Through the lens of a columnist: Interview with wildlife photographer Percy Fernandez

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THE world is definitely facing an emergency. The current vicious cycle of biodiversity disaster and transcontinental extreme weather events is jeopardizing the availability of air, food and water necessary for human survival. It also negatively affects the sense of secure 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, predicted a 2.9 ° C increase in global temperature by 2100. Are Earth’s animal and plant species facing another mass extinction?

With COP26, the 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change, which just took place in Glasgow, Scotland, from October 31 to November 12, it seems appropriate to address the essential role played by wildlife photographers. in documenting what remains of the planet’s wilderness, with which humanity shares an intertwined fate.

“I try to go as often as possible to catch the last frontiers of the planet and photograph what remains of the wild animals in their natural habitats. What if they didn’t last 10 years? said Percy Fernandez, professor and president of the School of Media and Communication, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). He has followed his passion for wildlife photography seriously for the past two decades. He straddles the world of academics, journalism and wildlife photography with a sense of mission. Currently he is working on wildlife related projects in collaboration with Nikon Middle East and Africa and has just returned from a trip to the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland ecosystem, in the Brazilian Amazon which has suffered huge forest fires 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.

My first impressions of nature and wildlife were formed during my stay at Sainik School in Amaravathinagar, at the foot of the Anaimalai Hills in the Western Ghats. [in Tiruppur district, Tamil Nadu]. We regularly saw elephants congregating at the edge of the reservoir to drink water. The tank contained a lot of crocodiles. There was a crocodile farm near the school. Leopard visits were common.

One evening, I was fascinated to see two cobras entwined near the tap inside the premises of the police station where we drank water every night after playing. Bison and elephants roamed these hills, as did deer and wild boar. The wild boars feasted on the watermelon farms near the oval land. As boys we used to walk to Chinnar and Munnar in Kerala. The stretch had tigers and leopards. We saw a lot of sandalwood as we approached Chinnar. It was a very long time ago.

I also have fond memories of staying at the Jawaharlal Nehru University Youth Hostel during my PhD. Peacocks were dancing on my balcony against the backdrop of Qutb Minar in the distance. Foxes and Nilgais were commonplace at JNU. At night, skunks roamed the treetops.

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

Since now I am based in Dubai, the Masai Mara [National] Booking in Kenya is not far away. I have often traveled in the Mara and Amboseli [National Park, Kenya]. Recently, I was in Kamchatka, in the Russian Far East, which is home to the highest density of brown bears. They feed on the salmon that move up the Pacific to spawn. Twenty percent of wild Pacific salmon go to spawn in Kamchatka. It is quite a sight to see bears in Kurile Lake, located in the beautiful and wild Kronotsky Nature Reserve.

I have just returned from Pantanal, Brazil, after a jaguar mapping trip. Millions of animals were burned alive in last year’s fire in the world’s largest wetland ecosystem.

Nature, especially wilderness, has a calming effect on the mind. Each topography is particular because of the landscape, flora and fauna. Kotagiri or Coonoor, for example, is idyllic; we see herds of bison grazing the tea gardens there or an occasional barking deer disappearing into the bushes. Lush forests and tachometer, which means prairie in Himachali, above Rola in the Great Himalayan National Park in Himachal Pradesh is home to the western tragopan and the Himalayan monal. Once for almost a day, we were following in the footsteps of a snow leopard on a trek I did with a few friends from Kargil to Srinagar in Kashmir.

It’s an indescribable feeling when I’m in the mountains or in the forests [or in some other landscape], whether it is the forests of Nagarhole in Karnataka or the desert of the United Arab Emirates or, for that matter, the grasslands of the Mara.

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

But wildlife photography is more than that. It must combine knowledge of natural history, biodiversity, development, human-animal conflicts, conservation policies, etc. As for me, I studied sociology, anthropology [and] being a journalist all gives me my point of view.

Visiting the same places often, we find many phenomena that occur over time. In the Masai Mara, with some photographer friends, we have followed this group of cheetahs on every visit since 2017 [onwards]. It was the largest coalition ever seen in the entire wild hunt. In 2017, they were five, called Tano Bora [which] in Maasai 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 were from different mothers. This phenomenon has never been observed before in nature.

Consciously, photographers must be careful not to disturb animals while taking pictures. These days it’s easy to take a photo of a leopard or cheetah with a tall glass, say 600mm or 800mm, from afar. On a few occasions, cheetahs have jumped on jeeps. On several occasions, lions, cheetahs and leopards walked straight towards us, looked us in the eyes, and rounded our jeep. You just stay still and silent. There are photographers I know who have ventured into taking close-ups or low-angle shots and had their cameras run over by elephants or lions chewed on.

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

Wildlife photographers play an essential role, first in documentation. By taking photos 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 information to field biologists, climate change scientists, economists and formulate policies for the betterment of our planet. Wildlife photographers are the crucial link between the state of biodiversity and conservation efforts.

Today, many teams scan the most remote corners of the world and film nature, birds and [other] wildlife. Most of the time, they are commissioned. These productions are expensive businesses, with the team spending a minimum of seven to eight weeks at one location. But with technology ushering in a new line of lightweight, affordable cameras, it could be a game-changer for aspiring animal filmmakers who once thought it was an expensive affair. I team up with friends to make shorts. I have also worked with Nikon Middle East and Africa.

The outlook changed after the pandemic. People have started to take their existence on earth seriously. They no longer want to take anything for granted. Today, faced with the climate emergency, everyone takes a broader perspective that the very existence of humanity on the planet is itself dependent on the well-being of nature and its biodiversity.

The biorhythm responsible for the seasons of the earth has disappeared. You hardly have the opportunity to witness clearly defined seasons anymore. It is because of the depletion of biodiversity and wilderness. The polar [ice] the ice caps and the glaciers receded before our eyes. We have scorching summer temperatures and winters are not so cold anymore. When I went to Kamchatka last year [August], I met a photographer from Siberia who told me that her winter temperatures which were until recently minus 35-40 ° C had dropped to minus 15 last year. Rising temperatures, on the one hand, then unprecedented massive snowfall, on the other hand, [resulted in] a larger melt later which submerged the villages of Kamchatka.

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

Decreasing food for a species has a negative effect on the population of the species over time. Masai Mara park rangers tell me that at the start of the Great Migration season, a million wildebeest migrated from the Serengeti to the Mara to feed on the grasslands; the herd needs a massive food supply to feed and reproduce there. Now two changes have taken place in the migration. The biorhythm has changed. The crossing, which took place in July / August, now starts at the beginning of June. Second, the number of wildebeest has decreased. Unfavorable feeding conditions on the breeding grounds could be the cause. Due to the aridification of the land, the savannah may no longer be hardy to support large numbers [of animals]. The planet’s biodiversity can only be kept intact if we keep habitats and food chains intact.

Another example is the decrease [number] of brown bears in Kamchatka while the population of fatty salmon spawning in Kurile Lake has declined considerably. Bears need to gain weight before they hibernate during the harsh winter months. But overfishing of salmon, a human-induced disruption of the food chain and ecosystem, has had a telling effect on the bear population. For nutrient cycling and the complete health of the ecosystem, not only the iconic animals at the top of the food chain are important; tiny insects, amphibians, small birds to invisible microbes are all equally important.

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

Leena Mariam Koshy is a freelance writer based in Kozhikode, Kerala.

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