My first good photograph of a wild tiger

May 1971 was exceedingly hot in the plains of Tamil Nadu and some of us were holidaying in a cardamom estate in the Kalakad hills (now part of Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve), nearly at the southern end of the Western Ghats. It turned out to be the turning point in my life as I met Mr. J.C. Daniel of the Bombay Natural History Society and Mr. Romulus Whitaker from the Madras Snake Park. They had come to these hills on a wildlife survey. Mr. Daniel, on learning that I was a post-graduate in Zoology and was teaching in a college, encouraged me to take up wildlife studies.

This eventually led me to study dholes or Asiatic wild dogs in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve, Karnataka during 1976-78. My parents, teachers by profession, had a liking for the outdoors which rubbed on to me at an early age. Ever since, I had the desire to photograph a wild tiger in the Jim Corbett style, climbing a tree and waiting. I could achieve this only once (although I tried the same technique several times even in the later years), on 23rd May 1978 at 0745 hrs in Bandipur Tiger Reserve. The mango tree, in which I sat and photographed the tiger, was in the Ministerguthi nallah around 2 km from Bandipur village where I had established my base camp. This mango tree is still standing. The nallah was frequently used by tigers and consequently reeked with the odour of tiger spray. Based on this knowledge, I decided that this mango tree would be the best spot for me to wait and try to take a photograph of a tiger, something which no one had attempted before in Bandipur TR.

Therefore, whenever I saw fresh tiger signs in the nallah I used to leave Bandipur village early in the morning, climb the tree and wait. If there were no elephants en route, it used to take me 45 minutes to reach the mango tree on foot. The tree had a straight bole (18 feet) and since I am not very good at climbing trees, I had to scale it with the help of a rope tied over a branch by Keechanna, my Kuruba tribal assistant. When seated up on the tree I was at eye-level with the nallah banks on either side. On that eventful day, I took up my position in the tree around 0700 hrs when the morning had dawned bright and the sun promised to be brilliant. Around 0730 hrs, I heard the high-pitched kakakakha...kakakakha of dholes – a warning sound that they make when they abruptly encounter a leopard or a tiger, or sometimes even a lone human being in the dense jungle. The calls were coming from the east, towards Bandipur village.

Other trees around my lookout were taller and there was a group of grey langur feeding on one of these. I thought that the langur, with their keen eyesight, would give me a warning call when the tiger arrived on the scene. I was sitting facing west when, suddenly, on the left bank, hardly 30 feet away, I heard an animal walking through the tall grass. It sounded as if a woman was swishing past in a new silk saree. I looked around and saw the tiger. The langur had missed its approach. I took seven quick pictures of the tiger as it walked in the shade. Since it was moving, the tiger failed to hear the clicking of the camera. Then it reached a patch of light, and, anticipating that I would be able to get a better picture, I whistled. The tiger stopped dead and with a puzzled expression looked in my direction. I hurriedly focused and took a picture. Hearing the camera click (and may be seeing a much larger primate up in the tree!) it dashed off into cover. I felt an immense sense of relief as soon as I took the photograph. After waiting for a while, I descended from the tree and walked back to Bandipur village elated by this encounter, which later turned out to be a photographic success as well. 

The film I had loaded in my Pentax camera, with a not too expensive Hanimex telephoto lens, was a 100 ASA Black and White roll. The negative is still with me and as the picture is fairly sharp, I can easily print a large blow-up. In this, I am grateful to the late N. Sundarraj, a wildlife photographer from Bangalore, who gave me some important lessons in wildlife photography, an unlimited supply of 100 ASA BW film and persuaded me to discard the cheap 400 ASA BW film I had been using until then. When I compare the wildlife abundance of Bandipur TR today with that of the late 1970s, I would say that Bandipur TR is doing well except that it has lost many of its magnificent bull tuskers over the decades. The habitat is also suffering as a result of an abundance of invasive species and insufficient regeneration of palatable species which seem to affect the cow elephants many of which are in poor health condition. Yet there are many more tigers now than in the late 1970s. Credit goes to the dedicated efforts of the Karnataka Forest Department and NGOs like Namma Sangha. This was possibly the first good tiger picture ever taken in Bandipur TR. In all these years as a professional wildlife biologist, it is also my personal best picture of a wild tiger.

A.J.T.Johnsingh, Bangalore,

12th November 2009

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