It was the month of July; the heavens of Kabini opened up, pouring unceasingly for two hours. On the branch of a tree covered with thick green moss was Saaya - a black panther, his luscious black coat covered in little beads of rain.
For Mithun H, a 31-year-old wildlife photographer from Bengaluru who captured this black panther named Saaya and his mate, a leopardess named Cleopatra on his Nikon D5 camera, this sight was nothing less than “magical.”
“Saaya was injured that day, as he had been in a fight with another male leopard. We saw him on two different trees, but he looked fitter and stronger than ever before. People usually say that monsoons are bad for tracking big cats but I like the forest in the rain, it makes it vibrant and richer. That scene where he shook off the rain from his black coat was absolutely magical,” he says.
His father being a forest officer, Mithun grew up in the jungles of Karnataka. He spent most of his childhood near the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary – a dense forest range home to a variety of animals including black panthers, monkeys and elephants – and developed an immense passion for wildlife, his fascination for big cats growing with him.
“I have been closely following big cats for the past 15 years. I have been tracking their movements, mating patterns etc.,” he says.
However, he got into photography only much later in 2009. “I just liked going into the jungle, to the national parks with a pair of binoculars. And when I was seeing so many amazing scenes in the forest, I thought it was time to show the world the beauty of these forests and its creatures. That’s how I got into photography and since then I have never looked back.” he says.
The Real Black Panther
It was after almost 10 years as a wildlife photographer that Mithun was invited by the National Geographic channel to be a part of the documentary series - ‘The Real Black Panther,’ a photo documentary series by the National Geographic chronicling the life of Saaya - the sole back panther in the Nagarhole National Park in Kabini.
Saaya at the Nagarhole National Park
After tracking them for more than a year, Saaya and Cleopatra appeared in front of Mithun's camera from the jungles of Kabini in Karnataka on a wintry morning. He called them — very appropriately – ‘the eternal couple.’
“It’s probably a once in a lifetime opportunity. There was certainly a lot of waiting and patience behind it. I had waited six days in the same spot, since I could hear the black panther and leopardess mating about 100 meters away in the thick undergrowth but could not see them due to limited visibility. They had made a large kill and would not move until it was over. That is where my knowledge and years of experience following and tracking the panther came in handy. I just had to wait at one of his favourite paths on the edge of his territory where he would bring her, which he did after six days.”
Saaya - The Black Panther
“It was really a beautiful journey. To be in the park, day in and day out for 10 hours a day documenting wildlife, was a different experience. It also gave me an insight into the world of cinematography.”
Saaya and Cleopatra
Saaya and Cleopatra - The picture which went viral in social media
Photos of ‘the eternal couple’ soon went viral in social media. However, it was not just the pictures which received traction, it was their names too. “Saaya means Shadow in Hindi— the way the Black Panther moves like a shadow in the jungle is true to his name. Cleopatra is the beautiful Egyptian Queen, and this female loves to lounge on trees in a royal posture,” he says.
Saaya and Cleopatra at Nagarhole National Park
What are the threats to big cats?
There are two types of threats which wildlife faces, one is natural and the other is man-made. “They know how to overcome natural threats, they learn to survive and adapt. But man-made threats are unpredictable. Wildlife corridors have been diminishing which leads to man-animal conflicts. Animals like tigers need more space than others, and when the forest areas diminish, they enter human settlements, preying on domesticated animals. This creates panic and eventually leads to conflict. Wildlife corridors for the uninterrupted movement of such animals are really essential.”
“However, if you look at the data, India is actually doing well in conservation. The tiger population has grown significantly over the past few years. We must keep doing this good work,” he says.
Tips for budding wildlife photographers
Finally, when asked for any advice he may have for budding wildlife photographers, Mithun had this to say. “You should be ethical. When you go inside a forest with a camera, you should give the animal space. The photograph will come today, tomorrow or whenever, but you should not intrude upon their space. Let the animal come to you, it means you have gained its trust.”
“In terms of photography, I believe that a wildlife photographer should carry a pair of binoculars first, more than carrying a camera ﹘ that’s how I learnt it. The more you learn about animal behaviour, the easier photography becomes. Because at the end of the day, in wildlife photography, you need to know the animal, the pathways, the alarm calls, and even the minutest details about the forest. That is the only way to be ready for a shot.” he concludes.
By Gokul G K