Bagheera’s Shadow

The pictures of Saya (Shadow) going viral means nothing,” says Shaaz Jung, a professional wildlife photographer, cinematographer and big cat specialist, who, after tracking and documenting leopards for 10 years in Nagarahole National Park, became an overnight sensation with his pictures of Saya, a melanistic tiger.

He explains why he sounds dismissive of the pictures being shared by the who’s who of the celeb world. “These pictures should mean nothing because we live in a digital age where the power of social media is huge. I clicked these two and a half years back and today, there is a story which is packaged well. The internet needs something every day and found this. The photographer’s job is to be at the right place at the right time and click the picture.” He gives credit to the forest department for working to ensure that enthusiasts can get a glimpse of these animals and the locals for safeguarding the forests against the fire.

He has grown up amidst the jungle as his parents ran a wildlife lodge close to Bengaluru. Jung, who is related to three royal families, — the Pataudis, the Nawab of Hyderabad and Bhopal — first heard about Saya in 2015. “Melanism in leopards takes place because they lack the gene which regulates colour. He is double recessive which means he has an abundance of melanin and that is why he is black. It is not a different species, as many believe,” he says of the leopard which many have compared to Bagheera from The Jungle Book. What made the find unusual was that melanistic leopards are usually found in extremely thick and dense jungles, like Malaysia, where they’ve been documented with trap cameras. “What made Saya very unique was that he was thriving in a forest where he didn’t belong against the odds of natural selection,” says Jung. There are several reasons which makes the survival of a melanistic leopard in South India difficult. “For six months, the forest is dry, making it next to impossible for him to camouflage and hunt. Moreover, a black coat ensured that he absorbed heat so, in summers you would see him becoming thin and extremely sleek where his ribs would show,” he explains. However, Saya was aware that he was different. “These animals perceive colour differently. It comes from the heightened sense of awareness that its survival depends on it. This made him twice as aggressive. He often courted several females at the same time — something which was never seen before,” says Jung. Since his black coat made him much easier to be spotted by prey, Saya used the shadows to his advantage, sometimes lying completely flat and almost lifeless in shade — which has been captured by Jung for a National Geographic documentary, The Real Black Panther.

Tracking the melanistic leopard taught Jung the art of being patient. “We spent hours in the park in search of him and we felt lucky if we saw Saya once a week. This sighting could last 15 seconds or couple of minutes or if he was on a tree, a couple of hours. There was always an element of luck and that is the beauty of wildlife. It is unpredictable and that is what draws me to it. Wildlife writes its own script,” says Jung thoughtfully.

Jung, an Economics graduate, gave up a corporate career in favour of staying in the jungle, as he believes he was not cut out for it. “I was creative. I loved being in nature. I was a people’s person. I wanted to use my language skills to raise awareness,” he recalls. He headed to his family lodge, saw a leopard which reignited his love affair with the forest which had been brewing since childhood. “While tracking leopards I discovered new corners of the jungle and different species. I started learning more from animals than humans. I could have never understood the lessons I learnt by being in nature’s lap. I changed and was aware of my surroundings. I became a better person. That’s what made me stay on,” he says. He started guiding people on safaris. “It was a beautiful experience when people who’d never seen an elephant or a leopard or never switched off the car to listen to the birds did so for the first time. They came upset due to their environment and I just loved watching the way they transformed during their stay.”

Jung keeps on going back to the forest as it makes him feel insignificant. “It is important to feel small because that keeps us grounded. I come to the city and I see materialism and economic growth being prioritised at the cost of environmental damage,” he says and points out that Nature is way more powerful than we credit it to be. “I see the human race down on its knees due to a tiny organism. That’s the power of nature. This organism has destroyed economies and completely changed who we are,” says Jung who elaborated on the concept at a webinar organised by WeWork recently.

But there are lessons to be learnt. “We should emerge as a wiser and a stronger race from this pandemic. But most important, as a more educated race, that values nature.”