Through a chronicler's lens: Interview with wildlife photographer Percy Fernandez

Interview with Percy Fernandez, wildlife photographer who is Professor and Chairperson for the School of Media and Communication, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Dubai, UAE.

Published : Nov 27, 2021 06:00 IST

Tim at the Amboseli National Park in Kenya. He was 50 when he died in 2020. He was considered to be Africa’s largest elephant with arguably the longest tusks.

Tim at the Amboseli National Park in Kenya. He was 50 when he died in 2020. He was considered to be Africa’s largest elephant with arguably the longest tusks.

THE world is definitely facing an emergency. The present vicious cycle of biodiversity catastrophe and extreme cross-continental climatic events jeopardises the availability of air, food and water needed for human survival. It also adversely affects the sense of assured shelter, security and predictability of life that humans need to procreate and perpetuate future generations on the planet.

Climate Analytics and NewClimate Institute, both based in Germany, have predicted a 2.9 °C rise in global temperature by 2100. Are the earth’s animal and plant species faced with another mass extinction?

With COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, just having been held in Glasgow, Scotland, from October 31 to November 12, it seems appropriate to take a look at the critical role played by wildlife photographers in documenting what remains of the planet’s wilderness, with which humankind shares an intertwined destiny.

“I try to go as often as I can to catch the planet’s last frontiers and photograph what’s remaining of the wild animals in their natural habitats. What if they won’t last 10 years on?” said Percy Fernandez, Professor and Chairperson for the School of Media and Communication, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). He has followed his passion for wildlife photography in real earnest for the past two decades. He straddles the world of academics, journalism and wildlife photography with a sense of mission. At present, he works on wildlife projects in collaboration with Nikon Middle East and Africa and has just returned from a trip to Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland ecosystem, in the Brazilian Amazon that suffered massive wildfires in 2020. The planet will feel the impact of this ecological disaster for a long time to come.

Excerpts from an interview with Percy Fernandez.

How did you develop a passion for wildlife photography?

My first impressions of nature and wildlife were formed during my stay at the Sainik School in Amaravathinagar, at the foot of the Anaimalai Hills in the Western Ghats [in Tiruppur district, Tamil Nadu]. We used to see elephants regularly congregate at the edge of the reservoir to drink water. The reservoir had lots of crocodiles in it. There was a crocodile farm close to the school. Leopard visits were common.

One evening, I was fascinated to see two cobras entwined near the tap inside the police station premises where we used drink water every evening after playing. Bison and elephants roamed these hills and so did deer and wild boars. The wild boars would feast at the watermelon farms near the oval ground. As boys, we used to trek to Chinnar and Munnar in Kerala. The stretch had tigers and leopards. We saw a lot of sandalwood trees as we neared Chinnar. That was a long time ago.

I also have fond memories of my stay in the hostel at Jawaharlal Nehru University while doing my PhD. Peacocks used to dance on my balcony against the backdrop of the Qutb Minar in the distance. Foxes and Nilgais were a common sight in JNU. At night, skunks moved about on treetops.

In due time, I visited Corbett, Ranthambhore, Kanha, Bandavgarh, Nagarhole, Bandipur, each of these national parks dedicated to protecting Indian tigers is unique. I have walked quite a bit in the Indian Himalaya. It requires a lifetime or more to travel and explore the heart of the Indian wilderness, leave alone to take a peek at the entire planet’s biodiversity.

Since now I am based in Dubai, the Masai Mara [National] Reserve in Kenya is not far away. I have been frequently travelling to the Mara and the Amboseli [National Park, Kenya]. Recently, I was in Kamchatka, Russia’s Far East, home to the largest density of brown bears. They feed on the salmon that swim upstream from the Pacific to spawn. Twenty per cent of the wild Pacific salmon go to spawn in Kamchatka. It’s quite a spectacle to see the bears in Kurile Lake, located in the beautiful and wild Kronotsky Nature Reserve.

I am just back from Pantanal, Brazil, after a jaguar-mapping trip. Millions of animals were burnt to death in last year’s fire in the world’s largest wetland ecosystem.

What is special about these places and about your wildlife photography trips?

Nature, especially wilderness, has a calming effect on the mind. Each topography is special because of the landscape, flora and fauna. Kotagiri or Coonoor, for example, is idyllic; we see herds of bison browsing through the tea gardens there or an occasional barking deer vanishing into the bushes. The lush forests and the tach , which means meadow in Himachali, above Rola in the Great Himalayan National Park in Himachal Pradesh are home to the Western tragopan and the Himalayan monal. Once for almost a day, we were following the marks of a snow leopard during a trek that I did with a few friends from Kargil to Srinagar in Kashmir.

It is an indescribable feeling when I am in the mountains or in the forests [or in some other landscape], whether it is the forests of Nagarhole in Karnataka or the desert in the UAE or, for that matter, the grasslands of the Mara.

What special knowledge and skills does a wildlife photographer need? What does wildlife photography engender?

First of all, wildlife photography is a very individualistic engagement. You have to have a very real passion [for it] and infinite patience to get a photograph capturing the moods of wild animals. It is also crucial to have an understanding of the species and to observe the behaviour of the subject carefully.

But wildlife photography is much more than that. It should simultaneously combine knowledge of natural history, biodiversity, development, man-animal conflict, conservation policies, and so on. As for me, I studied sociology, anthropology [and] have been a journalist, all this gives me my perspective.

In the course of visiting the same places often, we find many phenomena happening over time. In Masai Mara, along with a few photographer friends, we followed this group of cheetahs every time we visited from 2017 [onwards]. This was the largest coalition ever to be observed in the wild hunting together. In 2017, they were five of them, called Tano Bora [which] in Masai means the Fast Five. It is the safari guides in the Mara who name the animals. Of the five, two were brothers, and the rest of them were from different mothers. This phenomenon has never been observed before in the wild.

Consciously, photographers should take care not to disturb animals during shoots. It’s easy nowadays to get a shot of a leopard or a cheetah with a big glass, say a 600 or 800 mm, from afar. On a few occasions, cheetahs have jumped onto jeeps. On several occasions, lions, cheetahs and leopards have walked straight to us, looked us in the eye, and skirted around our jeep. You just remain still and quiet. There are photographers I know who ventured to take close-ups or low-angles and got their cameras crushed by elephants or chewed off by lions.

Did Sir David Attenborough influence you?

What Sir Attenborough did in his lifetime made a profound impact on many of us. Without him, we wouldn’t have known how beautiful our planet is. He made us seriously think about the way we lived and how it affected our planet. Wild Karnataka is an exquisite documentary on the wildlife in Karnataka narrated by Sir David Attenborough.

What is the role of wildlife photographers at this juncture in our planet’s history?

Wildlife photographers play a critical role, firstly in documentation. By shooting over a period of time, serious photographers can chronicle natural history and the relationship between man, nature and the wilderness. Their work can help provide insights to field biologists, climate change scientists, economists and help in formulating policies for the betterment of our planet. Wildlife photographers act as the crucial link between the status of biodiversity and the conservation efforts.

Today, there are many teams out there scanning the remote corners of the world and filming nature, birds and [other] wildlife. Mostly, they are commissioned. These productions are expensive affairs, with the crew spending a minimum of seven to eight weeks at a location. But with technology ushering in a new series of affordable, lightweight cameras, it could be a game changer for aspiring wildlife film-makers who once thought it was an expensive affair. I have been teaming up with friends to make shorts. I have also been collaborating with Nikon Middle East and Africa.

After the pandemic, has a new perspective dawned on the general public with respect to wildlife?

The perspective has changed after the pandemic. People have started taking their existence on earth seriously. They don’t want to take anything for granted any more. Now faced with the climate emergency, everybody is taking a wider perspective that humankind’s very existence on the planet is itself dependent on the well-being of nature and its biodiversity.

What are the fallouts of global warming?

The biorhythm responsible for the earth’s seasons has gone. You hardly get to witness clearly demarcated seasons any more. That is because of the depletion of biodiversity and wilderness. The polar [ice] caps and glaciers have receded in front of our eyes. We have searing summer temperatures and winters are not so cold any more. When I went to Kamchatka last year [August], I met a photographer from Siberia who said that at her place the winter temperatures which used to be minus 35-40 °C till recently had risen to minus 15 last year. The temperature rise, on the one hand, and then an unprecedented massive snowfall, on the other, [resulted in] a larger melt later that submerged villages of Kamchatka.

Globally, unless countries collectively take a stand and start protecting biodiversity and the wilderness, climate catastrophes will increase.

How do topsy-turvy biorhythms and human interventions affect food chains and lead to the depletion of biodiversity?

The dwindling of food for a species has an adverse effect on the species population over time. The park rangers of Masai Mara tell me that earlier during the Great Migration season, a million wildebeests used to migrate from the Serengeti to the Mara to feed on the grasslands; the herd needs a massive food supply to feed and breed there. Now two changes have taken place in the migration. The biorhythm has changed. The crossing over that used to take place in July/August, now starts early in June. Secondly, the wildebeest numbers have dwindled. The adverse food conditions at the breeding grounds could be a reason for this. Due to the aridification of the land, the savannah may not be robust any more to support great numbers [of animals]. The planet’s biodiversity can be kept intact only if we keep the habitats and food chains intact.

Another example is the dwindling [number] of brown bears in Kamchatka as the population of the fatty salmon coming to breed in Kurile Lake has vastly reduced. The bears have to gain body weight before they go for hibernation during the harsh winter months. But overfishing for salmon, a human-induced disturbance of the food chain and the ecosystem, has had a telling effect on the bear population. For nutrient cycling and complete health of the ecosystem, not only are the iconic animals on top of the food chain important; the tiny insects, amphibians, small birds down to invisible microbes are all equally important.

How can countries try to mitigate climate change?

It is a tall order. You have to protect the wilderness. This comes from policy change, which means injecting a lot of funds into the environment budget of countries. Over the years, we have seen only an increase in poaching and loss of wilderness. You can’t set the clock back; an extinct species can’t be brought back to life. However, one that is endemic and faces the threat of extinction can be revived [if there is] firm political will.

Leena Mariam Koshy is an independent writer based in Kozhikode, Kerala.

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