A former hunter of wild elephants, 69-year-old Dinesh Choudhury has now taken up the camera to capture the raw expressions of wildlife

It has been about four years since Assam’s famous hunter Dinesh Choudhury shelved his Winchester .458 bore Magnum rifle, which he used, mostly to chase away and to eliminate, in extreme cases, wild elephants proclaimed as rogues by the State Environment and Forest Department. However, he has not stopped shooting — only a professional camera has replaced the rifle.

A passionate wildlife observer and repository of first-hand knowledge on the forests of Assam, Mr. Choudhury has a huge collection of wildlife photographs taken in the grasslands of Kaziranga National Park, Pabitora Wildlife sanctuary, Manas National Park and various other forests of the State and also in Ranthambore National park.

A State-recognised hunter based in Guwahati, Mr. Choudhury developed intimacy with nature and wildlife from his childhood days. His landowner family had the expertise of mela shikar, the traditional method of capturing wild elephant and this gave him an opportunity to explore nature and get hands-on training on hunting in forests of undivided Assam from early years of his life. For most parts of the past six decades, he has been on the trail of wild elephants, either riding on the family’s elephants or driving a Land Rover, which he would repair himself, when required.

Over a period of 30 years when his services were requisitioned by the State Environment and Forest Department to eliminate at least 50 wild elephants proclaimed by the department as rogues, Mr. Choudhury killed only six of them — that too only those which charged at him and tried to kill him. It was because of the ethics of hunting that were driven into him by his mentor — the bor-phandi (master catcher, who is expert in lassoing of an elephant in mela shikar) of the Choudhury family, late Hazi Md Umaruddin Sheikh. “His lessons on hunting ethics as well as hunting code of conduct were driven into my blood stream. He told me to think at least hundred times before taking away the life of an elephant. He said that a hunter should shoot only to save his life when an elephant charges with an intention to kill the hunter. I used to go for hunting not to eliminate but to chase away,” says the 69-year-old hunter-turned-wildlife photographer.

In 1983, when Mr. Choudhury’s services were requisitioned by the Forest Department for first time as an independent hunter to eliminate a “rogue” elephant in Holongapar Reserved Forest in Jorhat, he tracked it for several days but decided not to shoot it as he found that the bad temper of the pachyderm was only a temporary phase due to musth, a sexual aggressive period that occurs in male elephants. The rouge retreated deep into the forests later.

Because of his strong fundamentals of hunting ethics, he, however, has no repentance for killing the six rogues. “If we do not eliminate the rogues that continue to be a danger to lives and properties of human beings, there would be retaliatory action by the villagers affected by the rogues and that would mean trouble for an entire herd of wild elephants inhabiting the nearby forest, not just the rogue. Elephants being prolific breeders, eliminating one male — productive or unproductive, will not have any impact on the breeding since another matured male will soon take over,” he says.

One of the central characters of a famous book To The Elephant Graveyard written by British journalist Tarquin Hall and published by John Murray, Albemarle Street, London, in 2000, Mr. Choudhury was in a dilemma as to what he would do after shelving the rifle. His desire was to remain attached to the forest and its wonderful biodiversity for the rest of his life. “It came to my mind that a camera can help me capture the rare and amazing moments inside a forest and also share it with people. Through trial and error wildlife photography gradually became my new found passion,” he narrates.

Apart from his admirers, nature lovers did not miss the opportunity to rediscover the famous hunter as a passionate wildlife photographer as they visited the State Art Gallery to see the photographs taken by him displayed in his first solo exhibition this week titled ‘Kalpanar Prithivi: Through the Lens’. The exhibition was sponsored by the Kaziranga Wildlife Society which also awarded its lifetime achievement award for the year 2011 to Mr. Choudhury recognising his services towards the cause of biodiversity. His quest for nature came alive in 78 photographs that include some eye-catching moments like a tiger devouring a kill, egret chasing a sandpiper to snatch its catch, elephant herd on migration, sunbird exploring nectar and rhinos awaiting their turn to ease.