In January this year, India surprised the world by announcing a 30 per cent increase in the population of its wild tigers – from 1,706 in 2011, to 2,226 in 2014. Although the result of the census conducted by the National Tiger Conservancy Authority was hailed worldwide, some scientists and conservationists have since questioned the reliability of the methods used to reach this conclusion.
Even taking the figures at face value, the plight of the tiger remains perilous, especially when India accounts for around 70 per cent of the world’s total population of barely 3,200 wild tigers. To put these figures into perspective, India’s current population of tigers is a fraction of the 45,000 estimated to have roamed the sub-continent less than a century ago. The future of the tiger remains perilous and the situation even worse for tiger species found in Sumatra, Malaya and Indochina.
Most of India’s tigers live in nearly 50 wildlife reserves dotted around the country from the northwest state of Assam to the Western Ghats in southern India. The vast majority of these reserves were established after the 1960s when India’s then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, pledged to save the tiger from extinction. Of those, only a handful have the suitable habitat and viewing conditions for the regular and prolonged sightings that photographers seek.
The best-known tiger reserve is Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh, central India. Established as a national park in 1968, Bandhavgarh comprises a core area of 105 sq km and a buffer area of approximately 400 sq km. Across an area of steep ridges, undulating forest and open meadows, the park has the highest known population density of tigers throughout India.
Bandhavgarh’s origins date back to the first century AD, where a number of caves show evidence of early carvings and scriptures. Perched on the vast rock plateau in the centre of the park stands Bandhavgarh Fort, the former home to successive Moghul and Hindu dynasties ruling the local region, the last being the Maharaja of Rewa. When the princely states of India’s Maharajas were broken by British rule, Bandhavgarh suffered rampant deforestation and prolific poaching. In the 1960s, the Maharaja of Rewa lobbied the Indian government to preserve his forests. As a result, Bandhavgarh was officially declared a national park in 1968, with the Maharaja’s former game reserve making up the core zone of 105 sq km.
Bandhavgarh’s tiger population varies between 40 and 55 individuals, but even within its well-patrolled perimeters, the big cats continue to be threatened by poachers, as well as conflict with humans living in the buffer zone, often ending in tragedy for both man and beast. The vast sal forest within the park and buffer zone supports a diverse wealth of other fauna with nearly 40 mammal species, including sambar and spotted deer, the main prey of the tiger.
While tigers are the main subject for visiting photographers, Bandhavgarh is also a haven for birds – more than 350 species have been recorded here, including the elegant and rare sarus crane, the world’s tallest flying bird. There are also 80 different species of butterfly to be found in the park; so when tigers are proving elusive, the photographer has plenty of alternatives.
That said, Bandhavgarh is a premier tiger reserve and sightings are among the most frequent in all of India. As well as abundant prey, the high density of tigers can be explained by the park’s position at the centre of a major wildlife corridor through Madhya Pradesh, which includes the other tiger reserves of Pench in the south, through to Kanha and on to Panna in the north of the state.
CLOTHING AND EQUIPMENT
Photographers travelling to Bandhavgarh for the first time need to appreciate the huge variation in temperature and weather conditions in the course of a year. This part of India is not a humid sultry jungle all year round.
In fact, Bandhavgarh is a seasonal park and remains closed from the beginning of July to mid-October for the monsoon. November marks the start of winter, when cold air from the Himalayas is drawn south, so the mornings are surprisingly chilly with plenty of dew and low-hanging mist.
If there is a morning breeze blowing as well then the resulting wind chill factor will keep the mercury low, requiring visitors to wear the sort of outdoor gear – windproof jacket, gloves, winter trekking pants, even hand warmers – normally reserved for a walk in the Scottish Highlands!
This degree of cold can take its toll on camera gear. Freezing mornings drain batteries quickly, so it pays to have a spare set fully charged and bagged up with the rest of your gear when climbing onto the Jeep for the morning drive. At this time of year, the forest is lush and green and the misty mornings provide an almost ethereal quality of backlighting to the herds of grazing deer.
The downside to winter is that with the vegetation so fresh and dense, spotting tigers can be difficult. For this reason, you need to remain alert and ready to shoot while riding in the Jeep: tigers don’t schedule their appearances; often they appear suddenly and you may only have a few seconds to fire a burst of frames before they disappear.
Reaction time is therefore critical, so you need to have your camera and lens out, switched on to your preferred settings, and ready to shoot. Another reason to keep your camera out when setting off is to help your gear reach the ambient air temperature as soon as possible, thereby allowing any condensation on the lens to evaporate before you start shooting.
Summer in Bandhavgarh is from February to June and this is when temperatures soar. Despite the heat (daytime temperatures frequently reach 40°C), spotting tigers and other wildlife becomes easier as the drying and withered vegetation provide less cover, and animals huddle under the cool shade of trees to escape the heat.
However, the heat also means animals are active only first thing in the morning and during the last hours of the day. As a result, photography is reduced to just a couple of hours in the early morning and late afternoon. The animals also need to slake their thirst, so Bandhavgarh’s few permanent water holes and its single river become a main attraction.
Unlike other large cats, tigers love lazing around and swimming in cooling water. Photographs of these beautiful beasts jumping and running in the water make great action studies too. Just remember to set your fastest possible shutter speed to freeze movement (and water splashes), by setting the lens to its widest aperture.
Out on the dusty track, look out for tiger paws and try to protect your camera and especially the front lens element from being coated in grit and dust. If you have a lens hood, put it on – in these conditions it has greater value in shielding the glass from dust than reducing the risk of lens flare.
Tempting as it is to put your camera gear back in its bag while your vehicle is on the move, tigers are known to step out in front to cross the road without warning. These opportunities are usually brief so your camera needs to be at hand to seize the moment – a clear view may only last for seconds.
DAPPLED FOREST LIGHT
The reality is that tigers will emerge into broad daylight only very occasionally. Most of the time they are likely to be glimpsed in the cover of forest, obscured and hidden in the shade. Like most forest photography, the biggest issue is the lack of light. Also, the high level of contrast between light and shade makes an accurate exposure difficult to achieve – expect dappled forests with burning highlights and deep shadows. The best advice is to shoot with your lens wide open (usually f/4, sometimes f/2.8 with a very fast pro lens) on ISO 800 to 1600.
In dappled light, expose for the highlights using either spot metering and holding the exposure lock, or by setting the exposure reading manually. Only fire the shutter when the tiger’s face comes into the light and focus on the eyes. Everything beyond the direct light will be underexposed, rendering the jungle surroundings even darker, yet leaving the face of the tiger burning more brightly still.
Keep your camera ready at all times. Tempting as it is to pack your camera away when not shooting in order to keep it free of dust, tigers and other wildlife can appear unexpectedly and disappear just as quickly. Therefore, you may only have a couple of seconds to get the picture of your dreams.
Meter off the highlights when in dappled shade. Contrast will be high in forest areas, so when your subject’s face is in an area of light, this is the part of the scene that you need to have correctly exposed.
Focus on the eyes. There are few things more piercing in the animal kingdom than the eyes of a tiger staring directly at your lens. Always get the eyes sharply in focus.
Bother with a tripod or monopod. Game drives are made in Jeeps, Suzukis and other open-top vehicles, so there’s no space or time to set-up. Instead, take beanbags to rest your lens on the edge of the vehicle.
Leave without spare batteries. Early morning game drives in India’s winter months can be very chilly. Cold weather drains batteries faster, so take a fully-charged spare battery with you.
Remove the lens hood. This helps to cut down glare into your lens and also reduces the amount of dust hitting the front lens element. Try to keep lens changes to a minimum to keep dust out of your camera – using zooms rather than fixed focal length lenses will help achieve this.
Tiger Jungle: The Epic Tale of Bandhavgarh by Iain Green; Tiger Books; £18.95 (hardback)
Tigers Forever by Steve Winter & Sharon Guynup; National Geographic Society; $40 (hardback)
Wild Tigers of Bandhavgarh by Robert Forsyth & Iain Green; Tiger Books; £16.95 (hardback)
Accessory option: Beanbags
Beanbags are ideal for resting cameras and lenses on the sides of vehicles. Sold unfilled, you can fill the bag with beans, rice, grain or, for a lightweight bag, polystyrene balls. Wildlife Watching Supplies has a range of camouflaged bags with Velcro openings (from £20) and made from shower proof material – ideal when caught in the rain.
Lens option: All-in-one telephoto
With a wildlife subject that may only give you a few seconds to shoot, a telephoto zoom lens is ideal. The Sigma APO 50-500mm f/4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM (£780) has an unrivalled 10x zoom range. Four special low dispersion glass elements enhance image quality and sharpness. Handling is improved by a built-in optical stabiliser and a hypersonic motor ensures autofocus is nearly silent in use.
Camera option: Dust-sealed DSLR
Weather sealed bodies are ideal when shooting in dusty and humid environments. The new Nikon D7200 (£850 body only) is a weather-sealed APS-C format camera. The cropped 24.2 MP sensor increases the focal length of full-frame lenses by around 1.5x. Other features include built-in wi-fi, 100-25,600 ISO range, 51-point AF system, 3.2in LCD display, dual SD card slots and 6fps continuous shooting.
This article was published in the September 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine