“I was so anxious, my heart was racing and I had sweaty palms. I was about to see him for the first time and when I did, I was so stunned that I forgot to pick up my camera for the first five seconds. He was majestic and flaunted a thick black coat,” says Shaaz Jung, a wildlife photographer, recalling his first glimpse of Saya, the lone black panther that lives in the forests of Kabini in Karnataka.
Pictures of the panther have gone viral and have been tweeted by international media organisations like BBC. Though Saya, the melanistic leopard, has been now gaining attention across the world, Shaaz was on his trail for over five years.
“I remember the first time I heard of him: I was in Bengaluru and received a call saying a black panther was spotted in Kabini. A tourist during a safari had seen him up a tree and assumed it was a black monkey. I did not believe the tales of the panther until I saw a few blurry pictures of him. I reached the forest and went looking for him; he was barely two years old when I first saw him and I knew the next few years of my life are going to be centred around him,” says the photographer over the phone from Bengaluru.
Today, Saya is seven years old and Shaaz has been documenting his life through photographs and videos. He has published research papers about him and made a 40-minute documentary titled The Real Black Panther for National Geographic.
“Before this, panthers have only been studied through footages from trap cameras. I have had the opportunity to capture him hunting, wandering, eating and fighting for his territory. There are several traits that make him special. His pitch-black coat made it hard for him to survive in a deciduous forest like Kabini that goes bone-dry during the summers, making him stand out among brown bushes. After years he realised that shadows are his strength, they help him hide. He climbs trees that have dense canopies and darker barks that help him during hunting. The summers are harsh in Kabini and it is harder for an animal with a black fur coat. So unlike the other leopards, he loves the monsoons because they keep him cool. In his initial days at the forest, Saya rivalled other alpha male leopards to gain his territory,” says the 31-year-old photographer.
Though Shaaz is closely documenting the life of Saya, it was his 2010 encounter with Scarface, another male leopard in Kabini, that made him take up wildlife photography. Shaaz was all set to take the corporate route after graduating from Utrecht University School of Economics in the Netherlands, but during his four-month break, he visited his parent’s safari lounge in Kabini and went around the forest on safaris. “During one of these tours, I saw Scarface in a fierce fight with his father, the mighty Pardus to gain his territory. It was during this fight that he got a scar that brought him the name, and it was this fight and the photographs I clicked that made me give up the corporate job that I had planned to take up,” he says.
The forest and its animals are now what Shaaz calls a part of his family. He has seen the course of life of many of the jungle’s leopards and tigers. “The forest and its inhabitants have taught me such valuable lessons, especially the art of patience. I used to shoot 12 hours a day for three years while making The Real Black Panther on a filming or research permit for National Geographic, and it took a lot of patience. I also learned how to live by the day from these animals. As humans we tend to get lost in planning and creating a future but forget to live the day, I learned that life is in every passing day from them and this lesson will live with me forever,” he says.