Master of darkness: Shaaz Jung and the elusive black panther in the jungles of South India
It’s one thing to be a huge fan and follower of wildlife photographer Shaaz Jung and to warily, and even respectfully, place a cautious ‘like’ on any of his magnificent images of wild cats, and animals in their natural habitats.
It’s another thing entirely to listen to Shaaz describe any of his encounters with the beasts that he haunts and patiently tracks.
It helps to know that Shaaz is the son of Saad Bin Jung, the former Indian cricketer and well-known conservationist and author, while there are many other tags to add to his credentials, including naturalist, big cat tracker and cinematographer.
He also runs The Bison Resort in the Kabini Wildlife Sanctuary and has long earned the monicker, ‘Leopard Man of India’ for his many long-running projects with leopards.
But none of that counts when Shaaz begins telling you about staring into the eyes of a black panther, in the jungle.
“Other than his coat of black, the only true colour lies in his eyes,” says Jung. “A luminous yellow that penetrates your soul.”
You might as well already cloak yourself in a thick rug, and curl up for a bone-chilling story from the man. Oh, and he’s also an artist and a poet at heart. Read on for a lifetime experience...
We have to start with a picture we came across on Instagram, of a black panther with fiery eyes, in the dark. The image is captioned, ‘Darkness lives, all light must die, for the night shall walk, when the ghost birds cry...’ Tell us the story behind the image. How did you capture that shot, how dangerous was it, how close did you get to the panther, and how thrilling was all of it in the end?
This photograph was taken in the day and edited in an artistic way to show how he blends into the darkness.
Camouflage is very important for animals to hunt successfully and the Black Panthers’ best camouflage is the darkness.
In the day, he uses shadows to hide himself but at night he is absolutely invisible.
We aren’t allowed into the forest at night, however in winter, the sun sets early and we have 20 minutes of darkness before we need to exit the park.
I’ve encountered him several times in this winter darkness and it’s a bone-chilling experience.
At first you feel his presence, and then once your eyes slowly adjust to the dying light, you see this ghostly shape, the darkest shade of black, as if the night has been carved out.
His eyes would sometimes catch the twilight and at times it’s all you could see.
It is impossible to take pictures during this time, and I wanted to recreate this experience through my artistic edits which show him blending into the night, all but for his luminous eyes.
There’s something very markedly different and boldly striking about the cold intensity of the black panther’s glare when compared to say that of the lion, the tiger or the cheetah. How would you describe this intensity, in the eyes of the black panther?
I often say, ‘In the jungle, the eye of the panther is your first observer’.
This is metaphorical of course, but having stared into his eyes on numerous occasions, his are the most mysterious and deep-set I have ever seen.
Each unique, each like it’s own universe. Other than his coat of black, the only true colour lies in his eyes. A luminous yellow that penetrates your soul.
Take us back to the beginning, and tell us how your interest began in the black panther, in particular? How elusive is this big cat, and how is it incomparable to the other big cats in the wild?
The black panther is without a doubt, one of the world’s most elusive cats.
Though they are just leopards with an abundance of mentalism, they are not a species which you can go and find.
They are a mutation that thrives only in the densest forests, which are usually impenetrable.
Prior to this, black panthers were primarily documented and studied through camera traps only in the jungles of Malaysia, where their gene is dominant due to the conducive habitat.
Everywhere else, their gene is recessive, which makes it very difficult for them to be seen.
In 2015, (the young panther) Saya first appeared and took our world by storm. He gave us the opportunity to intimately study and document a melanistic leopard like never before.
When I first saw him in 2015, I decided to dedicate the next decade into understanding his kind.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and what was most fascinating was how Saya was thriving against the odds of natural selection in a dry and deciduous forest where he didn’t belong.
Understanding his adaptive methods, unique behaviour and the little idiosyncrasies that made him different has been a life-changing experience for me.
I wanted to throw light on the master of darkness and showcase his beauty to the world.
I knew that once his reign was over, several lifetimes may pass before anyone gets an opportunity like this again.
It’s heartwarming to know of a show set in South India and Nagarhole. Were you always decided on this region, for your projects?
I am born and brought up in the South. In 2009, I decided to dedicate my life to the forests of Karnataka.
I’ve travelled the world, but nothing compares to the beauty of the South Indian jungles.
Forests like Nagarhole and Bandipur are the real Jungle Book.
Where else can you find black panthers, tigers, leopards, herds of elephants, giant tuskers, bears, dholes, gaur and more — all existing in harmony in one forest.
There is so much romance between these woods, so many untold stories, so many secrets waiting to be uncovered.
The dense jungles here always keep you anticipating, and my aim is to put these jungles on the map.
They deserve international recognition, not just the animals, but also the people who help preserve it.
The Karnataka Forest Department has done an amazing job to protect these pristine forests.
I enjoy exploring and capturing the beauty of the Southern jungles and showcasing it to the world,
in the hope that it creates awareness and helps conserve these areas.
In the show, how does the young panther Saya fall in love with a female leopard? What kind of relationship complications are we looking at here?
Saya knows he’s different. He’s had to work twice as hard to survive in this forest due to melanism.
What’s fascinating about Saya is how he is not just surviving, but thriving in this forest, against the odds of natural selection.
I personally believe the recessive gene is an aggressive gene, and the individual has to work harder and be more aggressive to adapt in order to successfully reproduce and hunt.
When Saya first burst onto the scene, he took all the other resident males by surprise.
He was seen courting with several of their females at once, a trait that’s never been documented in these areas before but his favourite is Cleopatra, the true leopard Queen of Kabini.
Her beauty is unmatched and she came from the promised land, the Kabini backwaters, a haven for big cats.
Saya and Cleopatra would spend months every year together, sharing kills, courting and enjoying a walk in the woods, but the problem was that Cleopatra belonged to Scarface, the dominant male in Kabini and the undisputed Leopard King.
This led to many encounters between the two males as they battled for territory and females.
In the end, they decided that the forest was large enough for the both of them, but only for now. We have no idea what the future holds, but that’s the beauty of wildlife. It’s unpredictable and raw.
How important is the female’s decision, to choose who rules the territory and gives her cubs the best chance of survival? How does her decision change everything for the black panther’s advances?
Female leopards are extremely intelligent, but must remain elusive. Being a leopard in a forest infested with tigers is not easy.
Fortunately, Kabini has a high density of prey and big trees for the leopards to live in. These trees allow for a unique coexistence, but it’s not always easy for a female to raise her young here.
I’ve seen tigers and other male leopards kill leopard cubs and for the female to successfully raise
her cubs to adulthood, she has to play her cards right.
A fascinating tactic I have witnessed over the years is how a resident female will not just mate with the resident male but also the males from the neighbouring territories.
She then chooses which male she wants to ovulate with, without the other males knowing. This means she can move through their territories with her cubs as each male she’s mated with believes he is the rightful father.
Ultimately, the female has no say over which male shall rule her territory. Nature has a beautiful way of finding balance, where natural selection allows the gene pool to remain strong and healthy.
We’ve been told that the show features a cast reminiscent of The Jungle Book. Could you tell us a little about the other players in the game, and how they work as supporting characters to the story, in a sense?
As mentioned earlier, the jungles of Karnataka are the real Jungle Book. Bagheera is of course the star, but Nagarhole also has a thriving population of tigers, where our Sher Khan is a tiger we call Khal.
A dominant and young male that has taken over the territory recently. We have the highest density of Asiatic elephants, which consists of the largest tuskers to roam the forests.
One of them is known as Bhogeshwara. He is one of the most magnificent animals, with tusks that kiss the earth when he walks.
We also have the sloth bear, which are often seen in Nagarhole, especially during the monsoon season.
This diversity and high density in Asiatic wildlife is not easy to find and the habitat they live in is very reminiscent of Kipling’s book.
The beauty lies in co-existence and how all these animals are living together in a jungle where the population is growing. It’s a beautiful story.
Going by a few instances of your writing, you come across as a romantic and poet at heart. How much of those sensibilities do you bring to the show?
I’ve always been an artist and a poet at heart. This shapes the way I see the jungle and how I capture it.
I want people to see the beauty that lies in these woods, I want the viewers to go on a visual quest as I aim to uncover the secrets of this jungle.
I call it ‘environmental surrealism’, a genre I have created where I want the viewer to get lost in a forest where he can’t differentiate between the dream world and the real world.
For the show, I helped script it, but I did not play any role in editing it. My job as the ‘director of photography’ was to capture moments in the wild and that helps shape the storyline.
I did not play a role in putting the final product together, but I would love to have control over this for future films, so I can bring that element of romance in post-production.
Tell us about other projects you’re working on. Do you intend to focus more on wildlife in South India, and which species are you interested in?
I spend a lot of time shuttling between East Africa and South India, where I run my Safari lodges, guide people on safari from all over the world and pursue my research projects on big cats primarily.
I also run a trust called the Buffer Conflict Resolution Trust of India, where we aim to educate and create awareness in local villages that border the forests, in the hope that it mitigates conflict between man and animal.
As for my cinematography, having studied the journey and lives of several different individuals (animals) in these jungles, I’d love to focus more on telling their stories. I can’t say what the future holds, but I’d like to do a few more films in the South before finding new horizons.
Don’t miss The Real Black Panther on National Geographic WILD and Hotstar.