although all tiger sightings are a thrill, one of the best occurred on this trip when the Queen of the Ranthambore tigers, Machali, came into view. She’s about 14 years old and has given birth to four litters. In 2009, she received a “lifetime achievement” award from the Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFT) organization for her value and economic contribution to Ranthambore National Park. It’s estimated that she has earned the local economy $10 million a year for the last decade by attracting tourists. And with only one tooth left, she still hunts. On this particular afternoon, my guide and I watched as she crouched down and surveyed the savannah where a herd of chital deer was grazing.

I’m back in New York now, but already I’m restless and planning another trip in May. It will be extremely hot—something like 95 degrees in the shade—but it’s the best time for spotting tigers since the vegetation is dry and the grass is low. There really is no time to waste. Some conservationists believe that at the present rate of decline, the tiger will cease to exist in the wild in as little as five years.

To see more of John Isaac’s photography, visit www.johnisaac.com.