The critically endangered gharial plays a vital role in preserving the biodiversity of the mighty Ganges river and its tributaries. I spoke to Udayan Rao Pawar, a young Indian photographer who won the coveted Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2013 for his images of these endearing creatures.
LP: Can you tell us about the gharial behaviour displayed in your winning image ‘Mother’s little headful’?
URP: I was watching a large group of hatchlings on the banks of the Chambal river, a tributary of the Ganges, when an adult female surfaced nearby from the murky depths. The hatchlings swam towards her and some of them managed to climb up and perch on top of her head. Perhaps it made them feel safe.
Returning a month later, I found the same female again. I recognised her by her broken tooth, although the number of hatchlings nearby had depleted considerably. The Chambal river is the gharial’s last stronghold, but it’s threatened by illegal sand-mining and fishing.
LP: How did you manage to capture such a striking and unusual photograph?
URP: I’ve been visiting this area since my childhood, as I’ve always been fascinated by the complex social behaviour of gharials. I’d always wanted to photograph some hatchlings perched on top of a female’s head. I knew it would make a very interesting and captivating image, but also send out an emotional appeal for the gharial’s conservation.
After a few failed attempts, I managed to get the image I was looking for in 2012. I reached my usual spot late on a summer’s evening but the light conditions weren’t right, so I spent the night out in the open some distance away from the river. When dawn broke, I crept down and hid myself behind a rock and got this image.
LP: What is it about gharials in particular that captures your imagination?
URP: As a child I was greatly fascinated by dinosaurs. It was still dark when I crept down to the river and hid myself behind a rock, close to the hatchlings. As the dawn broke, a beautiful scene unfolded before me. The mist, the stench of rotting eggshells, the guttural call of the hatchlings, the indistinct forms of adult gharials swimming in the distance, the eroded ravines in the background: it all made me feel as if I was living in prehistoric times.
I think the gharial is one of the most magnificent and unusual reptiles alive today. My image tries to show that these cold-blooded reptiles are in fact likeable creatures, capable of tender parental care.
LP: You donated your fee for publishing your photograph in our members’ magazine to help our conservation work. Why do you support WWF?
URP: It’s the simplest way that I could get involved with an organisation at the forefront of wildlife conservation across the globe. I also appreciate that you’ve selected the gharial as a priority species for conservation.
LP: What inspired you to dedicate yourself to photography?
URP: I spent my early years roaming in the wild, just simply soaking in the sights, smells and sounds of the jungle. Later on, as my curiosity grew, I was given a pair of binoculars. Once I’d acquired a camera too, I found a new purpose and direction. Wildlife photography for me isn’t just a way to experience nature, but also to express its wonders and share it with others. I also use it, in my own small way, to promote conservation.
LP: How do you think wildlife photographers can help raise awareness of conservation issues?
URP: In this internet age, wildlife photography has emerged as an important tool to help spread awareness, create interest and promote conservation. A stunning image can pack a strong emotional appeal, influence opinions and create a long-lasting impression.
It may sound odd but I think that human emotions have, perhaps more than anything else, helped save wildlife and wild places.
There’s still time to visit the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition at the Natural History Museum with images of the most extraordinary species on the planet, captured by professional and amateur photographers.
Find out how we’re working to protect Asian rivers and their amazing wildlife