New Tales from the Jungle
Inspired by Kipling’s Jungle Book and having worked as a naturalist in our very own Kanha and Bandhavgarh National Parks, German photographer Axel Gomille is no stranger to India. His dynamic images not only capture one’s imagination but also raise awareness and work at gathering support for the most vulnerable denizens of our forests.
Q – Greetings from Saevus, Axel! Please tell our readers about your earliest fascination with the natural world and the subsequent transition into wildlife, and especially into photography?
A – Thank you very much! I am honoured to be featured in Saevus. My interest in the natural world started very early. When I was a kid, at the age of seven, I asked my parents for a pair of binoculars as a birthday present. When I got them, I would sneak around our house to watch birds, hare, deer or the occasional fox. Watching wildlife was my favourite pastime. I wanted to preserve some of these precious moments for myself as a personal memory and started photography with my mom’s old camera when I was 13. Soon, I realised that photography is quite an expensive hobby, so I decided to try and sell images to magazines. My first published picture was a beetle that I photographed during a Sunday family trip. This first success was a defining experience, and it gradually moved on from there. Later, I studied biology, and instead of working as a cab driver or bartender, I sold images to finance my life as a student.
Q – While studying biology after school you conducted research on the American alligator; your thesis in Germany concentrated on Aesculapian snakes. Was it a conscious decision to study reptiles or just a coincidence?
A – Crocodilians, in my opinion, are among the “coolest” reptiles around, but snakes have always fascinated me. These creatures manage to move very fast and elegantly without legs. Absolutely amazing! But my thesis on snakes also had a technical reason; I had to finish it in a limited period of time, and I was positive that I would be able to collect enough data.
Q – You have worked as a naturalist in the Kanha and Bandhavgarh reserves of India. What has the experience been like?
A – Fantastic! Those were the golden days. When the forest guards were patrolling the jungle in search of tigers, I could join them for hours on elephant back. I saw all the large mammals around. It sparked the idea to write and photograph my own Jungle Book. I got some nice tiger shots there, but Sloth bears gave me a hard time. Only rarely did one of these furry black creatures cross my path, before disappearing into the vegetation. The Sloth bears I covered later in Karnataka.
Q – You have worked on films on several topics, including The Tiger Experiment, which portrays the conservation efforts for tigers in India. What are the challenges you face as a filmmaker when approaching new territories and landscapes?
A – I had to deal with wildlife from around the globe on a daily basis during my days with the documentary series ‘Wonderful World’, and I think I developed a sense for good documentaries. I saw how other people made their films. It was good training. You have to apply the knowledge you have from books in a real-life situation. I need an intimate knowledge of locations or even individual animals when producing my films. Usually, this takes a lot of time, and if I go to a new place I prefer to work with locals. In India, I had the privilege to work with skilled people as Nallamuthu and Sandesh Kadur for filming or photography, respectively. Very interesting and great fun!
Q – You have judged several wildlife photography contests all over the world. What, according to you, makes a compelling image?
A – Still a difficult question – even after 30 years of wildlife photography. Something I have never seen before, something new, like an unusual behaviour. Of course, that’s not always possible. If it is a common subject, there should be a new way of looking at it, a new angle. A moment is frozen in time, something the naked eye can’t see. If the picture is emotional, it can create a sense of wonder. A good image makes me wish I had seen it with my own eyes.
Q – You have authored a number of books on India, including My Jungle Book and the more recent India – Land of Tigers and Temples. How interested are readers from Germany and other parts of the world in exploring and learning more about Indian wildlife and biodiversity? What inspires you to keep writing about India?
A – German readers know Kipling’s and Disney’s Jungle Book and can relate to it. So My Jungle Book made the connection between a modern classic and a personal experience. India – Land of Tigers and Temples is my new pictorial work. It is a personal view of some of the fantastic natural and cultural highlights India has to offer. The books are popular in Germany, and of course, we hope that the new international release of India – Land of Tigers and Temples will be a success as well. I had some of my best wildlife experiences in India, but there is still so much to see, so I have to keep coming back.
Q – Which would be your most favourite wildlife destination from the numerous travels you have done around the globe?
A – I can’t bring it down to one, but surely watching tigers in India is among the top ten. Spotting over a million flamingos in the African rift valley from a bush plane without doors was overwhelming. Seeing a carpet out of countless monarch butterflies turning the colour of a forest from green to orange in the highlands of Mexico is an intense memory. Marvelling at wolf cubs playing in the forests of Germany is another. There is so much to see – a lifetime is not enough!
Q – What are the different ways that one can use photographs, films and other media to raise awareness about the wild? In your opinion, how effective are these methods and how can we encourage others to participate?
A – An image says more than a thousand words. But rarely has one image, one magazine article or one documentary changed the world. All these publications have a combined effect. In Germany, I think we can say that the constant presence of environmental issues in the media over the last decade has shaped the awareness of the nation. We separate our garbage. We have laws to protect wildlife. We banned nuclear power and encourage green energy. But it did not come overnight. It is the work of several dedicated individuals who did not give up, catalysed by photography and films.
Q – Wildlife photography is growing as a hobby and passion in India. What message do you have for the young and enthusiastic photographers from here?
A – Get out there and experience your fantastic natural heritage. Listen, smell, see, witness—and capture these stunning moments on a memory card. Then share your adventures and images with others. Spark their enthusiasm. India faces the huge challenge of managing the coexistence of its ever-growing human population with its wildlife. In order to survive, wildlife needs strong supporters. Take emotional images and use them to win more defenders for the wild.
A trained biologist, Axel studied zoology in Frankfurt and Florida. He works for the German public television broadcaster ZDF as an editor and journalist, specialising in nature documentaries. His film The Tiger Experiment portrayed conservation efforts for tigers in India, and his experience in the tiger reserves of central India marked a defining period for him as a biologist. Axel’s work as a photographer and author has taken him to many other nature reserves around the globe. His images have won multiple awards and have been published worldwide, including in magazines such as BBC Wildlife, GEO International and Asian Geographic. India – Land of Tigers and Temples is his latest pictorial compilation. You can see more of his work at www.axelgomille.com.
Originally Published in September 2014 Issue of SAEVUS Magazine