The Bengal tiger was feared by Indian villagers for its man-eating reputation, but behind this ferocious predator is an astounding capacity for love
Text Lim Jun Xi
ASIAN Geographic talks to tiger researcher Nilanjan Chatterjee about his expeditions to the Tadoba-andheri Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra, India, to survey and photograph the native Bengal tiger population. Chatterjee has studied tigers for the last four years as a research fellow with the Wildlife Institute of India, and last year placed first in the “Individuals and Populations” category of the Capturing Ecology Photography Competition by the British Ecological Society.
Q: What inspired you to photograph tigers?
NC: There was once a time when tigers were distributed from Siberia to Sumatra, but their numbers have now dwindled to a few reserves throughout their historic range. With records of tiger-human conflict increasing by the year, time is running out faster than we think. Numerous aspects about their life and history remain unraveled, and I hope to document their behaviour to promote their conservation.
Q: What do you hope to tell readers through your photos?
NC: Like famous big cat photographer Steve Winter, I want the masses, especially the locals with the power for direct change, to see another side of this animal. With increasing incidents of negative interaction between humans and tigers, local villagers have little admiration for this big cat – but within this dreaded beast is a caring parent, an inquisitive kid or a playful sibling, not the ‘man-eater’ many fear. I want to rekindle people’s fondness for tis animal, which has remained intertwined with Indian culture for ages.
Q: What was the most dangerous moment you’ve had photographing tigers?
NC: We were deploying camera-traps in a clearing surrounded by a bamboo thicket in the forest. While we were engrossed in getting the cameras set up, our driver spotted a tiger stalking us from just behind the thicket. It was almost entirely hidden on the forest floor where the dried leaves gave it great camouflage, allowing it to creep up on us and lie in wait. We were incredibly lucky that our driver sighted it when he did. I have goosebumps even now thinking of the incident.
Thankfully, tigers are ambush predator and once their cover is blown, they hardly attack. When the tiger realised it had been spotted, it stopped advancing on us and we were able to get out of there. It was definitely a very narrow escape.
Q: What challenges did you face in taking these photos?
NC: Tigers are solitary and besides a few tiger reserves in the country, it is difficult to see them in the wild. They are also most active at night, when lighting is poor. The key to taking these photos well, and safely, is immense patience. I have been stalked and chased multiple times by tigers, but have gradually developed a better understanding of them. I learnt to have respect for their space, and now know when to approach or when it’s best to leave them be.
Young tigers can often display behaviour rarely seen in adult tigers, which make for interesting photos. However, photographing them is dangerous, as they are inquisitive about everything and can come extremely close to humans. Adult tigers tend to avoid encounters with humans and are rarely dangerous unless startled.
Q: What are some of the challenges in tiger conservation in India?
NC: With a count of around 4000 individuals living on this planet, tigers are threatened with extinction, given that conservation efforts have thus far failed to attain any real direction and momentum. With increasing incidents of negative interaction with humans living in close proximity to tigers, local villagers are losing admiration for this big cat which has remained intertwined with Indian culture for ages. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words – the most meaningful photographs are the ones that incite change. Like famous big cat photographer, Steve Winter, I want the masses, especially the locals with the power for direct change, to see another side of this animal. Within this dreaded beast is a caring parent, an inquisitive kid or a playful sibling, not the ‘man-eater’ many fear. I wish to showcase these animals so that they are never forgotten and our fondness for them is rekindled. I want my photographs to divulge the essence of the wild tiger that can share its home with us, if we respect it.
I feel the biggest challenge for any wildlife photographer is being at the right time at the right place – it is nigh impossible to predict a wild animal’s movements unless you have spent quite an amount of time learning its chronobiology. And despite meticulous plans and the greatest efforts, it is difficult to re-do any technically unsatisfactory shots in the field, since the animal may have moved on. Besides working in the stifling heat and humidity, working closely with wild animals has the added challenge of their capricious nature, which may mean a fruitless expedition if they are uncooperative.
I am a wildlife researcher, and find wildlife photography incredibly fulfilling. It is not just an obsession with a single charismatic animal. The knowledge that such wilderness exists in my own country and the unthinkable reality that they might one day disappear drives me to spend every extra hour there. It keeps me going every day, the thought that there’s still so much to see and discover and so little time.
Surprisingly, it took a while after my first brush with nature before I started wildlife photography. Realising my passion for wildlife activism, I left my job as a business analyst and joined a tiger monitoring project as a wildlife researcher. When I began four years back, I had almost no knowledge of tigers. But after all this time, I find myself learning new things about them still. Within their wild nature, I see the unpredictability of life. The feeling that anything could happen, in our lives and theirs, propels me in my quest of discovery.
For more on the Tadoba-andheri Tiger Reserve, visit their website