As India’s forested areas come under increasing pressure, interactions between humans and wildlife have only become more complicated, marked by both cruelty and compassion.
It’s this conflicted relationship that features in many of the winning entries of this year’s Sanctuary Wildlife Photography awards, the longest-running such prize in the country. Organised by Sanctuary Asia, a conservation and environment-protection initiative established in 1981, the competition drew 5,000 entries from across Asia. On Nov. 05, at a ceremony at Mumbai’s Royal Opera House, eight photographers were awarded prizes.
Here are the winning images:
Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017: “Hell is Here” by Biplab Hazra
The heat from the fire scorches their delicate skin as the elephant mother and calf attempt to flee the mob. In the lead, the mother’s expansive ears are angled forward as she ignores the crowd of jeering men. Behind her, her calf screams in confusion and fear as the fire licks at her feet. Flaming tar balls and crackers fly through the air to a soundtrack of human laughter and shouts. In the Bankura district of West Bengal, this sort of humiliation of pachyderms is routine, as it is in the other elephant-range states of Assam, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu, among others. India is the world’s stronghold for the Asian elephant, home to over 70 per cent of the global population of the species. But this achievement rings hollow as vital elephant habitats and routes continue to be ravaged, and human-elephant conflict escalates to a fatal degree.
Winner, open category, art in nature: “An Ephemeral Masterpiece” by Abhishek Nandkishor Neelam Satam
On Chivla beach in Malwan, Maharashtra, a starfish collaborates with pea crabs and sea shells to create a fleeting masterpiece that will soon be washed away by the tide. The delicate whorls and loops traced in the sand by the scuttling crabs emphasise the firmer movement of the starfish, whose body imprints deeply but momentarily on the beach. These gentle, placid delights of being outdoors weren’t lost on Abhishek Nandkishor Neelam Satam, who found these artists at work while on a survey for the National Institute of Oceanography.
Winner, open category, conservation photography: “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” by Anand Bora
The image tells an inspirational story of a leopard that fell into a well in Nashik, Maharashtra, where it swam for an incredible 30 hours before being discovered, barely alive. The cat would undoubtedly have died had it not been for local villagers, who, once informed, swung instantly into action by alerting forest officials, and then pitched in to help them. At great risk to life and limb, using the remarkable ingenuity for which the people of rural India are renowned, villagers and officials worked in unison against all odds to save the leopard.
Joint winner, open category, creatures great and small: “Epomis Modus Operandi” by Mahadev Suresh Bhise
Lure your victim by appearing helpless. Attack the throat with your curved, hook-like mandibles. Clamp down and begin your feast. This is the modus operandi of the larvae of the ground beetles of the genus Epomis that predate exclusively on amphibians. And this chilling image is believed to be only the second record of Epomis predation on an amphibian in India. That the amphibian in question is the endemic and critically-endangered Amboli bush frog demands further study to understand the impact that these unassuming predators are having on frog populations in the Western Ghats. The dilated eye of the dying frog and the larvae obscenely hanging out of its throat make this crisp image eye-catching, but it is the questions that it prompts that make it exceptional.
Joint winner, open category, creatures great and small: “Forsaken” by Milinda Wattegedara
Death is inevitable. A spotted deer struggles furiously and helplessly as a bask of crocodiles enter into a feeding frenzy. It turns its eyes heavenwards, but seconds later it is ripped to shreds by the ravenous reptiles. The acute desperation evident in this image captured on the banks of the Buthawa tank in Yala National Park is enough to trigger one’s fight-or-flight response. The ill-fated deer was originally felled by just one crocodile, but the others were quick to join in. Last year, we compared Milind Wattegedara’s equally well-timed special mention image to a Monet painting, this year it’s reminiscent of a twisted, jungle-themed Botticelli. With his steady hand, he has framed a staggering, action-packed image that depicts the gory, no-rules-apply rule of Mother Nature.
Young Photographer of the Year 2017 and winner, young category, conservation photography: “Last Port of Call” by Vishruth Cavale
A plastic crate in the Mangalore Port cradles the lifeless body of a shark ray. Though not a targeted species by most Indian fisheries, shark rays are nonetheless considered valuable bycatch. Soon this specimen will be sold—its meat dried, salted and consumed locally, while its fins perhaps find their way to the Far East to be cooked into a soup. These graceful shallow-water dwellers are classified as ‘vulnerable,’ and though there is scant data on their biology and population, it is accepted that they are facing global decline. Vishruth Cavale has made a poignant, desolate image that is emblematic of the ongoing, silent annihilation of dozens of little-known species across the world.
Winner, young category, creatures great and small: “Three’s a Crowd” by Drishti Hoskote
In Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park, where colossal metamorphic rock formations look out over the Indian Ocean, a pair of peafowls study a slumbering leopard. Belly full and sated after a successful morning hunt, the spotted cat had scaled the boulder and then been lulled to sleep by the tropical sun. Velutinous tail casually hanging down, oozing self-assurance even in repose, the leopard was oblivious to the vigilant birds, who kept one eye on the predator while exploring the scene. The stunning composition of this image and the quiet interaction that it depicts make Drishti Hoskote a winner in our books.
Winner, young category, art in nature: “Smoke on Water” by is Vishruth Cavale
Mystic plumes of smoke seem to waft across the waters of a lake in Lalbagh, Bengaluru. But it wasn’t mists but an egret that Vishruth Cavale photographed that October evening. These ubiquitous herons are a common sight across the Indian countryside and even urban areas. However, by capturing the movement of these commonplace birds along the water’s edge in a milky smear, Cavale has made an enigmatic frame.
Winner, young category, nature in urbania: “Valparai Vagrant” by Sitara A Karthikeyan
Are our closest cousins getting too close for comfort? At a pitstop on the drive up to Valparai in the Anamalai Hills, Sitara A Karthikeyan observed a bonnet macaque perched on the tyre of a tourist vehicle. As various states in India lobby to cull or sterilise monkey populations, and grapple inefficiently with chronic monkey-human conflict, the simians continue to adapt as best as they can to live alongside humans. Unfortunately, root problems—shrinking wild habitats, an abysmal lack of waste management systems, and the annoying penchant that tourists have for feeding monkeys—continue to fester. The soft tones of this image, the monkey’s pronounced bonnet, and its disconcertingly expressive eyes call for a moment of introspection, and the realisation that this is yet another species that’s trying to survive the age of the Anthropocene.