India Today - - INSIDE - —Shamsheer Yousaf

FFive years ago, while play­ing golf, In­dra­jit Ghor­pade had an epiphany that would change the course of his life.

He over­heard a con­ver­sa­tion about the golf club’s plan to bring out a book on the birds com­monly spot­ted on the course and it struck him that he had lit­tle to show for the four days a week he had spent sur­rounded by na­ture on the links for 30-odd years. Why not take up wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy in­stead, he thought? After all, he was fa­mil­iar with the

wildlife around the grass­lands near his an­ces­tral home in Kop­pal, Kar­nataka. Plus, he had dab­bled in pho­tog­ra­phy in his youth and spent hours in the dark­rooms of some of In­dia’s best wildlife pho­tog­ra­phers.

How­ever, In­dra­jit soon re­alised that he wasn’t con­tent with just pretty pic­tures, and turned to con­ser­va­tion. It was an en­counter with the In­dian wolf that sparked his pas­sion for con­ser­va­tion. It had been about a year since he had started pho­tograph­ing se­ri­ously when, one morn­ing, while sit­ting in his 1947 4x4 Willys Jeep, watch­ing a herd of black­bucks, his com­pan­ion qui­etly pointed out a wolf to him. It was the first time in decades that he had come across this dwin­dling species. He crept closer and took a pic­ture. The shot marked a turn­ing point for In­dra­jit, who re­alised some­thing: “There is no wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy with­out wildlife.” Soon after, In­dra­jit founded one of In­dia’s most suc­cess­ful wolf-preser­va­tion projects—the Dec­can Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion (DCF).

He bought around 25 cam­era traps, hired four work­ers, en­listed 20 vol­un­teers and started DCF in 2015 with the aim to en­sure the sur­vival of the beau­ti­ful an­i­mals—of which only around 2,000 to 3,000 re­main in In­dia. Work­ing with the Ben­galuru-based Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety (WCS), he has made great strides in elim­i­nat­ing poach­ing in Kop­pal.

In­dra­jit hails from the San­dur royal fam­ily, which has his­tor­i­cally been a pa­tron of those study­ing and con­serv­ing na­ture. Ma­haraja Yesh­wantrao Ghor­pade is known to have em­ployed wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher and nat­u­ral­ist M. Kr­ish­nan in the 1940s and wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher T.N.A. Peru­mal later, to doc­u­ment wildlife in sanc­tu­ar­ies across In­dia for a book. M.Y. Ghor­pade, the tit­u­lar Raja and In­dra­jit’s first cousin, was a renowned wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher him­self. Grow­ing up in Ben­galuru, In­dra­jit lived next door to the nat­u­ral­ist Zafar Fute­hally, while O.C. Ed­wards, a pi­o­neer in black and white wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy, was a dor­mi­tory war­den at his school. How­ever, the most im­por­tant rea­son for In­dra­jit’s in­ter­est in the sub­ject was that Kop­pal, his home, is teem­ing with wildlife.

Lo­cated an hour’s drive from the spec­tac­u­lar ru­ins of the Vi­jayana­gara em­pire in

Not con­tent with just pho­tograph­ing wildlife, In­dra­jit turned to con­ser­va­tion after a rare sight­ing of the In­dian wolf

Hampi, Kop­pal is ge­o­log­i­cally very un­usual. “It is at a tran­si­tion zone—ly­ing in the doab be­tween the Tungab­hadra and Kr­ishna rivers,” he says. The vast grass­lands and the rocky out­crops, with both red and black cot­ton soil, make it ideal for wildlife. Striped hye­nas, jun­gle cats, rusty spot­ted cats, leop­ards, black­bucks, jackals, and foxes can all be found here. “Since I had good knowl­edge of the ter­rain, the feed­ing habits and breed­ing sea­son, I started get­ting good pho­tographs,” he says.

DCF’s ini­tial plan to con­duct a bio­di­ver­sity study to iden­tify the re­main­ing habi­tats in Kop­pal and the wildlife within them didn’t get the gov­ern­ment’s sup­port. Then, one day, he got a call from a WCS re­searcher. They had re­ceived a grant to study the In­dian wolf, but were about to lose it be­cause they hadn’t been able to find one for a year. In­dra­jit vol­un­teered to take them around Kop­pal. Scep­ti­cal at first, WCS sent an­other re­searcher for a re­con­nais­sance trip. “We got into a jeep at six in the morn­ing and by 6.40 am, we had seen five wolves,” re­counts In­dra­jit. The WCS spent the next two years at Kop­pal, con­duct­ing anti-poach­ing camps, set­ting up cam­era traps, spread­ing aware­ness, car­ry­ing out stud­ies and deal­ing with man-an­i­mal con­flict.

Ac­cord­ing to In­dra­jit, the lo­cal shep­herds wor­ship the wolf, be­liev­ing that the preda­tors en­sure the sheep re­main healthy by culling the weak­est of the herd, and that the spike in the adrenaline that the wolf causes in the sheep makes the meat es­pe­cially de­li­cious. “Peo­ple from Hy­der­abad come to Kop­pal to buy the sheep be­cause the meat is so tasty,” he says.

Still, hunt­ing by peo­ple liv­ing in vil­lages nearby meant poach­ing re­mained a big prob­lem. Over the past four years, DCF has man­aged to stop poach­ing across 200 acres sur­round­ing Man­dal­mari vil­lage, the high­est point in Kop­pal. “I saw a wolf in Man­dal­mari and said let’s pro­tect this area. In three years, by putting 8-10 cam­era traps and two watch­ers, we have en­sured there is no poach­ing,” he says. “In the be­gin­ning, we would catch a poacher ev­ery week. Now they avoid Man­dal­mari.”

Next up, he wants to tap into the tourists ar­riv­ing at Hampi and pro­mote wildlife tourism in the area. A cor­a­cle ride on the Tungab­hadra is on the cards. But rais­ing aware­ness among the lo­cal chil­dren re­mains his first love. “I want to tell the small boy on the road, ‘Hey, do you know where the dog came from? It came from the wolf’,” he says. “It will trig­ger a sub­con­scious thing, and that’s all I need.”

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