The recent viral photos of the black leopard Saya in Karnataka’s Kabini forest have their photographer Shaaz Jung quickly pointing out that photographing them does not make him a conservationist. He highlights the relentless conservation and protection work of the Karnataka forest department that allows these animals to thrive in a pristine environment, who are then photographed. “Our job is pretty easy and we get rewarded the most, because it’s in everyone’s eye. But a photograph is so much more. It’s about building that deep connect with nature, understanding why and what factors help this habitat exist, and respecting all of it,” he tells Firstpost.

While some of his photos are unedited, others are intimately worked upon, underscoring of the idea that photography and art go hand in hand. “I came up with this genre called environmental surrealism,” he says about his edits. “As a viewer, I want you to get lost between the dream world and real world. And [appreciate] this sense of romance and beauty of what the world can be, is, and what we can potentially lose.”

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Although photographing the lone, elusive black leopard is what he’s being recognised for, it’s the spotting of another leopard, several years ago, that entirely changed and defined the wildlife photographer and cinematographer’s life. Having completed a degree in Economics from Utrecht University, he was all set to start a job in New York. The three interim months he decided to spend helping set up the new lodge his parents had built at The Bison, the wildlife resort they own in south India’s Kabini area, situated between the Bandipur and Nagarhole National Parks.

On one of the safaris during this time he saw the leopard Scarface. “He reminded me a lot of myself. We were both young, in this jungle, trying to explore and learn the ways of the woods,” he says. “And that’s when I decided that this is what I want to do.” This sudden shift was the result of his childhood passion slowly manifesting and then exploding into consciousness. In 1988, the same year he was born, his parents started building their first lodge, where he spent his early years. “The only social interaction I had was with these elephants at a neighbouring camp. There was this one elephant, Wilson, who was born the same year as me. I’d go visit him every day and we built a very strong bond,” he recalls.

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Instantly connecting with Scarface and having decided to stay, Jung then started taking people on guided safaris, or just going into the jungle with a pair of binoculars and enjoying wildlife. “Being in the jungle gives you this innate ability, a sixth sense about the forest, where you understand what’s going to happen next.” He would see different leopards, tigers, elephants, but not be able to distinguish between them. “That’s how I picked up the camera, to use it as a tool to document different individuals,” he explains.

While humans easily categorise animals and generalise behaviours, these animals are individuals with distinct personalities, whose characteristics depend on their habitat. “Something I’ve enjoyed doing is not just understanding these characteristics but also the little idiosyncrasies that make them so different,” Jung says. Photographing them allowed Jung to learn these individual traits, like the different pathways big cats use to manoeuvre through the forest, where they’re going to emerge from if they enter a certain thicket, their favourite trees, the areas where tigers are more active and leopards avoid, and which elephants are more aggressive.

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He has also learnt to respect the wilderness, appreciate it from afar, and predict animal behaviour, which in turn informs his photography. For instance, when a leopard is lounging on a tree, if it starts yawning or cleaning itself, it’s going to descend soon. “By the second or third yawn after it's slept, or when it gets up and starts licking its paws and cleaning itself, I know that within the next five minutes it’s probably going to get down.” When looking for a subject, he considers leopard movement more intimately, since they are crepuscular animals, moving during the early hours of the morning or around twilight.

Understanding gender difference also helps him connect with the animals and their environment more intimately. “Female leopards are shy," Jung notes. "There’s the possibility that they have cubs with them.” So one must keep their distance, give them space, and allow them the time to get comfortable with a new presence. “Male leopards are solitary, relaxed, on their own, you can get a little closer, and they give you more time to photograph them.”

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While deepening his connect with the forest as a naturalist, working at The Bison, which uses ecotourism as a tool for conservation, has also helped him fully grasp the meaning of the label ‘conservationist’. “Conservation is about mitigating conflict, reforming policies, doing away with draconian laws, fighting the government.” Most importantly, he’s learnt that conservation is about more than the animals and the forest — “it’s about the people.”

Most of the locals, he noticed, detest wildlife: “An elephant comes into the sugarcane fields for half an hour, destroys the entire wealth of a family. A leopard comes and kills a cow, [upsetting locals who] measure their wealth in livestock. How are they not going to be upset, if there’s no proper compensation, no proper laws to help them understand that wildlife is not your enemy? How are they going to grow up loving the jungle? They’re not.”

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It’s through observing these lived realities that Jung realised the importance of fostering dialogue between the locals, the government, and private stakeholders like himself. He saw the need to educate young people and expose them to the beauty of wildlife, so they grow up loving and wanting to preserve it. He also understood the importance of providing jobs so locals at least have monetary security as they risk their lives living so close to the jungle.

It’s to aid these efforts that Jung founded the non-profit The Buffer Conflict Resolution Trust of India (BCRTI), which addresses the man-animal conflict in the buffer regions of south India’s protected forests. “What we ultimately have to do as a country is [create] a cultural shift in the psyche of the locals”, Jung says, because “the next big issue India is going to face is the man-animal conflict” and it’s through the active participation of the local population that India will be able to conserve its forests.

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Local efforts and intervention become especially crucial when one considers the governmental neglect meted out to India’s wildlife and forests. For one, with the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, the forest department is busy chasing poachers, and protecting wildlife from various other threats. “So where is the time for conservation? We need a stand-alone conservation act, which can have a dedicated team focused solely on conservation.”

Another challenge is that instead of focusing on sustainable development, a vast majority of the country seems to agree with the idea that economic growth comes at the cost of environmental damage. A clear indicator of this is the recent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) draft proposed by the centre, termed "regressive" by experts. “It’s the way the government is going, the way India will go,” Jung says. Added to this are the recent tensions with China. “We’re going to see more environmental laws relaxed to spur economic growth and rival China as an economy.”

All of this is a result of an inherently flawed system, which provides no incentive for policymakers to think beyond the five-year term and re-election. “They’re not thinking about 100 or 200 years later, for the greater good of mankind. Because that is not how politics and governance work,” Jung observes.

Given this majoritarian disregard for the environment, what’s important is creating awareness about the importance of the natural habitat, and encouraging enough sustained dialogue amongst people that the environment at least becomes an election issue.

And although not directly partaking in conservation activities, it’s this crucial awareness and dialogue that Jung is fostering through his photographs.

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— Photos courtesy Shaaz Jung and via Facebook/@shaazjungphotography with permission from the photographer.