Photographer Thomas Vijayan's passion for chasing wild cats

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Thomas Vijayan is the second Indian and the first Keralite to win the People's Choice Award of the Natural History Museum, London since the honour was instituted 52 years ago. The award is considered the Oscar of wildlife photography and Thomas won it in 2015 for a picture of a family of Hanuman langurs enjoying themselves on a tree that was clicked in 2012 at the Bandipur forest in Karnataka.

An avid lensman hailing from a Bengaluru-based Keralite family of photography lovers, Thomas shares with Manorama how a great image is snapped. "Craft, passion, technical skills and equipment make a good photographer. But an element of luck can make a good photographer great. Luck is being at the right place at the right time," he says.

Even though an image of langurs had earned Thomas the world's top wildlife photography award, it is the feline family that has attracted him since childhood. He has clicked amazing photos of tigers, leopards, jaguars, and black panthers. "I have a soft corner for these big cats," says Thomas.

These animals can only be captured with camera stealthily. "But I find thrill in doing it. It was while waiting for clicking a tiger engaged in action that led me to snap the award-winning langur picture," reveals Thomas.

The forests have provided innumerable opportunities for Thomas to create great photographs. "Take any wildlife photographer and you will notice that most of his or her images would be of that person's favourite animal. In my case, it is the tiger. However, everyone is familiar with the common pose of a tiger or leopard. So finding a different frame is the biggest challenge faced by a wildlife photographer," tells Thomas.

Thomas has two brothers who are also noted wildlife photographers. They are Mohan Thomas and Thomas Rajan. Incidentally, the three siblings are called 'Cat Brothers' as all of them share the passion of chasing the felines for photographs.

"Initially, we had a film camera that was common property. My initiation into wildlife photography was with a trip to the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary. My brother Mohan Thomas is my Guru. As we were born and brought up in Bengaluru, Bandipur Wildlife Sanctuary was our regular haunt," reveals Thomas.

The award-winning photo

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Thomas explains how he clicked the snap that earned him the international award. He had reached Bandipur along with some friends looking for offbeat images of the tiger. "Langurs and monkeys are commonly seen in all forests and wildlife photographers deliberately ignore them. I waited quietly at my hiding place for the tiger to arrive. But a family of langurs on a tree nearby distracted my attention with their noisy frolic," recalls Thomas.

He was initially angry. "However, as there was no sign of the tiger, I began to notice the activities of these monkeys. There were four of them. One langur was enjoying the most and was engaged in a variety of antics. I thought there was nothing new in their play and shifted my focus back on the yet-to-arrive tiger," continues the photographer.

But again he glanced at the tree where the langurs were still enjoying themselves. A stunning sight awaited Thomas. "One langur was hanging from the tails of two others, using it like a swing. I immediately sensed a photo opportunity. My hands trembled but the langur swung to-and-fro three times and I clicked the images," he says.

The pursuit of the tiger did not yield results. However, Thomas returned with the snaps of the langurs that led him to global recognition.

Around 46,000 photographers from 96 countries sent entries for the Photographer of the Year Competition of the London Natural History Museum in 2015. "The award is presented in the name of the country to which the photographer belongs. I sent the photo titled 'A Swinging Time' in which the langur was swinging from the tails of two others on a tree. It made me the first Keralite to win the award," says Thomas.

A passion for the wild

Thomas has travelled to Kamchatka in Russia, Alaska in USA, Masai Mara in Kenya, Ranthambore in India and Ontario in Canada, among other exotic forests, in search of striking images of the wild. "Every time I venture into the forest, I would be rewarded with some great photo," he says.

His adventures in the forests have also helped Thomas gain some deep insights about wild animals. "We often blame cruel acts of human beings for 'animal instincts.' However, it is an entirely misplaced thought. In reality, man has very little knowledge about the animal kingdom," quips Thomas. He reveals a recent incident in the forest to elaborate this fact.

"I was in Ranthambore Wildlife Sanctuary to shoot images of the tiger. Even though I wandered much, there was no interesting angle or action that could produce a great photograph. Then I thought of returning from the forest. Suddenly, I saw a tiger chasing a prey. I focused my camera to shoot a live hunt. However, the animal the tiger was chasing deceived the predator and escaped. The tiger pounced on the prey but missed the animal," says Thomas.

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Incidentally, a nilgai had appeared on the spot by then. The tiger, realizing that it had lost its prey and noticing the nilgai, attacked the latter and killed it immediately. "The nilgai was in an advanced stage of pregnancy. The tiger also learnt this soon after the nilgai was killed. The big cat walked around the dead nilgai twice. Then it began carefully removing each layer of the nilgai's abdominal area. The yet-to-be-born fawn was soaked in blood in the nilgai's body. As if taking care of its own young one, the ferocious tiger took the fawn in its mouth enclosed in a leaf. The young deer was placed with extreme care by the tiger on a green patch nearby," explains Thomas.

He had captured the entire events with his camera. "A wild animal will hunt only when it is hungry. When there are no hunger pangs, it will not bother a prey even if it passes at close quarters," says Thomas.

"The jungle has its own laws. Man has no right to comment on animal instincts," affirms Thomas.

His dream

Each image in the collection of Thomas has its own story to tell. One animal that had eluded the lens of the award-winning photographer was the black panther. "It had remained a dream for a long time. I conducted a number of trips to the forests to capture the photos of this big cat. My efforts finally paid off when I could snap the black panther for the first time at the Dandeli Forest in Karnataka," says Thomas.

However, of the innumerable photos Thomas has clicked two are his favourites. One is that of a white owl seen only in cold countries. "It was snapped at Ontario in Canada when the temperature was sub-zero. The expedition into the snowy wild that produced the image was a risky affair," he says.

The second picture that Thomas likes best is that of a tiger running in the rain. It was shot in Ranthambore and Thomas had experimented with the shutter-speed of his camera a number of times for getting a clear focus of the tiger as well as the rain.

Now Thomas says his dream is to capture the Siberian tiger with his camera.

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