Published: 06th August 2020
Will never forget the first time I looked in his eyes: Why Shaaz Jung, the man behind viral black panther photo, will always remember Saya
We spoke to Shaaz Jung, the man behind the lens who captured the majestic black panther, Saya, to know more about his adventures tracking the melanistic leopard
As kids, we have all read the story of Mowgli the boy or 'man-cub' who lived in the jungle with his friends — Akela, a wolf, Bagheera, a black panther, and Baloo, a bear, courtesy The Jungle Book. But until a few days ago we couldn't have thought in our wildest dreams that the photos of a real-life Bagheera will eventually fill all our social media timelines. Thanks to wildlife photographer Shaaz Jung, who spent an excruciating and exciting three years to document Saya by shadowing the majestic black panther captured in the dense Kabini forest in Karnataka's Nagarhole. "I went numb the first time I saw the panther. I forgot to lift the camera and take a picture until the driver reminded me. It was a fleeting glimpse but it will forever be etched deep in my memory. I will never forget the first time I looked into Saya's luminous eyes. What a magnificent animal!" Shaaz, the man behind the lens tells Edex.
The photos of Saya that went viral were actually posted first in 2018 by Shaaz on Twitter but it became a huge hit on social media in July 2020 garnering attention from celebrities, wildlife enthusiasts and the general public. Typically, wildlife photographers have a pretty niche audience and not everyone gets it, but these photos seem to have connected to a larger audience clearly. Responding to how the newfound fame feels, Shaaz says, "As a wildlife photographer, fame is never our priority. However, in today's digital era, our photographs have garnered the ability to reach millions of people on various platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. This can actually attract a crazy amount of attention and it's important to not let it affect me or photographers who capture the wild. The jungle and being amidst nature's grandeur has really grounded me. Spending time in the forest for days and months helps me realise how insignificant we are. Our fame means nothing."
The Jungle is watching by Shaaz Jung
Shaaz, who has been known for documenting big cats, is a wildlife photographer and filmmaker for National Geographic. He spent the last three years making a film for Nat Geo on a filming permit documenting Saya. "This permit allowed us to spend ample time in the park in order to track and document Saya. It's been an incredible journey that has taught me the art of patience. Contrary to popular belief, there is only one panther in Nagarhole and we would sometimes go months without seeing him. It's been one of my most challenging projects but also equally rewarding," adds Shaaz.
Years of research has shown that the majestic black panthers are inhabitants of evergreen forests, where the sunlight rarely reaches the ground because of being blocked out by the thick canopy of trees that are significant to such forests, however, Saya is found in the deciduous Kabini forests, and that was quite fascinating for the wildlife photographer. Shaaz knew it would be challenging and an extremely difficult capture but that did not stop him from embarking on this adventure. "Saya wasn't just surviving, he was thriving against the odds of natural selection, in a forest where he didn't really belong. I was fascinated by this and wanted to understand how he was adapting to the dry and hot summers. The movie for National Geographic throws light on this and our hardest sequence to capture was him making a successful hunt. We spent two years trying and finally got it," he tells us.
Portrait of Saya by Shaaz Jung
Shaaz's love for wildlife could be called genetic. Hailing from a family of wildlife enthusiasts, no wonder he fell in love with the wild beasts quite early in his life. "Our passions are shaped by what we are exposed to as children. My parents spent a lot of time in the forest and that instilled a deep love for wildlife in me. I have beautiful memories of the forests and I would like my children to have the same upbringing. Nature is where it all begins and it is important for us to connect more with nature's rhythm of life," quips the photographer. Shaaz studied Economics at Utrecht University in the Netherlands but soon realised he was not cut out for the corporate world. He moved to the jungle to help his family and never turned back.
Scarface scars by Shaaz Jung
Shaaz's first leopard encounter was with a young male that he called Scarface and the photos and videos from his initial days tell us that the introduction to Scarface is what made Shaaz fall in love with wildlife photography. He agrees. "Scarface and Cleopatra were the catalysts. They evoked a deep love for leopards in me. I've named and followed them for the past 10 years and I've learnt more from leopards than I have from humans. Tracking Saya is very similar to tracking Scarface, as they are both bold and resident male leopards," he adds. While Shaaz has been a photographer for the past 10 years, he equally enjoyed the role of being a cinematographer for the Nat Geo film. "Photography allowed me to immortalise moments but cinematography enables me to tell more meaningful stories. It's always been a dream to tell the story of Kabini's leopards and I was delighted to do that with our National Geographic film. I love how the camera and documenting the animals have the ability to showcase the life of wilderness and inspire people in the hope that it could spark change," he says. However, he adds that sometimes it can be extremely tiring when he has had to wait for years even to get the perfect shot, "but the jungle has taught me patience as it is quite unpredictable. It is sometimes mentally and physically exhausting but I feel the time is worth it. It's all about the chase after all when it comes to documenting wildlife."
Saya wasn't just surviving, he was thriving against the odds of natural selection, in a forest where he didn't really belong. I was fascinated by this and wanted to understand how he was adapting to the dry and hot summers
Shaaz Jung, wildlife photographer
As we spoke to him even more, we found out that Shaaz is not just a photographer but has many more talents — hospitality and eco-tourism are also his professions. "I run wildlife lodges in South India and East Africa. Hospitality and Ecotourism is my profession, but over the past few years, photography and cinematography have started to shape my journey. I am now working on a draft for a new film and writing a couple of books, which I would like to publish soon," he tells us. Shaaz also runs his family's eco-friendly resort The Bison in Kabini, which uses solar energy and provides employment to the people from the local village. "We have a lesser number of rooms and we also use wood, canvas to build our structures as it is definitely more environment-friendly than concrete. Our industry has been hit the hardest due to the pandemic and the socio-economic impact it has had in the area, has been severe. The Bison is now open, however, we are using our eco-friendly nature to our advantage and making sure we follow strict protocols. We have immense respect for the locals and indigenous tribes. Their safety is important to us and we would like all prospective travellers to understand this," he concludes.