CONSERVATION THROUGH THE LENS
Text and photographs by Puskar Basu
In today’s world, conservation depicts a very thin line of responsibility. Before understanding what and how to conserve, it is more pragmatic to evaluate what does this responsibility means to us. Many are of the opinion that we need to conserve wildlife, to save the planet. But it is a misperceived threat. Our planet is strong enough to survive on its own. It has seen hot as well as frozen days. It has undergone the hot Eocene days as well as the cold days of the Ice Age. Many species which roamed the floors of the earth have gone extinct. But the planet survived. With the change in the climate, the elements of earth have just transformed into different states, thus giving birth to new life which are more survivable in the new environment. If the glacier melts, it will be replaced by water or even vapour. But life forms will evolve who will be adaptive to survive in liquid or vapourised water. So the planet itself is not actually threatened. However the present ecosystems ranging from the polar up to the equatorial regions are in danger. It is evident that with the ongoing climatic change, the present ecosystems are ought to vanish. Hence the lives which form parts of these ecosystems will also disappear. By virtue of extending their domain from pole to pole, the human beings are integral parts of all these ecosystems. So it is us, who are in jeopardy and if we want to safeguard the future of our descendents, we need to act now and find out whether we are too late or not.
WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY AS A TOOL OF CONSERVATION
Conservation is a huge domain and there are many interdependent elements which contribute in the whole process. The endeavor is to restore the ecosystems by protecting its members from manmade catastrophes. The ‘International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’ has prepared a Red List to categorize the various species and subspecies according to the threat they are facing in the present scenario. The categories are Extinct, Extinct in the Wild, Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, Near Threatened, Least Concern, Data Deficient and Not Evaluated. Photography is one of the indispensable elements which plays an immense role in conserving wildlife. Most of the wild habitats of the world are maligned with common menaces like hunting, poaching and destruction of habitats due to human encroachment. Introspection reveals the viable rationales of food, poverty and traditional legacies of hunting. Wildlife tourism and ecotourism is capable enough to change the scenario. With proper education on importance of conservation, there are path breaking success stories where poachers have given up their rifles and took up the livelihood of naturalists. Tribal people have stopped hunting endangered species for food when they understood that a mere sighting of the same species can earn them bread for a month. With sustenance of such a model of tourism, both the hunters as well as the hunted, started to survive as their due interests were safeguarded. The boost in tourist activities and increase in awareness have kept the activities of the poachers at bay. By virtue of the social media, the awareness intensity amongst the tourists have increased manifold. They have even by-hearted the names of each and every tiger of any particular reserve. The death of a single one causes huge uproar all across the subcontinent. This situation was unimaginable even few decades back. Though the paradigm shift in our outlook towards conservation is appreciable, it is yet to emerge as a full fledged movement. Moreover such examples are very meager in number and require wide proliferation all across the globe.
Most of the wild habitats of the world are still maligned with the legacy of hunting
A SINGLE FRAME CAN SPEAK A THOUSAND WORDS
With tourism emerging as a boon to wildlife conservation, the biggest role of photography still remains partially explored. The greatest gift of photography to the conservation societies is the proliferation of love and affection towards wildlife. It is an undeniable fact that a single photograph with deep emotional connection is worth a thousand words. I still remember my childhood days when I saw a photograph of a Royal Bengal Tiger in a book and immediately fall in love with its eyes. How can I forget those first photographs of Snow Leopards clicked by Dhritiman Mukherjee in the high Himalayas! Except few researchers, nobody ever knew that such beautiful felines can even exist in that inhospitable terrain. His photographs opened a whole new world for the researchers as well as common wildlife photographers. The episodes of the ‘Great Migration’ in the National Geographic Channel and ‘The Big Cat Diary’ in BBC World, still remains etched in my mind.
Recent expeditions into the Snow Leopard territories have made way for researchers and photographers to know about these near mythical animals.
But it is not just to cherish the beauty featured in different media. It is more important to carry it forward. The chain should not stop at us. Wildlife photographers or enthusiasts share the responsibility of spreading the word further through their own work and passion. Wildlife photographers get pristine opportunities of going into the remotest and purest corners of the globe and unveil the hidden facts. With such exposures, it becomes a responsibility to share the information and photographs with the rest of the world so as to make people understand the mechanics of ecosystems and motivate them in the same direction. Moreover the unrevealed documentations help widely in research works and conservation campaigns. It divulges the secretive behaviors of the animals, which in turn helps in protecting them. The stories narrated by the photographers through their photographs or travelogues are the only sources of portraying the unseen beauty of this planet. And all this is done with a hope that even if a minuscule portion of the audience feels the real connection, they will take charge of proliferating it further down the generations.
CHALLENGES OF MODERN DAY PHOTOGRAPHY
However with the growing scope, flexibility and advantages of digital photography, the challenges have also increased manifold. What was considered to be an award winning image in the film-days, is considered to be just a document-shot nowadays. It is not an easy task to make an exceptional image in today’s world of plurality. Millions of gigabytes are filled every day. What makes an image stand out of the rest, still remains a myth to shutterbugs who clicks twelve frames per second. I have tried to find an answer. If we search on google about top photographs ever clicked, the search engine mostly returns us with images of human sufferings. This clearly signifies that the audience always looks forward to some emotions with which they can relate themselves. To be precise, they love to see a real life story in the images. As advocates of wildlife, it is the job of the photographers to find and portray the human emotions reflected in the behaviors of the wild animals. That creates one of the feasible options to connect the common mass with the hidden world of wildlife. The same is evident from the fact that we place traps to wipe out the rats in the same house where ‘Tom & Jerry’ happens to be the favorite cartoon characters as they reflect back human emotions.
Photographs reflecting emotional connections can make a difference in spreading the word
To meet this challenge, the photographers are becoming over adventurous and are pushing the limits of their perseverance every day. However the alarming concern is that, some are even crossing the limits which eventually are harming the life we actually want to save. Evidently there are two kinds of wildlife photographers. Some are those who keep their personal interests ahead of the wildlife and the others are the ones who keep the wildlife ahead of their own interests. The photographers, who keep their interests ahead of the wildlife, can go up to any extent to get a desirable shot, even at the cost of jeopardizing the lives and the habitats of the wildlife. This eventually contributes to the extinction process. However the photographers, who respect and keep the interests of the wildlife ahead of themselves, can even sacrifice a stellar moment to protect and safeguard the habitats and lives of the animals. As wildlife photographers, the best habit we can inculcate for ourselves is to observe, study and understand the behavior of a particular species so that we can envisage a moment, prepare ourselves accordingly and press the shutter button at the right moment. This will require a lot of patience, time and failed attempts. But the moment which will be captured at the end will be invaluable. Moreover, instigated, manipulated or baited photographs will never be that candid. It may save time but will harm the species as well as the art of photography.
FAITH ON NATURE
Selfless efforts and deep affection is required from the photographer. At the same time we must have faith on nature. It is said that everything in nature is “just perfect”. Nature has created this planet in such a way that we just don’t need to do anything. Everything is in place unless we disturb it by our own anthropogenic activities. It reminds me of Bob Poole, the great African cinematographer whose tears rolled down his eyes when he was filming the migration of the Desert Elephants of Mali. Nature, by its strong rules, creates draught and flood. And that is what instigates the migrating genes of the animals. These are the only elephants on earth who are adaptive to deserts. These huge mammoths with their massive bodies, migrate over a home range of 12000 sq miles through the harsh heat of the Sahel desert, in search of the first sip of water. They know that the only way to survive is to move. No other elephants on earth travel so far in search of food and water. The desert elephants can hear the sounds of rainfall from vast distances due to low infrasonic signals. The herd moves towards Lake Banzena, the only lake in the vicinity which stores water all the year round. In between, they cross the formidable Gandemia plateau through the only reentrant, which they have been using for centuries. Enroute they starve out of hunger and thirst. Even many are unable to complete the journey. This is how nature chooses the fittest who should continue to survive in the planet, because the planet cannot support or provide food for ever growing population of every species. That is why a food chain exists. However no death goes in vain because every decaying body is consumed by lives of other forms. What belongs to the earth remains on earth. Bob was filming the migration of the elephants, amidst the worst draught in the last 26 years. He saw an elephant calf literally unable to move any further. The calf dragged himself beyond his limits but ultimately gave up and collapsed on the ground. He has not eaten or drank since days. His mother tries to give him the last push, but everything goes in vain. The calf does not wake up and his mother takes the hardest decision of her life to leave her calf and move ahead with the rest of her babies. Bob had water with him but did not interfere with what nature had to offer. Tears rolled down his eyes when he saw death but he was helpless. Saving the calf would have meant interfering with nature’s laws and deprival of the millions of micro organisms who survived on that decaying body.
However such incidents should not be confused with manmade calamities. If we find any wild animal stranded inside a fishermen’s net or trapped inside a manmade well or being hit by vehicles, it becomes our foremost responsibility to rescue them from the situations.
Nature decides it better than us
ETHICS IN WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY
Keeping in view the faith that we should be having on nature and at the same time ensuring that their lives are not harmed by human activities, a wildlife photographer should carry a strong sense of responsibility of observing the ethics of wildlife photography. Some photographers are of the opinion that “Ethics”, in wildlife photography, is a grey area which varies with the knowledge and experience of the photographer. However to bring the amateurs and learners like us on to a common platform, certain rules are formulated so as to photograph the wildlife without causing the mildest stress to them. Wildlife photography can become a boon for conservation, only if these ethics are observed in letter and spirit. Otherwise the very same art can cause debacle for the lives which we want to protect.
The first step towards ethical photography is growing love and empathy towards the animal whom we want to frame. Firstly we must understand that it is not a “model”. We should put ourselves in their place and try to fathom the amount of stress which it is undergoing with our mere presence. We must understand that even if we are passionate about photographing wildlife, the wildlife is not interested in getting photographed. They will always love to be left alone. With this as the cradle of every action, we can formulate our own set of ethics.
Another malpractice in the field of wildlife photography is nest photography. Novice photographers get indulged in nest or den photography with an aim of capturing outstanding moments. It must be understood that there are many birds who just abandon their nests when they observe human presence. I have heard many a photographers saying that they have clicked the photograph from quite a safe distance. However they don’t have any idea what does that safe distance signify. Safe distance does not mean a physical distance that ‘we’ determine as safe for them. Every species have their own safe distances which may differ from a meter to few hundred meters. The safety distance varies from individual to individual of a particular species also. The safety distance of a bird increases manifold when it nurtures a nest compared to what it observes when leading a solitary life. The knowledge of safety distance comes with years of experience and research work. Moreover even if we have knowledge about the safety distance or boldness of the bird, it is not suitable to publish such photographs in any digital or print media. Such photographs motivate others to rush to similar locations in search of the same glory without imbibing sufficient knowledge about the species. At times they even go up to the extent of manipulating the nests. These are the deadliest misadventures which one can ever take. At times, flocking of photographers attract poachers to the same location. In case of mammals, den photography forces them to shift their babies to a different location which may not be a safe option. Hence nesting and den photography should be discouraged at all levels, irrespective of the threat perception. After all, our false sense of glory is insignificant in comparison to their lives.
BAITING FOR PHOTOGRAPHY
What if somebody serves you three square meals every day, that too at your bed? Nice, isn’t it? But do you realize that the habit will make you the laziest person on earth and if someday, the platter is removed you would have already lost the skills of cooking your own food? Baiting may apparently seem to be a sympathetic approach towards wildlife but eventually it is not. As I said earlier, we must have trust on nature and should not manipulate it. A natural death is also good for many. Baiting diverts the animals from their natural behaviors and makes them dependent or habituated on human activities. This inculcates laziness and forces them to look for easy meals thus deviating them from natural wild hunting practices. It has serious implications on the food chain also. The animals may acquire the tendency of attacking livestock and even humans. Their laziness can grow up to such extent that in the absence of such stimulus, they may give up hunting and die. The more fatal aspect of such malpractices is the content of preservatives and other harmful chemicals in the bait. This causes serious harm and may result in the disappearance of the entire species. A prominent example is the wiping out of Indian Vultures from the central Indian jungles. In 2002 the species was declared as critically endangered on the IUCN red list. The birds used to feed on dead cattle who were injected with diclofenac for obtaining milk. The chemicals eventually got infused in the birds and pushed them to near extinction.
A natural action is much more adorable than a baited moment
USE OF BIRDCALLS FOR PHOTOGRAPHY
We are growing techno savvy these days. Lots of smart devices have become part and parcels of our daily life. The devices can store infinite files ranging from heavy metal rock music to birdcalls. And they have the added facilities of downloading files from the huge cloud of internet. Indeed a technological marvel. Sadly the birds are not so technologically advanced and hence can be fooled easily. They don’t understand that responding to bird calls may result to heavy energy loss uselessly. They find it more attractive than other important activities like courtship, mating or nest guarding. They don’t understand that such foolishness creates serious impacts on the success of their breeding process. Usage of birdcalls is akin to baiting without food. The technology is used by photographers who are in a hurry to attain quick glory. It is always better to understand and have deeper knowledge about the habits and habitats of a particular species. Thereafter spending time in the field can fetch better photographs.
Imagine yourself stranded in an isolated location where you suddenly get surrounded by awkward looking and hostile behaving aboriginal tribals. Moreover the tribals don’t speak your language and are pointing all their bow and arrows towards you. Imagine the stress you will be undergoing with two babies to protect. This is a very common sight in today’s tiger jungles wherein huge convoys of safari vehicles mount over each other to get a glimpse. Some even try to break the minimum danger circle of the animal, probably with an intention to click the dandruff on the tiger’s head with their 600 mm lens. However this causes tremendous stress and forces the animal to deviate from its normal behavior. For us it may just be a glimpse of a lifetime. But they face it round the year in every safari. It is always healthier and safer for the wild animals that we maintain a considerable distance. If we find too many vehicles crowding around, it’s unlikely that we will get that one in a million exceptional shot and hence will be wiser to leave the location. We must do our bit without expecting that everybody will reciprocate in the same manner. If we find any driver, guide or photographer misbehaving or taking the law in their own hands, it should be reported to the forest officials along with video graphic evidences.
The tiger jungles suffer the common misconduct of overcrowding
OVERSPEEDING AND OFF ROADING
Surprisingly in the national parks, few drivers confuse their safari gypsies with Formula one racing cars. Not only they consider the jungle trails as racing tracks but also looks for the extra adventure in off roading. Off roading, to get that exceptional frame or over speeding to get the first sight may turn disastrous to the ground nesting birds, snakes and insects. This frightens other animals also. These practices are prohibited but at the same time most common. It is always beneficial for the wildlife, if we maintain a descent speed and stick to designated paths and trails.
USE OF MOBILE PHONES
Another hilarious negligence which is common in these days is the usage of mobile phones. Mobile phones are versatile devices which provide multiple facilities like clicking a selfie with a tiger, making him listen what my girlfriend had in the dinner last night and even play foot tapping music for him. We must understand that the wild animals are not so intelligent and they may dislike such civilized ecstasies. And once they dislike anything, they tend to avoid the same. Hence usage of cell phones may deprive us from the golden opportunities of rare sightings. It also exhibits our utter disrespect towards nature. With those aids around, it’s not possible to enjoy the serenity and silence of nature.
Nowadays it has become a craze of handling amphibians and reptiles for getting that extra edge in the photographs. Keep aside photography, imagine yourself being handled by a giant King Kong. You are ought to get a cardiac arrest. Same happens with the animals. It is a deadly misconduct which puts the wild animals into a state of shock and may even kill them. They may regurgitate food out of their oral cavity or may get infected with bacteria or fungi from human hands. This may even prove fatal to an entire species community living in the area. At times few camera owners go up to the atrocity of catching and refrigerating the species so as to slower their movement. There are instances where the animal has died out of such activities and still the camera owner has clicked it to earn cheap popularity. It is always recommended to learn about the reptiles and amphibians and be guided by herpetologists who can throw light about the behavior of a particular species. Handling and refrigeration of reptiles, amphibians or insects should be strictly refrained from.
Handling reptiles without adequate knowledge causes harm to the reptiles as well as the handler
Some camera owners are very good runners. They love to chase and be chased. They chase birds and mammals to their limit of exhaustion. It leaves the species with no energy at all and puts them under unimaginable stress. Their exhaustion level rises so high that, at times, they lose the minimum energy of escaping the predators. Such activities should be condemned. Ignorance cannot be an excuse in such instances. Camera owners getting indulged into such activities should be defamed publicly.
THE ROAD AHEAD
We, the humans, consider ourselves as the most advanced creations of nature. Indeed we are. But the supremacy can be established only when we go ahead in taking the responsibility of protecting others also. It is said that every species on earth is gifted with some or the other strength which gives them a fair chance to survive on earth. The strength of a species is its beauty as well. We are gifted with the best brains on earth. Brain is our strength and brain is our beauty till the time we use it in a constructive manner. Our brain makes music out of a mere noise. A peafowl does not know that he is beautiful. It’s our brain which finds beauty in him. We perceive things in a manner which no other species can. Our brain teaches us to be selfless. So when we are gifted with such a powerful weapon to survive on earth, why shouldn’t we use it for our survival rather than destroying ourselves? Safeguarding the ecosystems along with its beautiful inhabitants is the only chance of our own existance. Without them we are nothing. Nothing at all.
Puskar Basu is a passionate wildlifer, nature photographer, national level swimmer and mountaineer. His adventurous skills help him explore the distant and inaccessible corners of the globe. His travelling ambitions have made him pick up the camera to store the magnificent encounters with nature. He makes constant endeavor to portray the beauty of nature through his photographs. He believes that wildlife is the most energetic form of nature that we see around us and wildlife photography is a vital tool that can be used for their conservation. He makes an effort to convey a message through each of his photographs which can make people fall in love with the beautiful planet and subsequently help in saving it. In his journey in Wildlife Photography, he has earned various awards which include special mention in “Wildlife India Photography Awards”, “India Photography Awards” and numerous highly esteemed online platforms. His work has been published in various coveted magazines like “Sanctuary Asia” and “Smart Photography”. Puskar is presently working on documentation of the rare felidae species found in the subcontinent.