It is rare sighting of a male leopard and a melanistic (black) female leopard. So, when R. Prakash captured the moment on his Canon D 40, it created a buzz among wildlife enthusiasts. It has already become the most commented picture on India Nature Watch, a popular online forum for wildlife photographers.

Describing the moment, Prakash says, “It was in the evening when we spotted them on a rock in the Nilgiris forest. We were on foot at about 50 to 60 feet away. They stared into the camera for about five minutes and walked away to the den below. No one has so far spotted the cats together in day time,” he adds. This made the photograph unique, and won him the third prize from 16,000 entries for the RBS Wildlife Award (instituted by Sanctuary Magazine). It appears on the cover of the December issue of Sanctuary Asia. The copyrighted picture will soon grace the pages of Mammals of Asia, a coffee table book brought out by Bangalore based Wildlife Conservation Society.

Nature and wildlife has been a passion since childhood for Prakash. He has trekked the forests of the Anamalais, Top slip, Valpaarai and Silent Valley for over 20 years. Later, his canon D40 came into the picture, and he took to wildlife photography in a big way.

He has been on a Maasai Mara Safari in Kenyan forests, in time for the ‘wildebeest (antelope) migration’ from Serengeti, across a crocodile infested river to Maasai Mara in Tanzania. Though the great migration didn’t happen, he spotted hyenas and rhinos.

Indian wildlife is thrilling, he says. Leopards are his favourite. “It is elusive, nocturnal and harmless. As tigers dominate the forests, leopards generally live on the fringes. Dogs are their easy prey. They even take the prey to a tree top and devour it,” he says. Rosettes (spots) on leopards are unique too, like finger prints. No two leopards have the same spots.

Bird watching was the starting point of his journey into wildlife. His photograph of a crested tree swift in Kotagiri estate is extra special because it is rare to see a swift on a tree. It is always in flight. He mentions the black baza (resembles an eagle), a winter visitor from the Himalayas, which he has clicked at the Thattekad bird sanctuary in Aluva. His photographs of tigers and leopards spotted at Ranthambore sanctuary, Saras cranes at Bharatpur bird sanctuary, the great pied hornbill (the fast vanishing Indian hornbill) in the Anamalias and the Lion Tailed Macaques (LTMs) are up on www.indianaturewatch.com, an educative forum where photographers log on and post their comments. “If you post a query on birds, wild life or camera, you get 100 replies instantly, which is motivating,” he adds.

He is charged up talking about his recent expedition to the Bandipur Sanctuary, as he sighted the majestic tigers a number of times. “With the dwindling numbers, it becomes all the more urgent to photograph them, at least to document them for the future,” he says. He is also attracted by the behaviour of elephants (especially the way they take care of the younger ones).

Prakash is a trove of information. Wild dogs, he says are the deadliest animals. “They can finish off a prey in a matter of five minutes. They rule the forest, even tigers stay away. We videographed a pack of 20 to 30 of them attacking a bison calf. It is the law of Nature to maintain the ecological balance and we didn’t disturb them,” he says.

“Animal corridors are blocked by human habitation. It leads to man-animal conflict, especially in Valparai where the forests are eaten up by tea estates. I have some 1,000 photos of elephant herds all spotted near Thadagam Road, within the city limits,” he adds. Habitat loss is a big threat to wild life, he says. He himself has been chased by elephants a number of times during his treks. His NGO, Wild Wing Society looks into wildlife conservation, tribal welfare and activities such as plastic eradication inside forests.

While Prakash has built up a repository of five to six thousand photographs, he also wants to motivate others. Wildlife photography and treks help people connect with nature, and educate them on wildlife conservation. Trekking is a fascinating way to watch wildlife in their natural environment. “It is a general misconception that forests are mysterious places. Animals live in harmony there. Taking in the greenery, watching the animals and breathing pollution free air in an enriching experience,” he maintains. Next, he wants to go on a seven-day trek from Top slip to Eravikulam in Kerala. At the moment a weekend wildlife buff, he says: “Wildlife de-stresses and recharges your batteries and you can start the week afresh. More than anything else, the thrill of watching animals is a real high. I would love to do it full-time.”

Memorable: “A 11-hour trek from silent Valley to Ooty, starting at Nilambur up to Sispara pass in Ooty. We reached Sispara Pass at 5.30 p.m. and realised that we couldn’t trek back. We remained there all night, trekked back and ate only the next day. It was strenuous as we had to battle with the leeches in the dense evergreen forest, but it was unforgettable.

Favourite photograph: The colourful oriental white eye clicked in Kotagiri. It has an attractive greenish yellow body and a white ring around its eyes.

Appeal: Enrol and participate in the annual forest department census on animal population. Watch out for the ads in newspapers

M. Sivalingam, a planter in Kotagiri shared the award with Prakash. Sivalingam describes the experience. “It was in 2006, that we first spotted two black leopards. For the next four years, we waited patiently to catch a glimpse of the big cat. On August 15, about 3 p.m. there was sunlight falling on a rock. There was a slight drizzle. And, the leopards came out! They stayed for a flashing second and disappeared again. To our astonishment, they came out again. First, the white leopard settled itself on the rock and the black one followed, providing the perfect photo op. It was thrilling,” he says.