Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Conservationist Nayan Khanolkar give us a glimpse of India’s urban leopards and tells us what he thinks is needed to protect the environment
Nayan Khanolkar is a busy man. He’s currently in Amsterdam collecting an award from the World Press Photo Contest for his entry Big Cat In My Backyard having returned from a project to aid the conservation of India’s rhino’s. The conservationist, photographer and biology teacher currently holds the esteemed title as the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016 in the urban category for his entry Alley Cat which is displayed at London’s Natural History Museum, a photograph that he considers to be ‘the most challenging’ of his varied and impressive collection.

Having spent many of his childhood summers in Goa, Khanolkar had his interest inculcated in nature from an early age. Having read ‘Man Eaters of Kumaon’, by Jim Corbett, his passion for nature and photography was cemented. Initially he started photographing birds but after a decade of doing so turned his attention to documenting big cats in urban areas after an incident in which a leopard was burned alive in Northern India in 2011. This incident ‘shifted the focus completely on big cats and man-animal conflict.’

As a consequence of the leopard kill in Northern India and the increase in human-leopard conflict in Mumbai, Khanolkar set out to collect images that he now hopes will raise awareness of wildlife conservation throughout India and internationally. For many tribes in Mumbai, the leopard is a revered sacred animal but urbanisation and the influx of a younger, more modern-thinking demographic that perceive leopards as a threat have challenged the long-term survival chances of the species. For Khanolkar, the statistics show a different story. ‘In camera traps set on the edge of forests there are around 3000 leopard images but very few interactions between humans and leopards and not even one is violent. In fact, since 2013 there hasn’t been a single attack in Mumbai.’ Whilst writing, there was an attack in March, but Khanolkar buts this down to ‘a freak accident’ in which a villager walked out into open forest unattended.

There is often a perception that human-animal conflicts are harder to resolve in developing nations but Khanolkar is quick to address this. ‘As far as India is concerned, I feel that man-animal conflicts are at a lower level than what it could have been. I f you consider per capita income of the average Indian living around protected areas, it would be less than or equal to a dollar per day. So, with less than $500 per capita income, people living around parks are still showing a lot of tolerance towards wildlife in cases of crop or livestock damage as compared to the retaliation shown by people in some of the developed countries.’ Whilst many Indians live below the poverty line and often suffer losses to livestock and assets as a result of human-animal conflict, Khanolkar is keen to impress that there often is not a violent reaction as seen in 2011. Part of this, he explains, is because of the intimate relationship between wildlife and religion in the country. ‘I really believe that there is a good chance for wildlife conservation in India as conservation is ingrained in Indian culture and animal are integrated with religion. However, we can’t take this for granted and this may fade in future generations so concrete steps are required if we want to save the country’s wildlife.’

In spite of the rapid urbanisation of many of India’s cities, Khanolkar has seen positive signs for conservation change. He highlights the ongoing human-tiger conflict in the Indian state of Maharashtra as one of the most extreme examples of human-animal conflict that he has witnessed in recent times. ‘Chandrapur, a district in Maharashtra accounts for more than one third of tigers in the state and is currently experiencing an alarming rise in human-tiger conflict as the tiger population is steadily increasing due to protection. The majority of the protected areas are interspersed with villages. Many human deaths have occurred in recent times.’ In all cases, human fatalities have only occurred when people have entered the forest habitat of the tigers. There has never been a reported case of a tiger entering a village and killing a human but female tigers will seldom tolerate human disturbance when caring for cubs. Whilst this may be one of the most extreme examples of such conflict, it has also given rise to one of the most impressive acts of conservation. ‘The translocation of villages from prime tiger habitats by providing good compensation and facilities outside tiger reserves’ has helped to minimise the ongoing struggles between humans and tigers.

As positive as this is, Khanolkar also highlights another case in the same state that was not approached as thoughtfully. ‘Last year around the same time wild boar and Asian antelope were declared as vermin. This enabled farmers to kill these without any permission. This is the worst example of any attempt to solve human-animal conflict.’ Whilst he appreciates that crop damage by such creatures was problematic for locals, the issue ‘could have been solved by other means rather than wiping out a segment of herbivores which might prove counterproductive for large mammal conservation.’

The most impressive act of conservation that Khanolkar has borne witness came as a result of public pressure exerted upon authorities to save the Silent Valley National Park in the state of Kerala from being destroyed by a hydroelectric project. ‘The battle for the now famous Silent Valley raged for over ten years and involved thousands of people who did not even live in the vicinity of the area that was to be destroyed. The sustained pressure exerted on the Government by citizens using every possible means available at the time – letters to the editors of newspapers, seminars, widespread awareness programmes and finally petitions and appeals in court and other high offices proved ultimately successful. In 1986 Silent Valley was declared a National Park, a striking testimony to the power of people’s actions. This is the most impressive act of conservation for me.’

Outside of wildlife conservation, Khanolkar is plays an active role in addressing environmental issues and his stance on climate change is unequivocal. ‘There is no doubt in my mind that climate change is for real. India with its 1.3 billion people can create a huge negative impact on climate change if it takes inefficient energy utilisation pathways.’ In recent years the country has undergone rapid political change led by one of the most enigmatic Prime Ministers of recent times Narendra Modi whose administration has, in the past, suspended Greenpeace’s activities in India and for a while froze the organisations’ bank accounts. Whilst this was a headline grabbing act, Khanolkar is less alarmist. ‘While there is no denying that the Prime Minister has prioritised economics over ecology, there is increasing evidence that his Government are also trying to strike a balance, now that the developmental agendas are slowly getting into place. India is putting extra emphasis on the development of solar energy over coal which happens to be the cheapest source of energy for the country. There is a shimmer of hope that development in future will be carried out while maintaining the balance with the environment.’

Globally, there have been a myriad of attempts to make positive environmental changes at a micro-level, including recycling initiatives and charges for the use of plastic packaging. Often such initiatives are criticised for being ‘too little too late.’ Khanolkar is in agreement. ‘I would agree that these micro-initiatives are largely token gestures. Because, for whatever reason, the pace at which the environment is getting destroyed you need serious commitment to ensure that whatever little can be done should be done with the utmost seriousness. So, while these initiatives are gestures that will make us feel good that we are supporting the environment, I personally do not know how much each of these add up to making any lasting impact on protecting the environment.’  Instead, Khanolkar suggests more fundamental societal changes. ‘I feel that serious measures such as restricting the number of cars on the road or a move towards electric vehicles or a move towards sustainable sources of energy will help the ecology in a better way.’

As inspirational as his work may be, his photographs have not always been universally accepted. ‘There was resistance initially and even now from a few people during my attempt to demystify the urban leopard but I consider myself lucky as there was more support, especially from tribal communities.’ In spite of this, he has gained both national and international recognition for his photographs. For him, ‘the photography is not an end in itself but it’s a means to an end. There should be a desire to tell a story, a concept in your mind and a camera is just a tool to achieve that.’ These words are backed by images in which he simultaneously captures the majesty and the fragility of some of nature’s most endangered species, acting as a reminder for many of the beauty that would be lost if attempts are not made to conserve and protect the natural habitats of such creatures.

For Khanolkar, the term man-animal conflict is ‘at the simplest level the struggle for the same resources between us and them’ and as many part of India and the rest of the world undergo rapid development, such conflicts are becoming more commonplace and destruction of natural environments more widespread. For environmentalists and conservationists looking to reduce the impact of human activity, Nayan Khanolkar has the final word:

‘I know that we are fighting losing battles on certain fronts like mankind versus the rest of the species in an attempt to save them, but we can still prolong and increase the lifespan of these battles by getting forces of development along it rather than against it.’


Our thanks go to Nayan Khanolkar for making this interview happen.

Check out Nayan’s work at or alternatively on Instagram @nayankhanolkar

Image reproduced with permission from Nayan Khanolkar

Article ©IYO Magazine