For a wildlife photographer, the Blue Mountains have a lot to offer. The lush green hills provide a beautiful view, no doubt, but the place is also a cornucopia of biodiverse flora and fauna. People flock to the Nilgiris in hopes of framing their dream species, and when it comes to both navigating these hills and capturing that memorable shot, there is one name that they all seek – Aggal Sivalingam.
Whether Sivalingam is a guide-turned-photographer or a photographer-turned-guide is very much a chicken or egg conundrum. In his world, wildlife photography and the Nilgiris blend together seamlessly to produce the picture-perfect frames that we witness. Despite his many accomplishments and the long list of iconic images that he has worked on, this self-taught photographer/ bird-watcher/ camera trap expert claims that he is just plain lucky.
Sivalingam is a man of few words. Though reticent at first, he slowly opened up during the course of this conversation. He spoke about his journey into photography and his wildlife encounters in fluent Tamil, slipping into English while describing species and techniques. Here is an edited transcript of my interview with Aggal Sivalingam aka ‘Leopard Man’.
How did you begin your journey into wildlife photography? Was it a natural outcome of your experience as a guide?
From a young age, I was interested in watching birds. Born and raised in the Nilgiris, I have always been close to nature, but it was my uncle M.K. Bojan who was a big influence in encouraging me down this path. I would often go around with him to watch birds, and in those days, even getting hold of a pair of binoculars was a big deal for me. I soon developed a deep interest in understanding bird species, and started carrying a book with me where I would jot down my observations. Species identification mostly happens online now, but back then, we had to observe bird characteristics and behaviour and talk to people who knew about birds or refer to bird books.
Photography started as a hobby. I did not own a camera for the longest time; I used to borrow from others and shoot images. Becoming a guide came much later. I was taking care of the family business for years before I ran into a heavy loss, and for two years after that, I did absolutely nothing. My friends suggested that I become a guide, as I am well versed with the region and it did not require any investment. This was around late 2013, early 2014. I was very shy at the start, not a great quality for a guide, but in just two years, things started looking up for me. Having spent a lot of time with photographers previously, I could tell people how to shoot, what to shoot, and where to shoot. I guide people not just on locations, but also on how they can best capture what is in front of them. I think that is why people approach me.
What would you consider as a turning point in your career? When did your work start to get noticed?
A lot of my work was shared through India Nature Watch and Facebook, and that is how people became aware of my photography. In 2005, I made a video of two melanistic leopards in the Nilgiris, using a handycam that I had borrowed from an acquaintance who was a wedding photographer, and that video became a turning point in my career.
In 2010, I shot an image of a leopard pair – one regular and one melanistic – with my friend and photographer, Prakash Ramakrishnan. That was another important moment for me.
Do you have a favourite species that you like to photograph?
I don't have a favourite species. I love to see how animals exist in the wild, especially birds, and how they go about their day. Even today, when I sight a bird/ animal, I feel like I am looking at it for the first time.
Of course, there is a thrill in seeing the rare ones like the Kashmir Flycatcher, for example. You can see it only 3-4 months in a year in the Nilgiris. But you can't spot them easily. You may have to travel about 20-25km to sight just one individual. Also, what is interesting is that the male and female cannot be spotted together. Between December and February, people approach me to help them in sighting this bird.
Any interesting wildlife encounters that you can share with us?
I have two stories that I will never forget. Before I started working as a guide, I was on a trek with a few of my friends, and we accidentally came up too close to an elephant. We spooked the tusker and it came after us. My friends were able to run away, but I fell into a deep ditch. I was badly bruised, and I had to find my way out, but the ditch probably saved my life.
The second one took place at a tea estate near my house. A few of us got to know that a leopard was sighted in the area and we went looking for the animal at night. We were not able to spot the leopard and headed back home. The next day, I realised that I had left my book behind on a tea bush. I went back to get the book, and I heard the sound of an animal close by. I thought it was a dog, but when I looked over the bush, I was shocked to see the leopard feasting on a bird. Probably because it was busy, it did not notice me. I retreated slowly, trying my best not to make a sound. That was a close encounter.
Can you tell us a little about some interesting projects that you have worked on?
I was approached by a wildlife photographer, Arul Karthikeyan, who was interested in studying the nesting behaviour of Black Eagles. I was intrigued by the project, and after searching in the Nilgiris for six months, I was able to find a Black Eagle nest. When I called Arul, he couldn’t believe it and came over right away to see the nest, which had an eagle with its chick. He spent a lot of time studying them, but his research was not successful because of the weather conditions at the time.
One year later, I went looking for the same nest because raptors are known to reuse them year after year. The nest was still there, and I created a temporary resting spot opposite to it, on the trees. For almost 60 days, Arul used that space to take notes and record observations. Through this project, I was introduced to Dr Ravi Sankaran, the then Director of the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, Coimbatore. I spent two days with him, and he was happy to give me a new project to work on. Unfortunately, he died of a heart failure right after, in 2009, and the project never took off. Dr Ravi Sankaran was impressed by the assistance I provided for the Black Eagle study and really wanted to help me. I will never forget that.
You have lived in the Blue Mountains all your life. In your opinion, how has the Nilgiris landscape changed in the past few decades?
It has changed a lot. People have either constructed houses or converted the land for agriculture. Because of habitat loss and how we are slowly invading wild spaces, animal sightings have increased. It almost feels like animals don't exist in the wild anymore, and they have become used to human-occupied areas. We have built houses and resorts close to their habitats, endangering their homes. Even with birds, I have observed this. You find rare birds like the laughingthrush close to peanut vendors, eating the waste that they discard. This was never the case before. There is a lot of difference in seeing them in the wild and seeing them in such places.
The other big change is the concept of fencing. There was no fencing in our area; people had no idea what a fence was for that matter. But now we see electrical fencing and barbed wires all over, and animals are not able to roam around freely anymore. I see no value in development that does not respect the inherent traits of a place like the Nilgiris.
Do you have a message for the new generation of wildlife photographers?
Everybody is enamoured by wildlife photography and most people have cameras. But what saddens me is that they don't do their research. Camera technology has advanced, and this has blurred the lines between those interested in photography and those who are doing it just to imitate a few others. Of course, as a guide, it is my duty to show them the best the landscape has to offer, but I want to encourage them to do their homework. I think they must enjoy the process, understand habitats, look for the species and ID them.
It shouldn't be about getting to the right spot straight away, clicking the perfect picture and walking away. It's never that easy, and it should not be so easy. I enjoy interacting with people who are truly interested in the process. I am happy to show them around, take them through the toughest routes and do my best as their guide. Be it early hours, torrential rain or severe heat, I will be there to help them. That is what true passion for wildlife does to you.