In March this year, the government of Thailand released video footage and camera trap pictures confirming the existence of only the second known breeding population of the rare Indochinese tiger. The photographs and video showed at least two tiger cubs with their mother as well as images of other female and male tigers moving through a remote expanse of jungle in the east of the country.
Panthera and Freeland, the conservationist organisations working with the Thai government, believe proof of these tigers’ existence shows how this most persecuted of the world’s big cats can recover if governments implement counter-poaching law enforcement efforts. Critical to the instigation of this anti-poaching policy was the recognition of this area of rainforest as prime tiger habitat, even though rangers had patrolled the area for more than a decade without finding any signs of life.
According to the WWF, five sub-species of tiger remain in the wild: Bengal (2,500), Amur (520), Sumatran (less than 400), Malayan (250), Indochinese (221). A sixth sub-species, the South China tiger, has not been officially declared extinct, but none have been seen in the wild for more than 25 years. The Bengal tiger is found primarily in India, with smaller populations in Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.
India may be home to more wild tigers than any other country in Asia, but these populations are scattered among a large number of designated tiger reserves up and down the land. Unlike lions, which live in family prides and sleep easily in full view of tourists’ safari vehicles, tigers are solitary cats, preferring the cover and shade of thick forest or tall grass to stay out of view. That said, tiger-spotting is a major tourist attraction in India and its network of reserves and national parks makes it the best country for spotting and photographing this majestic creature.
India’s hot spots
The two best known locations for photographing tigers are the national parks of Bandhavgarh in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and Ranthambore in Rajasthan. Both are among India’s most historic tiger parks and are well equipped for accommodating tourists and conducting regular game drives. Each park features an old hill-top fort offering views of the surrounding forests and valleys rich in wildlife, including Indian leopards, wild boar, deer, sloth bear, monkeys and hundreds of species of birds.
Despite the other wildlife riches, it is the tiger that is the biggest draw and chances of a sighting are rated as high for most visitors taking two or three game drives. Bandhavgarh is home to approximately 60 tigers, but numbers for Ranthambore are harder to quantify as it has been the target in recent years of poachers who are believed responsible for the disappearance of between 12 and 15 tigers from the park.
Rightly, Madhya Pradesh is regarded as India’s number one state for seeing tigers as it is also home to the renowned tiger reserves of Pench and Kanha National Parks. Pench supports a population of approximately 40 tigers and is also famous as the setting for Rudyard Kipling’s classic story, The Jungle Book. Even if the tigers stay out of sight there are plenty of other subjects for the wildlife photographer here: 39 other species of mammal including leopard, wolf, wild dog, jungle cat, sloth bear and numerous species of deer, as well as 210 species of birds. It is a similar story in Kanha, the largest national park in Madhya Pradesh, where tiger numbers are on the increase thanks to a bountiful population of prey species.
Elsewhere, the Western Ghats of southern India have successfully rebuilt their tiger populations, especially at Nagarhole and Bandipur, two tiger reserves in Karnataka state. Nagarhole has the added attraction of being home to the largest concentration of Asian elephants in the world. Both these reserves fall within India’s largest contiguous forest, making it prime habitat for tigers and also a focal point for expanding their range with plans to create new forest buffer zones and wildlife corridors.
Mist and dust
A tiger-spotting game drive typically begins at dawn before the day gets too hot and forces many species to seek the cooler temperatures of the forest shade. Although first light is when animals are most active and provides the best chance to see a tiger, there is also the chance of an early morning mist or fog obscuring visibility. However, these conditions are advantageous for covering distracting background details and providing a sense of mystery to the scene should your subject suddenly step through the mist.
It is important to listen to the sounds of the forest: the tiger is the apex predator and every species, whether mammal or bird, possesses an alarm call to cry out and warn others should it sense an imminent threat. Tigers move with great stealth and silence, all the more remarkable given their size and strength, and when one does emerge into the open, it is important to maintain your composure to take the picture as they can disappear just as quickly and silently back into the undergrowth.
India is a country with a sub-tropical climate of wet and dry seasons, with both advantages and disadvantages for photography. While the dry season is preferred by many because grass cover is low and water scarce – therefore bringing animals more conspicuously to waterholes and rivers – the days are often unbearably hot and dust fills the air. That said, backlit dust of early morning or late afternoon can provide a setting as atmospheric as the low lit mist of wet season mornings. On any game drive, whatever the time of year, you must make the most of the conditions and opportunities as you find them.
Long lens options
As with most ‘big game’ wildlife subjects, photographing tigers will require long telephoto lenses to get a close enough composition. It might be that your only chance to see a tiger is from a distance, in which case the greater magnification of a long focal length of 500 or 600mm really proves its worth. That said, these are heavy, bulky and expensive lenses and many professionals now are moving to shorter focal lengths such as 300 and 400mm because they are much lighter and easier to carry.
By adding a 1.4x or 2.0x converter, it is possible to extend these shorter lenses to a focal length comparable to the traditional long telephotos. However, in extending a 400mm f/4 to 560mm by adding a 1.4x converter, the maximum aperture reduces by a stop to f/5.6. This also means an identical one-stop reduction in the metered shutter speed, but this can be simply overcome by increasing the ISO rating without degrading overall colour rendition.
The optical quality of telephoto zooms has improved markedly in recent years and they are a realistic alternative to the fixed focal length (prime) telephoto. A zoom may not offer as fast (wide) an aperture, but it has a practical advantage of reducing the need for changing lenses and thereby risking a breath of dust getting into your camera. The chances are that yours will not be the only vehicle on that dirt track during the morning game drive or hurrying to a halt in front of an emerging tiger, throwing up a cloud of unwanted dust into the scene – yet another reason not to change lenses!
Zooms also offer a creative advantage, offering a range of focal lengths for more compositional options, particularly if you want to zoom back to include more of the tiger’s surroundings. By including some of the habitat within the frame you are adding context and authenticity to your picture, so it becomes more than just another record shot of a tiger.
The excitement of seeing a tiger, even fleetingly, results in many photographers just pointing and shooting, regardless of what lens they are using – it often seems that the only thing that counts is getting as many pictures of possible in the time available. But to really ensure pictures that stand out, you need to look for those moments where the tiger is changing expression or altering its movement, such as throwing its head back to yawn, or when it stops walking to raise its nose and sniff the air. Be ready for these changes and ensure that you are focusing on the eye of the tiger whenever you have it in your sights.
Sadly, tigers are the rarest of the world’s big cats and even those that are well protected in India’s parks and reserves are under daily threat from poachers and the illegal wildlife trade. For this reason, your own photographs may take on a rarity of their own should these critically endangered cats become extinct in our lifetime – a real possibility.
Use your widest lens aperture to ensure the fastest possible shutter speed and focus on the eye of your subject, especially if you have direct eye-to-lens contact with a tiger.
Pack a blower brush and lens cloths and clean your gear every evening to prevent a build-up of dust.
Take a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter. They’re small and light and are a low cost way of extending your lens’ focal length if you can’t afford a long 500 or 600mm prime lens.
Take a tripod. As most photography is from a four-wheel-drive vehicle (or elephant back if visiting Kaziranga in Assam), tripods are not a practical option. Use a beanbag instead.
Change lenses while out on a game drive. The tracks are dusty, especially in the dry season, and vehicles throw up a lot of grit which will damage your camera sensor and other internal workings if it gets into the camera body while changing lenses.
Forget to fit a lens hood to the front of your lens. This will reduce the risk of flare in your images caused by the low direct sunlight of early morning.
Tigers Forever by Steve Winter & Sharon Guynup; National Geographic; $40 (hardback)
Tiger by Stephen Mills; BBC Books; £20 (hardback)
The Last Tiger: Struggling for Survival by Valmik Thapar; Oxford University Press India; £18.99 (softback)
Lens option: Telephoto zoom
Wildlife photographers once eschewed telephoto zooms because of the loss of light-gathering capability. But with the improved ISO performances of today’s DSLR cameras, that’s no longer an issue. The Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD (£725) features vibration compensation and ultrasonic drive for silent autofocus operation. It’s also remarkably lightweight and compact.
Accessory option: Backpack
Purpose-made camera backpacks are perfect for rough conditions. But not all are ideal when trying to access your gear in a confined space, such as an open-top safari vehicle. The Manfrotto Off Road Hiker (£170) has been designed for quick side-access to your camera. This 30 litre pack features a removable case which holds a Pro DSLR and 70-200mm lens.
Camera option: High-speed DSLR
Suddenly your quarry appears: the tiger you always dreamt of and she’s not stopping to pose. You need a high speed pro DSLR to maximise your chances. Nikon claims the D5 (£4,700 body only) is its fastest ever DSLR with a rapid firing 12fps continuous shooting and an array of 153 focusing points ensures it keeps up with the quickest of subjects. Other features include a 20.8 megapixel full-frame sensor, 102,400 ISO and 4K video shooting.
This was published in the May 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.