A teenage wildlife photographer travels from India to Kyrgyzstan in search of the perfect shot (from his camera!)
Growing up on a farm in a small Indian village, Udayan Rao Pawar shared his father’s enthusiasm for wildlife from an early age. Together, they would spend hours observing the rich and diverse fauna of their village; Udayan teaching himself how to operate a camera in the process. In 2012, at the tender age of 14, he took a photo that would turn him into a teenage celebrity: a litter of young Gharials, a species of local river crocodiles, perched atop their mother’s head. The shot won him the 2013 Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year award, one of the most prestigious honors in the field.
Two years later, this teenage photo phenom and aspiring conservationist has accompanied our team on a field trip into Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, looking for the perfect image! He brought home amazing photos and stories – and, upon his return, decided to donate 50,000 Indian rupees (around $750) from his Young Wildlife Photographer’s prize money to snow leopard conservation projects in Kyrgyzstan.
We were all touched by Udayan’s talent and his generous spirit, and we’re happy and honored that he has agreed to share stories and photos from his trip here.
By Udayan Rao Pawar
Many, many thanks to Mr Koustubh Sharma and Mr Kubanych Zhumabai for giving me this great opportunity. I had expressed an interest in visiting Kyrgyzstan to photograph Argalis and to get field experience in conservation work on Snow Leopards being done by the SLT. I was greatly thrilled when I was told by Kuban sir that I could join him in October for his field trip to Sarychat Ertash reserve for collection of camera traps followed by a trip to Naryn for photographing Marco Polo Argali.
I took off from Delhi, leaving the heavy smog behind. Soon the snow-clad himalayas came into view rising high above the plains in the distance. We flew over a vast jumble of mountains. I sat glued to the window, eager to see the Pamirs from above, but a dense cover of clouds obstructed my view. When I landed in Bishkek it was snowing heavily, in sharp contrast to nearly 40 deg Celsius when I took off from Delhi.
Mr Kuban introduced me to his colleagues madam Cholpon Abasova and Mr Ilia Domashov.
It was both very interesting as well as instructive for me to see the expedition take shape. I listened with great interest as Kuban sir and Ilia sir discussed the plans for our trip to the mountains and the preparations required before it. It was also great fun making several trips to the market for buying provisions. Finally it was time to depart. We drove off towards Issyk kul on a very fine road built by China, connecting Bishkek to Urumqi.
Into the Heart of the Tian Shan
I was struck by the beauty of the lake Issyk kul, surrounded by the snow capped peaks of the Alatau range. A Ramsar site, it had lots of waterfowl including some swans on its fringes, but we didn’t check on them as we were getting late for Salburun festival. It was late in the afternoon when we reached Bokonbayevo village near Issyk kul. The Salburun or “hunter’s zest” is organized each year to preserve the fast disappearing hunting traditions of the nomadic Kyrgyz people. I watched in awe as skilled horsemen shot off arrows from their composite bows, a deadly combination which had once enabled the nomadic hordes to conquer the greatest land empire in history.
I missed out on the Taigan races. Taigan is a sighthound breed perfectly adapted to the Tien Shan mountains. It was also a treat to see ‘berkutchis’ or falconers launch their Golden Eagles at a moving prey in the form of a fox pelt tied behind a galloping horse. The gory practice of live wolf baiting seemed to have been discontinued. There were also some trained Goshawks, Saker and Peregrine Falcons on display. Kuban sir told me that his grandfather was also an accomplished falconer, but the tradition is slowly dying out.
We spent the night at Kuban sir’s house in the nearby village, and were lovingly looked after by his mother who reminded me of my own grandmother. She not only piled us with all sorts of homemade delicacies but also gave a bunch of apples fresh from the garden when we departed. Unlike my own village in India, the villages here were more prosperous, neatly laid out and with all the facilities of a small town. The next morning we stocked ourselves with fresh provisions for our trip and moved on.
On the way we stopped at the park directors’s office at Barskoon village to thank him for all his help and support. It was here that Urmat, a park ranger joined us for the trip, greeting us with his beaming golden smile, for it is a common practice here to cap one’s teeth in gold. And we were now in the vicinity of one of the largest gold mine in the world and travelling up an excellent road built by the mining company. Before we reached the Sarychat Ertash reserve our border passes were checked, for we were now close to the border across which lay the Xinjiang province of China.
It was late in the evening and bitterly cold when we reached the camp near the main entrance to the reserve. The rangers Askat and Temur had reached there earlier along with the horses. I could barely sleep due to excitement as Kuban sir had said that I’d get to see hundreds of Argalis the next day on our way to the pass inside the reserve. I set out early in the morning with my photography gear, hoping to get some images before the rest of the parties could catch up. I did see some ewes, but spent my time trying to photograph a group of fine horses, which it later turned out were our very own who had wandered off in the night. I had also strayed off having taken a wrong path and we were together rounded up by Kuban sir and the rangers. We did get to see hundreds of argalis later in the day as we crossed the pass called Eshek-Art (donkey’s pass) (argalis pass would have been more fitting), but they were extremely shy and difficult to photograph. It was a similar sight previously, recalled Kuban sir, which had convinced a team he had accompanied, to recommend the cancellation of mining exploration inside the reserve as well as increase its protected area.
Camera Traps – a Window into a Secretive World
The next few days inside the reserve, some of the best in my life, were spent collecting the 40 camera traps spread out over the reserve, set up to monitor its Snow Leopard population. A team of rangers from other reserves had also joined us to learn from Kuban sir the art of placing camera traps. The signs to look for when selecting a site were scrapes and scent markings, often by sniffing the spots where the cat had sprayed suitable rock overhangs along its frequently used pathways. I was thrilled when I managed to locate one on my own. The evenings were spent in the camp huddled around Kuban sir as he examined the images and a cheer went up each time he exclaimed ” Ah! Snow Leopard” on seeing one in the recordings.
We also met Shannon Kachel and his team from Panthera who had successfully live trapped and radio collared a female Snow Leopard just a day before we reached the reserve. Visiting one of their sites we noticed a row of small boulders converging at a point where the snare had been laid. Kuban sir explained that this is an effective technique used by poachers to funnel the animals into a trap.
In the mornings I would set out early to try and photograph wildlife, for it took time to round up the horses, load the packs and prepare the meals. I got to see lot of Tolai Hares, Red Foxes and a lone wolf trotting away. Bird life was scarce, most of it having migrated to warmer regions. I did see a few Chukars, a Sparrowhawk and Bearded Vultures. I also saw a large group of Ibexes a long way off and several groups of argalis, mostly ewes and young and a few males.
I was particularly drawn towards a bachelor group of large Argali rams in breeding pelage, concentrating my efforts in the last remaining days to photograph them. They were extremely wary, for the Argalis are widely hunted, the reserve itself being surrounded by 8 hunting concessions. On the last day of our stay, my efforts to go near these argalis using a dry stream bed as cover failed as I ran into a pack of wolves lying in wait for them, and they all bounded off in great alarm. On the day we departed from the reserve, I moved off early towards the pass, and when Mr Kuban joined me later he told me that he had run into the same group of argalis I had been after and witnessed their rut with the rams lunging at each other with a loud clash of horns. Sensing my disappointment on having missed out on it, he offered to allow me to stay on and try my luck, but sadly we had finished all our food rations and had to move on. On our way back outside the reserve we saw a suspicious looking sack lying by the side of the road. It had large chunks of a recently killed argali which a poacher had abandoned to avoid getting caught.
The winters had set in, for it snowed heavily for the next two days, blocking all the passes leading to the At-Bashy, south of Naryn, that I was planning to visit for Marco Polo Argali. Kuban sir arranged for me to go to Chong Kemin National Park instead, which had a small population of Maral or Tien Shan Deer. I enjoyed the hospitality at Mr Jengish’s home stay. Up in the mountains there was a complete whiteout and we sought shelter in an alpine log hut. It was bitterly cold and I burnt several holes in the sleeves of my synthetic jacket trying to warm my numb fingers in a wood fire. I admired the sturdiness of our Kyrgyz horses which stood exposed to the cold outside, their fur caked in snow.
The weather cleared, revealing a beautiful view of snow covered forests before us. From a vantage point Mr Jengish glassed the opposite slopes for Maral. Squatting next to him I saw an empty cartridge shell sticking out of the snow. I was reminded of some videos I had seen of Maral stags being hunted by luring them with mating calls during the rut. A doe and a calf cautiously stepped out into a clearing in the forest. In another open patch we could see a stag. They were a long way off.
On the 4th day of our efforts I was rewarded with a close shot inside the forest. It was a steep descent and luckily we had dismounted, leading our horses by their bridle. Jengish, who was leading suddenly froze and beckoned me excitedly, with his arms raised like antlers, to come forward. I whipped out my camera from the bag and got some good snaps of a beautiful stag in his prime before he disappeared in the forest.
Getting a photo of an animal is more challenging, and satisfying, than hunting it
I often feel that it is much more challenging, and satisfying, to obtain a good photograph of an animal than to hunt it. With modern high powered rifles and improved optics it is not very difficult to bring down an animal from a long way off. I was told that recently a lady hunter had shot two young ibex, one after the other, sparring with each other on a ridge nearly a kilometer and a half away.
Back at Jengish’s house everybody was eager to see Maral’s photograph, for it is a totem animal by which some of the Kyrgyz tribes like the Bugu and the Sarybagysh derive their name. In the evening Jengish’s brother rushed off with his rifle, for there was news of a sheep having been killed by wolves. Retaliatory killings are quite common here. Lots of people I met showed me images of slain wolves in their mobiles. Bounties are paid instead of incentives for predator proofing the pens.
Jengish’s brother shared with me some of the images of Marco Polo Argali and Markhor and experiences from his study tour of hunting conservancies from Tajikistan and Afghanistan. It is said that trophy hunting can generate substantial revenues in a region that is remote and lacks infrastructure to support ecotourism, which can then channelised to promote conservation and support local communities. I also showed him some images of Tibetan Argali and Ibex from my trips to Ladakh and Spiti in India where, through some innovative approaches, homestays are doing quite well, getting visitors even in winters to see and photograph snow leopards and other wildlife, whose sightings have increased.
The incredibly rich wildlife of the highlands of Central Asia, which includes the greatest and the most varied assemblage of mountain ungulates on Earth, needs to be conserved by all ways possible, even if it means to, perhaps sadly and oddly enough, kill them to save them.
The Pamirs remained veiled in a thick blanket of clouds even during my return flight, making me keen to come back again, to do my own version of Argali Slam, even perhaps, the Big Ovis/Capra Combo, of sorts.
About Udayan Rao Pawar:
Udayan Rao Pawar had contacted the Snow Leopard Trust to see if there was an opportunity for him to travel to Kyrgyzstan and accompany our field team on a trip. He covered all the costs for travel and accommodation himself. After his return from Kyrgyzstan, he asked to make a donation to the Snow Leopard Trust’s Kyrgyzstan program, which we gladly accepted.
“I grew up in his my ancestral house with a large garden, behind which lay forest covered hills. A pair mongoose lived in our store, Brown Rockchats and robins nested in the holes of our walls and Spotted Owlets and Grey Hornbills occupied the hollows in the old trees. There were occasional excitements when a rat snake killed a squirrel or a langur was chased up a tree by the dogs, or when a civet was found groggy in our wine room, or a flock of cranes was seen flying high above us. I would occasionally go out on my own into the woods beyond my house, just soaking in the smells, sights and sounds of the jungle. As my interest in wildlife grew I was gifted a pair of binoculars and later, a camera. I spent many happy hours photographing birds and animals, constantly referring to my field guide to identify them.
Sadly, today there are few animals in my backyard. Jackals no longer howl behind our house, and the partridges have stopped calling. The forest has gone, replaced by a cluster of houses. I have to travel to far off sanctuaries to pursue my passion. Going out on field trips and visiting remote wilderness areas, I became aware of the richness of our land, its great natural diversity, and also its rapid deterioration. All this has made me a keen naturalist and a committed conservationist.”