An eye for the tiger: A wildlife photographer gets us behind the cameras
Amidst the vast dense expanse of the Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, was a small group of people silently setting up cameras in an ambitious effort to film a mighty predator, the tiger. In a collaboration between the BBC Natural History Unit (UK), the Indian forest authorities and a helpful few localites, Dynasties, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, captures the four-year-long journey of the park’s tigress, Raj Bhera. Their trusty Indian contact for the expedition was Dhruv Singh, a passionate filmmaker and nature conservationist, with a story to share.
Singh was an active participant in the production of the tiger episode in Dynasties (2018), a nature documentary series on five vulnerable or endangered species — the chimpanzee, the Emperor penguin, the lion, the tiger and the African wild dog. The episode focuses on the story of a tigress bringing up her cubs in the wild forests of Bandhavgarh. Vital in liaising with the Forest Department and the local community in Bandhavgarh, Singh also spent close to four years on the field filming with the production crew, given that he was also the production assistant of Toby Sinclair’s documentary, Land of the Tiger (1997). “Wildlife has to be taken to people,” says the 46-year-old, who believes that taking the magic of wildlife into the homes of people, not so that they only enjoy the programme, but also get inspired enough to get involved in protecting and relating to the wilderness, is the key purpose of the films.
Singh, who has previously worked with BBC on The Hunt (2015), began filming Dynasties close to four years ago. “When I heard that Dynasties was looking for a story with a tigress bringing up her cubs in the jungle, we met to discuss the film plan. We’ve known and followed a tigress, Raj Bhera, for years now, and she turned out to be ideal for filming, as she was all set to deliver cubs,” he says.
Working with the BBC team was a collaborative experience, he adds. “The key to the success of a good wildlife film is the research, and in this case, it started with the Indian crew,” he elaborates, stressing on how important teamwork is while shooting documentaries of such magnitude. “As a production house, they are the master of making wildlife films, given its commitment to conservation and their ethics. When they reached out to India, they reached out to everybody, right down to the drivers, the local knowledge centres, and even the forest department before committing to film. There were long discussions about who would play what role, what information was coming in, and how everybody could work in harmony,” he explains, adding that timing was crucial. “Perhaps the most important role was that of the guy who came into the park with us. Once he identified the tigress that we could follow, it was a huge confidence booster. On the field, it was a full circle again. The cameraman relied on the locals to be in the right place at the right time.”
To Sir, with love
Ask Singh about what it was like to work with natural historian and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, and he instantly lights up. “I’ve had the most amazing fortune to work with him on two shoots. He is one of the very few people in the world who has the same amount of love, care, and affection on and off-camera. Rarely do you come across a person who doesn’t change when the camera goes off, and Sir David Attenborough is one of those people,” he says. Wildlife isn’t only about tigers, it’s also about the small creatures, and Attenborough, Singh says, “worries about huge crowds and mice.” With a laugh he adds, “I was with him on production at the Kumbh Mela, and there couldn’t have been more people in one place in the world, but he just handled the crowd so well. I remember filming at the Karni Mata temple in Deshnok, Rajasthan — a temple ridden with mice. Shooting there was a real challenge, considering how afraid he is of them.”
Timing, Singh insists, is everything, especially with documentaries like Dynasties, that began filming way back in 2014. “It’s very easy to take a still picture, but when you have to observe an animal without disturbing it and film it, it’s tough because everything changes. The stakes are against you in terms of time,” he says, adding that it could take up to 20 days of shooting to get two minutes of usable footage on camera. “I think by the time you become a good wildlife cameraman, patience is part of your life. Not to say that it’s not frustrating, I think all good wildlife cameraman have come to terms that they are only going to get one good sighting out of 10 days of visiting the park. For a good film, you need to be in the jungle a lot — to be able to get that special moment with an animal when it feels completely undisturbed, living a natural life and behave naturally — that’s the key point to capture.”
Modern equipment (like the Red camera used to film the show) has really helped wildlife filmmakers enhance their accessibility and speed. “Earlier, operating cameras were cumbersome, and a big part of filming in the jungle used to be just looking after the camera. More recently, with the stabilisation and small cameras that are silent, that has helped us hugely. Now, sitting in the back of the jeep we can do a very steady shot without a tripod. We can even handhold a camera,” says the filmmaker who hails from Madhya Pradesh.
Play by the rules
Following guidelines when it comes to safety is crucial, insists the filmmaker. “The main thing is to be well-distanced from the animal so they can behave in their natural way. As long as we’re doing that, I don’t think there’s any danger at all. The toughest part, in fact, was not seeing a tiger for two-and-a-half weeks in a three-week shoot. It was super stressful. In that way, I think wildlife filmmakers are the bravest of the lot because they’re trying to film something that’s not in their control at all,” he says, adding that he only associates with those who make conscious wildlife films.
To Singh, tigers are a representation of “everything”. “A tiger is clearly a representation of a wilderness experience. The tiger isn’t just an animal in front of you, it’s the fear that the deer feels when it sees a tiger, the excitement that tourists have. The tiger just means so many more things than just the animal,” he explains.
Problem of plenty?
The Indian authorities have their best officers working on conservation and growth and International Tiger Day is celebrated on July 29. Singh says, “This is a celebration to recognise the precious wilderness that we have in India. It’s a chance to get the message across to people that the responsibility is in our hands and we have to protect it — very much like our independence. Here, we have to do it even more because the poor tiger has no voice in the matter. It has to be carefully managed by our government, scientists, and all other stakeholders. I am super confident that our government works very hard to keep tigers well protected, and there’s a huge team of people that go completely unrecognised, who are doing a great deal to protect tigers. The only challenge now is the increasing numbers.” After having followed the tiger conservation movement for 15 years, Singh feels that the numbers have definitely gone up, since the 2006 tiger crisis. “We couldn’t be further from a crisis. The park and the government authorities — they have made such a huge effort in tiger conservation and it has paid off. Today the problem isn’t tiger numbers, the tiger numbers have gone up greatly, the problem is we need space for tigers,” he says before signing off.
Watch Dynasties on July 29, 1 pm onwards on Sony BBC Earth.