In the heart of India's most lush forests, amidst the echoing calls of the wild, there exists a fascinating convergence of raw nature and art, beautifully encapsulated through the lens of Varun Thakkar. Varun, a seasoned wildlife photographer and fervent conservationist, has made waves with his breathtaking portrayals of India’s captivating wildlife. In an exclusive interview, Varun unfolds the chapters of his intriguing journey, the inspirations behind his photographic venture, and his impassioned plea for conservation through visual storytelling. Let us traverse through his vivid experiences and insights that beckon us into the mystical realms of the wild he has intricately captured.
Retro Kolkata : Varun, your journey in wildlife photography has been fascinating. Can you share how and what influenced your interest in wildlife and led you to this field?
Varun : Thank you for the appreciation. I would say that I have always been inclined towards the wildlife and used to observe animals and various phenomenon in nature since childhood. In my growing up years I used to shoot with a point and shoot camera. The first task after coming back home used to be checking and assessing the images, and brainstorming over possibilities to make the images better. It gave me immense joy clicking the pictures and to experiment with compositions, light and shadows, angles, etc . It soon turned from a mere hobby to a passion from where there was no turning back. I got hooked onto the love for jungles and wildlife photography. Each new picture inspires me to click another and the affair continues….
Retro Kolkata : The 'call of the wild' in 2007 was a significant turning point for you. How has your style evolved since then?
Varun : I have been going to the jungles since many years before 2007 but it was in 2007 that I held my first DSLR camera in my hands and set out to pursue my passion dedicatedly. It was then that my tryst with wildlife photography began. I set out to photograph my subjects in different light conditions, started experimenting with compositions, documenting new species, visited different habitats and geographical locations for getting the desired shot.
I always visualize my shots before I click them. It may take minutes, months or years to achieve that but persistency is the key and I have always been rewarded. I can safely say that my style may have evolved drastically over the years and might have changed as I photograph different species in different habitats; yet there is so much to learn. Each time I am in the jungle, I learn something new. My idea is to showcase the beauty of nature- raw, uncut and in it’s pristine form.
Retro Kolkata : As an entrepreneur and a wildlife photographer, how do you balance your professional responsibilities with your passion for exploring the wild?
Varun : That’s a difficult question indeed. I escape to the jungles as much as I can and whenever I can. Sometimes it is difficult to balance the two but the love for the jungle always takes over. I have in fact very recently set up a Camera rental company in the name and style of Nagpur Camera Rental apart from my family business of Insurance which allows me to be in the jungles and be more associated. It is indeed a pleasure to cater to the wildlife photographers in achieving their wildlife shots through our equipments, makes me feel a part of their journey as well.
Retro Kolkata : You've had the privilege capturing the magnificence of Indian jungles, the African wild, and the Himalayas. Could you share some memorable experiences or challenges you've encountered during these explorations?
Varun : Indeed, I have had the opportunity to explore the wild lands far and wide across different continents and have been lucky enough to get an insight into some of the most fascinating natural history moments. Every sighting, and each moment in the wild is enchanting, memorable and showcases something new to us.
Talking of memorable experiences, I vividly remember each tiger I have sighted, each species I have documented as they are very close to my heart. I have followed the life of ‘Collarwali’ of Pench, the most prolific tigress in the wild till now which has birthed 29 cubs in the wild. I have witnessed her as a cub, as a subadult carving out a territory for herself at the heart of Pench, and then as a successful mother who raised litter after litter and breathed her last at the age of 17. I have documented her life and all her litters. At the cost of sounding vainglorious I can proudly say that I am the only photographer to have made her family tree.
The serendipitous sighting of red panda cubs, the playful banters of the ‘Circuit’ family of tigers from Tadoba, the roars of the Tiger Munna from Kanha etc all come flashing back as I sit down to remember the memorable instances from the wild.
However, there have been many challenges too. One such incident was when I was at an altitude of 14,000 feet photographing the Himalayan bird- Snow Partridge, I had to navigate in knee deep ice in search for this amazingly beautiful bird. While doing do I got a bad frost bite in one of my feet which had gotten so bad that I was on the verge of loosing my foot. Another one happened in North Sikkim on an expedition to photograph the Red pandas and the sand fox. I hiked up the altitude of 18,000 feet where the oxygen levels dropped so significantly that I had to save myself with the use of oxygen cylinders.
But in the end I got my desired shots and could witness the Himalayan species in all their glory in the enthralling backdrop of the Himalayas. Even though there are harsh conditions, difficulties or hardships, the sheer joy of being in the wild and photographing it compensates it all.
Retro Kolkata : It's impressive that you have photographed more than 500 individual tigers. How does it feel to be considered a 'good luck charm' for tiger sightings, and what is your approach towards capturing these majestic animals in their natural habitat?
Varun : Tigers have been my passion. Tigers have fascinated me like no other animal. It is because I have documented a good number of individual tigers that some people playfully say that I am a good luck charm haha! The secret to that is the number of safaris or the time spent in tracking these tigers. The more the time spent in the jungle, the more are the chances of sighting tigers.
To answer the second question, I love taking habitat shots. I like to show an animal in its habitat, be it on the rocky banks of Pench river, or the bamboo forest of Tadoba or the sandy beach like river bed of Banas river in Sidhi.
Retro Kolkata : Your work has garnered national and international recognition. How do these accolades influence your work, and how do you handle the appreciation that you get?
Varun : It is very encouraging and boosting to get your work recognized at the national and international platforms. The standards of photography have been rising and the bar set by these institutions is quite high. So, having been awarded and appreciated by such institutions is very satisfying and pushes me to try newer compositions, go to untouched habitats in search for documenting newer species.
I am grateful and humbled by the appreciation that I receive. As a photographer I always strive to bring forth a new perspective to the picture.
Retro Kolkata : Through your photography, you aim to raise awareness about conservation. Can you share any particular instances where your work has made a significant impact on this front?
Varun : Photography is an important visual tool to spread awareness among the people and bring the desired changes. I would like share two such instances where my pictures have been a catalyst in bringing forth a positive change. Pench river is the lifeline of the Vidarbha region and flows across the Pench Tiger Reserve, Sillari (core)Maharashtra. The meandering river was once a hotspot for illegal fishing. If one went on a safari, one could see a large colony of fishermen illegally residing in tents across the Pench river and carrying out fishing activities. It was most prominent near the Boat camp area. It was alleged that the fishermen community was also involved in the poaching of tiger skins and animal articles. The mob of fishermen was so dreaded that no one dared point a finger at them. I had clicked photographs of this colony of fishermen and them engaging in the illegal fishing in the core zone of the Pench Tiger Reserve. This image got widely published in the print and visual media which garnered attention from all sections of society. Following this, the forest department took stringent actions and in a heroic operation nabbed the illegal miscreants along with poached tiger skins, animal articles and animal trophies. As the illegal fishing got stopped in the Boat camp area, animals reclaimed that area and it was only a year later that tigers were regularly sighted exactly where the illegal colony of fishermen once was.
Another incident took place in the rural outskirts of Nagpur. A tigress strayed near the field in search of prey and accidently fell into a well which had no protective walls around it. It was a common affair for animals to fall into the well in the absence of walls around it, but this time it was the tiger. The whole village had gathered and efforts were made by the people and the Forest department to rescue the tigress. The tigress was in great distress and had sustained injuries during the whole rescue process. However, the tigress was rescued successfully and was relocated after being radio collared.
This all could have been avoided if the wells in the field were properly protected to safeguard animals or humans from accidently falling into it. My pictures from this rescue got published in print media and fortunately the local bodies immediately took cognizance of this problem. They ordered the wells to be either covered or have protective walls around them which deterred any such unpleasant incident in the future.
Retro Kolkata : Could you share your insights on the current environmental challenges faced by Central India?
Varun : Well, Central India is blessed with many many small and large pockets of forest, some of which are recognized as national parks, sanctuaries and some remain in oblivion even though having a considerable viable population of wildlife. What is special about these regions is the connecting routes which are regularly taken by the wild animals for dispersal. This dispersal of individuals contribute to the variations in the gene pool of different areas. These areas which connect the two habitats are wildlife corridors which are now threatened after the ongoing linear developmental projects and the proposal of many other in the pipeline. These projects are severing the connectivity of habitats as also contributing to a large scale massacre of the wild animals. Safeguarding these channels of wildlife dispersal is a big challenge Central India faces today. Having said that the other challenges of habitat loss, climate change, illegal wildlife trade, deforestation, etc still pose a significant threat to the Central Indian region and others.
Retro Kolkata : What advice do you have for young enthusiasts who are intrigued by wildlife and wildlife photography?
Varun : My advice to all the young enthusiasts would be to go to the field, spend as much time in the field as possible and try to understand the animal behaviour while clicking. Never ever hesitate to experiment different compositions, angles and frames. Its only when you keep clicking that you keep getting better. So they should just go out and keep clicking while being respectful towards the nature and wildlife.
Retro Kolkata : What are some of your future projects or ambitions? Are there any specific ecosystems or species that you are eager to explore and document through your lens?
Varun : Like the jungle where events unfold in its own pace, so are my plans. I usually do not make any specific plans for jungles.
Talking of any specific ecosystem, I would love to explore the Himalayan wildlife more. I would love to spend more time with the mammalian and avian species endemic to the Himalayas. The riveting beauty of the Himalayas and the possibility of exploring the unexplored is what pumps adrenalin down my veins. Hopefully that shall happen soon.
In the vast, uncharted terrains of Central India and beyond, Varun Thakkar stands as a vigilant custodian and vivid narrator of the wild's untamed beauty. Through his lens, Varun invites us into a vibrant world where every frame tells a story, stirring souls and fostering a newfound reverence for the wonders of nature. As we eagerly anticipate his forthcoming expeditions, particularly into the mesmerizing landscape of the Himalayas, we are reminded that the art of photography transcends mere visuals, evolving into a powerful medium for awareness and conservation. Let us heed the call of the wild echoed in Varun's pictures, championing a brighter, more harmonious future for our planet's precious biodiversity.