Could it be true, I wondered,” gushes Aishwarya Sridhar, 23-year-old wildlife photographer and conservationist, talking of the moment when she was declared winner of this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year award announced by the Natural History Museum in London. Out of 50,000 entries from 80 countries, she struck gold in the adult category.
Against the backdrop of a dark night sky in the Bhandardara forest, a tree illuminated with the warm bioluminescent glow of fireflies is what forms the subject of Sridhar’s prize-winning photograph entitled ‘Lights of Passion’. “Reading about them in the papers, I had been keen to capture the phenomenon that these tiny creatures offer for just a couple of weeks before the monsoon. It happens during their mating season — when the male fireflies emit a special light to attract their mates,” informs Sridhar, who had trekked for about two hours in almost pitch dark conditions to reach the spot of her choice. “The area, we were warned by the locals, was often invaded by leopards, wild boars and venomous snakes, but we were not to be deterred,” adds the young photographer and nature conservationist, who, through her work, would also like to focus attention on not just the beauty of fireflies but also on how adverse environmental conditions, cutting of forests and growing pollution are affecting their population. “And something needs to be done for them,” she adds.
“Having seen and studied winning entries over the years, I had a hunch that this one might get selected,” confesses the self-taught lenswoman. And it was the “third-time lucky attempt” for Sridhar whose entries in the past two years had made it to the penultimate round.
Sridhar’s tryst with wildlife commenced from the time she, as an eight-year-old, would accompany her father for nature walks in and around Mumbai. And her love for photography took root when she was gifted with a small, “point-and-shoot camera” on her 11th birthday. “That’s when I started documenting the subjects of my choice — be it flowers, insects or birds. My first photo of the big cat, a tiger, was at Pench — with the same camera, of course,” she smiles.
Besides bagging the Sanctuary Asia Young Naturalist award at age 15, Sridhar was soon giving talks on her experiences, and conducting campaigns on wildlife conservation not just in school but even on bigger platforms, including television. One of her biggest success stories was initiating efforts to protect Mumbai’s 523-hectare piece of wetland in Panje. “This was among many other water bodies that I had, over the years, seen getting reclaimed. So, I put up a petition to the government and managed to save this area’s last abode of migratory birds — from flamingos to painted storks, red-necked phalarope (that came in after a gap of 15 years) and bar-tailed godwit — that come in from as far as Siberia, among others,” informs the wildlife crusader.
After completing her graduation in mass media, Sridhar became even more determined to focus all her energies on saving and protecting wildlife and the environment. And she sure has a smorgasbord of fascinating experiences to share, including one of witnessing a tigress training her cubs to hunt and kill. “Waiting in the blazing heat of the sun at 46ºC was no damper as we sat hoping for them to make an appearance anytime soon. That they were closeby was apparent — the excited alarm calls by langoors, deer and peacocks around were a clear give away. Finally, after a five-hour wait, what unfolded before us was this beautiful, unforgettable experience,” smiles Sridhar. For one who takes delight in the rugged outdoors and revelling in encounters with wildlife, it comes as no surprise that clubbing at music soirees with friends is nowhere on her priority list. “For me, this is real chilling out,” she laughs.
Having been confined to her home like the rest of the world, courtesy Covid-19, Sridhar is keeping her fingers crossed for the situation to ease out soon. “I wish this wasn’t happening but some things are beyond our control,” she says matter-of-factly but rues missing out not just on precious moments out in the wild but also the award ceremony at the NHML. “I would have loved to be there to personally collect the award but instead had to be content with the virtual ceremony,” she smiles. “But of course, there’s always a next time.”