Selected Works of F.W. Champion: Compiled by James Champion; Rainfed Books, 60/4, 4th Cross Street, Besant Nagar, Chennai-600090. Rs. 495.
Most Indians of the post-1947 generations may not have even heard of Fredrick Walter Champion (FWC), and much less of his Indian legacy. The anthology under review unveils FWC the man, who was first and foremost someone simply besotted with India’s wildernesses and all the denizens that inhabit those spaces, and therefore the messiah of our conservation movement.
Equally, FWC emerges as a distinguished, gazetted officer of the Indian Forest Service. In the 25 five years period preceding India’s Independence, his pioneering advocacy of creating National Parks in India (similar to those in the U.S. and South Africa) resulted first in the enactment of The National Parks Act, 1935 and a few years later, the creation of The Hailey National Park, today’s prestigious Corbett Tiger Reserve. These latter achievements became possible through the enthusiastic support of the Governor of the United Provinces, Sir Malcolm Hailey, who later became the Viceroy of India and further influenced the Wildlife Conservation paradigm in India.
Seizing the post World War I concessions for university education in the U.K., FWC left the Indian Army and enrolling in New College, Oxford he Post Graduated in Forestry, topping the class of 1922 and returned to India to assume charge of the Lansdowne Forest Division. He met and married Julia (Judy) at Lansdowne, the daughter of Lady Frances and Major General Sir Keith Stewart, KCB, DSO, of the Garhwal Rifles. Aided by this happy marriage and job-security, FWC was to emerge within the first 10 years of service as the undisputed pioneer of wildlife photography in India, and the first to successfully pursue free-ranging tigers armed with a camera, in their natural habitat, mostly in today’s Corbett Park.
Simultaneously, FWC flowered as a writer of refined, and enchanting prose which supported by his deft handling of cameras, found ready acceptance with prestigious publications such as The Illustrated London News and also by the two most exclusive out-doors magazines, The Field and Country Life. His first book, With A Camera In Tiger-Land, published in 1927 was received most enthusiastically. This was a great achievement considering that both photography and writing were merely persuasions on the side-lines of FWC’s demanding profession.
Perhaps the best testimony to FWC as a writer and naturalist lies firmly embedded in one of his earliest texts, A Remarkable “Sitting” by a Wild Tiger, published by the Illustrated London News; and appropriately, this is the first chapter of the anthology. In the course of his duty, FWC had learnt of several ways to intercept Tigers (so to speak), both while on their nocturnal hunts as also in their diurnal lairs! So taking a day off once, he had mounted on his favourite elephant Balmati in the company of his wife Judy, when shortly before mid-day Judy nudged FWC to indicate the tiger, which sighting provided the following description, more vivid than any visuals can ever be: “He lay, twelve yards away from us, with his mouth open, his sides heaving, yawning occasionally, sometime rolling right over on his side and sometime holding his head up, until his eyes began gradually to close with sleep. Every now and then he opened his eyes and looked at us, but always came to the conclusion that we were harmless, if somewhat boring, intruders who were disturbing his afternoon nap. He stayed there for perhaps a quarter of an hour, during which time we exposed all the Plates we had, gradually going closer and closer until the last Plate was exposed at a little under ten yards range … One simple shot, and all the life and movement would have gone from that beautiful striped body and could never be brought back again.” FWC was never to falter from that conviction.
Origin of tripwire
Remarkable as those images of the Tiger were for the sheer novelty of the endeavour, but the demanding photographer in FWC was quick to notice two technical blemishes, (a) arising from the uncontrolled effects of sunlight and shadows upon the subject and (b) the inevitable “camera-shake” induced by Balmati’s breathing rhythm. It was therefore a natural next step for FWC to (i) ensure a rigid mount for the camera (ii) induce the tiger to a pre-focused spot using a bait, and (iii) last but most importantly, to innovate a light-flash of sufficient intensity, to fire synchronously with the camera shutter-release for capturing true to life imagery. And this is what led FWC to use a tripwire as the trigger in his innovation which in today’s parlance and usage is termed, “Camera-Traps”. Once Mr. Nesbit of New York had patented a robust flash-light apparatus, FWC acquired one and used it thenceforth. Yet, the endeavour remained failures-riddled.
“I have arranged my apparatus perhaps 150 times in this way, and I have had a tiger pass only six times. Four times the flashlight was fired, the fifth time the tiger saw the trip-wire and stepped carefully over it and the sixth time the wire broke without completing the electric circuit. Of the four times the flashlight was fired, once the shutter failed to work and another time the tiger found the wire and took it in his mouth, the somewhat indifferent picture on Plate xxx showing him actually in the act of biting it! Of the remaining two exposures, one shows the tiger going away and the other is pictured on the frontispiece and is, I consider, the best photograph I have ever obtained.”
In my opinion, even in today’s digital-camera world, that black and white image will rank among the best of the best tiger photographs. Jim Corbett is on record that he took to tiger-photography on seeing FWC’s creations.
But what of FWC as a professional forester? Suffice to say that when the Forest Research Institute, Dehra Dun celebrated their Centenary in 1961, they picked on FWC, now in the twilight of his life-span, to write for the occasion his reminiscences which forms the last chapter of the book; “Wildlife in Indian Forests”. He deliberately chose “not to write about the scientific side of forestry” but rather about the denizens of the Indian jungle and their conservation-needs which according to FWC must be integral to the basic precepts of the forestry paradigm and practices. And he went on to emphasis once again, that “I had lost all desire to kill wild animals. Not that this has proved any loss to me because I have found that wildlife photography provides all the thrills and excitement of hunting without having to shed any blood at all ...”
Lest it be misunderstood that FWC was exclusively tiger-centric, let me state that the 24 pieces in this anthology range from elephants to squirrels, Indian wild dog to black bear, jungle cats to butterflies and so on. And among that photo-trove of FWC there was one classic, trip-wire image which revealed to the world for the first time, that sloth bears carry their cubs, piggy-back!
The frontispiece has Balmati and her mahout, Karim Baksh in a charcoal portrait. And at the end of each chapter is a tiny perched bird, a likeness of the Coal Tit photographed by FWC at age 17 and which fetched him six Shillings in prize money! Altogether, the anthology compiled by James Champion, FWC’s doting grandson, makes compelling reading.