The Shutter-happy royal who found his calling on spotting his first leopard

A descendant of the royal Pataudi family of Bhopal and the Paigahs of Hyderabad, 31-year-old Shaaz is a big-cat tracker and professional wildlife photographer
Recently, two images of Saya, a rare black panther, were put out by Earth from their twitter handle. The big cat treading in the jungles of Nagarhole, Karnataka, took the internet by storm and the photographs went viral within no time. The man behind the lens, Shaaz Jung, says he had spent nearly three tiring years -- about 900 days -- filming the panther.

A descendant of the royal Pataudi family of Bhopal and the Paigahs of Hyderabad, 31-year-old Shaaz is a big-cat tracker and professional wildlife photographer. His association with the wilds of India is decades old. His father, Saad Bin Jung, a famed conservationist, left a career in professional cricket to pursue his love for wildlife. Shaaz, who grew up in Kabini, Karnataka, spent most of his childhood in the safari lodges set up by his parents. Little did he realise then, that the casual safari tours were "brewing the passion for wildlife in him."

"It's all about what you are exposed to as a child. I would grow up watching Lion King. I would engage with animals. It was a passion waiting to explode," he says.

Shaaz graduated from Utrecht University in The Netherlands. He was supposed to take up a corporate job in New York, but came back to India for three months as the job wasn't taking off. And he never left.

"I spent most of those three months in one of the safaris in Kabini. I realised it was my calling and that is what I wanted to do. I think it all changed when I first saw a leopard named Scarface, who kind of shaped my destiny."

Scarface once had a fierce fight with his father over territory which left a scar on the face.

In the initial days of his career, Shaaz was a naturalist and a guide in Nagarhole, where he would lead people from all corners of the globe to the forest. For almost a year, he didn't have a camera. He wouldn't have got the time to shoot in any case, as he had to spot animals and educate people as a guide. The few photographs that he managed to take were just baby steps in his study of different leopards.

"I never went for professional training. Over time, I understood the power of the camera which had the ability to celebrate life, spark change and inspire people. That's when my journey as a photographer started and I began taking my profession seriously. I used the camera to inspire and educate people around the world."

Shaaz's images are powerful and blend perfectly with art. For him, photography has always been a personal journey of self-discovery. He believes bringing photography and art together would draw a lot more people into the wild space. "Instead of just photographers seeing my work, i now have connoisseurs of art buying and owning it. Art has allowed me to educate people and spread awareness."

What drew him to the leopard was the elusive nature of the creature. Shaaz was always intrigued by them over other big cats. "Everyone grows up in awe of the mighty tiger. But when I started photography and research, very few people knew much about leopards. The wildlife space was tiger- and elephant-centric. No one had really spent much time or had acquired the ability to track leopards. They weren't easy to spot. Nagarhole has a very good leopard population and gave me the perfect opportunity to understand an animal that not many people had in the past. I love the agility of the leopard and its ability to adapt. It can live in a jungle, in a village and even in a city, like it does in and around Mumbai"

In 2016, a lone black panther popped up in the forests of Nagarhole. "I didn't believe it when I first received a call from the safaris saying that there was a panther in the forest. Later, in the evening, I got a picture of the animal. I spent the next one month trying to find the big cat, but failed to spot it. He was young back then, and very shy. Seven months later, someone saw it again and informed me. With time, the creature had grown in size," says Shaaz.

The Jungle is watching the panther. Shaaz Jung

Shaaz says black panthers are very rare in India and around the world. He continues: "The black panther is the same as a leopard, but the genetic mutation is very very rare. It lacks the Agouti gene which basically regulates the colour in the fur. It has melanin in abundance. Black panthers survive, adapt and camouflage better than regular coloured leopard in thick, dark and evergreen forests such as the ones in Malaysia. Therefore it is a dominant gene over there. In India, it's a recessive gene, which means that it is very difficult to multiply. Even if it mates with a regular leopard, the cubs will be regular coloured."

Panther in the Mist. Photo: Shaaz Jung

So, he felt Saya did not belong to the forest. "Nagarhole is not an evergreen rain forest. For six to eight months it goes dry, making it difficult for the panther to camouflage. The black coating absorbs a lot of heat. He was thriving, surviving against the odds of natural selection.

The idea of filming the panther had excited Shaaz. He approached the National Geographic and they eventually came on board. "No one had filmed the panther before. I got the opportunity to track and study the characteristics of one individual who became very bold," Shaaz says. And it was during this shoot, he managed to capture the breathtaking images of the panther.

"I spent three years, from 2017-2020, shooting for the film The Real Black Panther. The process was strenuous and exhausting. Nevertheless, I loved the chase and rush to track the animal. For the initial one and half year, i couldn't even spot it. I went numb when i saw it for the first time. I forgot to lift my camera, i started shaking, I got weak in the knees. It was one of the best moments in my life," says Shaaz.

The biggest challenge though was getting enough footage to understand the panther's behaviour, like hunting, courting among other moments in the big cat's life. "Those are things that no one had ever captured a black panther doing before in the history of wildlife," says Shaaz.

The potrait of the black panther. Photo: Shaaz Jung

For a man who gave his all to film the panther, the leopard that he first saw -- Scarface -- still remains his favourite animal. Shaaz likes to spend his time off the jungle with his wife Naintara. He also leads photography expeditions in his eco-tourist camps in Africa. He uses eco-tourism as a tool for conservation.

Shaaz is also a founder of BCRTI (Buffer Conflict Resolution Trust in India), a non-profit organisation that addresses conflicts with the buffer regions of protected forests in South India. Feeling passionate about the human-animal conflict, he says: "It will be the next big thing India has to address. Our forests are shrinking and economic growth is the priority. One good thing is that the population of tigers and leopards is increasing due to successful park management. The solitary big cats with shrinking forests are being forced to migrate. When they move into villages, there is severe conflict."

"For farmers, an elephant destroying his livelihood is very sensitive. India is in dire need of a powerful Conservation Act to support the existing Wildlife Protection Act. Conservation and protection the wildlife are different. The root of conservation lies with the local people. The approach should be of a dialogue with all the stakeholders including the local communities, private people like me and the government."

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