Wildlife photographer Sriram Janak calls the forest his home, the elephants his love and the white peacock at Thiruparankundram hills his best friend

“Just take my elephants on your cover, not me. They are more beautiful,” says Sriram Janak. Sriram has always loved nature and the outdoors. He still keeps water on the windowsill for squirrels and crows, and he gets excited about close encounters with birds. “I wake up in the night to listen to cuckoos on the tree near my house,” he says. “Once, nearly 200 egrets visited the pipal tree in our apartments. I also spotted a golden oriole once.”

He jumps to the computer. “Let me show what I do.”

Sriram shows pictures of young elephants playing at Corbett National Park. “This was last month, one of my best trips in life. I was blessed to be there.” For the next two hours, he runs slideshows of amazing frames – flying flamingos, fighting tuskers, yawning tigers and charging rhinos. “It was an evening by the Ramganga River. A herd of mother elephants and nearly 20 young ones were playing and having mud bath,” he recalls. “We watched them for hours in silence. Watching elephants is bliss.”

Decades ago, armed with a fourth-hand Yashica camera, Sriram used to run behind the flameback woodpecker and paradise flycatcher that visited his grandmother’s backyard. From the backyard, he branched out to nearby Azhagar hills and discovered the purple sunbird and weaver bird. He had little idea then that someday he would come face-to-face with a full-grown wild tusker. At Corbett once, 12 elephants charged his jeep. “Even a whisper or talk can irritate animals in the forest,” says Sriram. “There are numerous instances when we have been charged by elephants and rhinos. Being a wildlife photographer is nothing glamorous or brave. It’s about immense self-satisfaction and love for animals. If you are able to connect with the psyche of animals, then nothing like it.”

First tiger encounter

Ten years back, he saw his first tiger in Ranthambore. “It was my first trip to the tiger reserve and the initial few safaris were dry and we couldn’t spot a tiger. And then suddenly, we got news on the walkie-talkie that a tiger is sitting right in the middle of the main road. I rushed to the spot and took so many shots.” None of his shots were great, Sriram recalls, but that moment kindled his interest.

“If I get one nice shot out of 50 or 60 frames, I am happy for a week and for the next week, I go out for another,” says Sriram. “I bought a macro lens for insects and I am waiting for the rains to shoot.” Kabini Sanctuary in Karnataka and Corbett are his favourites, and he’d rather watch elephants than wait for a tiger. “They are more dynamic and there is always action and you can always get some wonderful shots,” he says. “Elephants have emotions like humans. It’s amazing to see and learn from them.”

Learning from animals

For Sriram, there is much to learn from animals. He says that it was the white peacock at Thiruparankundram hills that taught him patience. “I waited for one-and-a-half years to spot the bird. One day, I was there by 5.30 in the morning and finally I got to see him,” he says. “I used to go there daily and he started recognizing me. He used to come near, sit beside me and preen and even dance in front of me. He became my best friend here.” Though the area is cordoned off these days, Sriram manages to get in with permission from the forestry and temple authorities. But he rues the plastic debris left by tourists on the hills.

It was also the white peacock that brought Sriram fame. “I wrote an article on the white peacock and sent the pictures along to Sanctuary Asia and it got published. Following this, I got a mail from Maneka Gandhi asking for the photograph of the peacock to be displayed at an expo in Delhi to raise funds for charity,” he beams. “I was paid fifty per cent of the money the photo fetched, with which I bought a 70-200 lens, one of the fastest lenses.”

Capturing birds

Early mornings in the monsoons are best to capture birds around Madurai, according to Sriram. “He would leave a note saying he is off to the hills,” says his wife, Lalitha. “I and my daughter Sumitra have been accompanying him to sanctuaries and national parks. I assist him in changing lenses quickly so that he doesn’t miss the leopard while it’s still on the tree. We are a family who love going on trips into the wild. Once we return to the city, we feel like going back again.”

Sriram has been to almost all the sanctuaries in India and once to Kruger National Park in Africa, but his dream is to visit elephant country — Botswana. “I consciously save money for my trips and equipment,” he says. “I invest in shares for living.” A few of his photos have been published on covers of wildlife magazines, and a couple of shots have gone into coffee table books and the Bombay Natural History Society’s journal. Sriram has signed up for Nature’s Best, an international competition, and is waiting for the results. “In India, you really can’t live on photographs,” he says. “Wildlife photography is a costly passion. I have a 200-400 lens. Now, I’ve got a 600 and still the wants never end.”

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