India knows 51 tiger reserves and most tiger reserves are a heaven for wildlife photographers. But now with the Covid-19 pandemic, things are just not the same. Lockdown poaching thrives. Political priority shifted even more to people instead to animals. Tourism in and around tiger reserves collapsed. An interview with naturalist Camilla Malvestiti shows us how she feels about tigers, what she is doing and how things are on ground level. A beautiful and long interview with an inspired woman.
A short introduction
Coming from a multi-cultural family, Camilla Malvestiti has been on the move for many years before settling in India. After leaving her home country Italy when she was quite young, Camila studied in the UK before living in Paris for many years. In India she got captured by the Royal Bengal tiger, otherwise she would still be travelling the world. Now she lives near the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. Kanha is known in India for the successful reintroduction of barasingha, a swamp deer. But Kanha is really well known because of their successful tiger conservation, reaching more than 150 tigers in 2021.
The holy grail for photographers
Next to being a naturalist, Camilla Malvestiti leads tours and she is a well-respected wildlife photographer. When being asked what the tiger means for photographers, she gets excited. “The tiger is the Holy Grail of the photographer. Tracking a tiger, spending hours on its quest. The hope of catching a glimpse of its magnificent attire. It’s an incredibly elating and holistic experience.”
She considers ‘shooting’ tigers with her camera a game, just to make that perfect shot. Or rather photograph, as ‘shot’ is considered a hunting term. “For finding an elusive, ambush predator that perfectly camouflages with the dense forest is no easy game. In the heart of Central India, the game of tigers is one of patience and strategy. Hours spent waiting, listening to the sounds of the jungle, interpreting the signs of nature. Here’s where being accompanied by the most skilled guides and drivers who perfectly know the area can be a real game-changer. I have not naturally been blessed by the gift of persistence. But then came the tiger, the only creature that inspired me patience.”
Adoration for tigers stronger than a photo
Her adoration for tigers already shows in her last line. But there is so much more than only being gifted patience by tigers. “Tiger tracking can be slow, at time frustrating. Above all a hopeless game of outsmarting a smarter creature. And then, unexpectedly, the marvel of nature discloses in front of our eyes, just for a few minutes. The forest comes alive, electrified by the presence of its most royal protector. It’s all worth it. And when it happens, no photo can compete with the memory of triumph and sheer joy that a successful hunt provokes in the tracker. No matter how beautiful the image, the excitement of the tiger appearance is the most powerful and indelible of the feelings.”
The bond between tourism, photography and conservation
Even if photography is part of her job, Camilla Malvestiti mainly works as a naturalist and tour leader rather than purely as a photographer. For instance, she accompanies guests on trips to India’s main tiger reserves. During these trips she engages her guests with wildlife, local communities and the issues of conservation.
“I personally ensure that every person who come with me on safari goes back home as an ambassador. Not only for the tiger but also for the forest! There is a very strong bond between tourism, photography and conservation.”
The importance of local communities
She beliefs that conservation cannot be successful if the local communities, residents of the areas surrounding the National Parks, are not involved. Most importantly they need to support the process or else it just doesn’t work. “Central India tribal communities’ livelihoods have historically resided in the exploitation of forest resources. That is to say through hunting or through the collection of forest produce. With the implementation of stricter laws for wildlife conservation, these activities have been banned or reduced to a minimum level.”
As per national directives tribal villages have been relocated. They have been moved from the core zone to the buffer zones of the Tiger Reserves to revert to a pristine tiger habitat. The presence of tourism activities and a forward-looking approach of some Forest Departments have allowed local communities to create an alternative source of livelihood. Working as guides, drivers, forest officials and lodge staff, they can see a real value in protecting the forest. This is also the case of Kanha Tiger Reserve, where many exemplary training programs have allowed hundreds of local people to successfully find work in the forest ecosystem.
She says: “Many ladies have been trained as guides too, and they are doing a really good job.This is unfortunately not the case in some other protected areas. The lack of support from local communities leads to conflicts and also to poaching.”
Extra eyes keep the poachers away
Camilla Malvestiti also tells that the tourists and photographers who daily enter the parks help to keep an eye on the animals. Especially the tigers are fondly known by name and recognised by the regulars. “It would be very hard for a poacher to enter an area that’s open for tourism and commit a crime.” But Camilla knows it much more difficult to know exactly what happens in the non tourism zones. These areas are huge and, in spite of the relentless efforts of the Forest Department, poachers can easily access them.
Ethical, responsible tourism
When asked about how tourism must be like in and around the tiger reserves she responds firmly: “Of course, tourism must be responsible and ethic, and strict rules have to be followed.”
The impact of the Covid pandemic
Covid-19/corona is causing dramas throughout the world. The devastating effects on people are clearly visible but an invisible drama is happening within the forests. We begin to read more and more stories about so-called lockdown poaching as more and more villagers get more and more dependent on the forests. As Camilla Malvestiti works in the tourism sector, we asked her how she is doing.
Halt to activities, halt to income
“We all know how devastating the effects of Covid have been on the tourism industry. Both in 2020 and 2021 the lockdown has arrived in summer. Summer is the peak season for tiger tourism in India. Numbers of sightings increase as animals gather around waterholes to search relief from the extreme heat. International borders have been closed for a year now,” Camilla explains. And when she continues she gets into the personal effects of the worst pandemic the world has seen in the last century.
“Local tourism had seen a rebound until closures and cancellations have struck again. For most of us this has meant the sudden halt of activities. With it, the sudden halt of income. It’s a very tough situation for the forest communities whose livelihood entirely depend on tourism. Guides, drivers, lodge staff and their families have once again found themselves without work. In these desperate times, with no tourists roaming around the park, poaching activities have dramatically gone up.”
On a personal level
Camilla says: “It’s been a very strange year for me. I’ve spent the 2020 lockdown in Kanha Tiger Reserve in almost complete isolation. It was a mystical experience. A strange and unpredicted one ,too. At times elating, at others scary, but powerful.”
Then the new season started and people travelled again to the jungles, one of the safest places to be given the natural social distancing practices and the absence of crowds. Things started to get back to normal again. The normal life as we all know we had, was getting back again, slowly but surely. But Covid-19 came back again. More brutal than the first wave.
“This new lockdown is a hard blow. It is so disheartening to see all the trips cancelled with no visibility towards the future,” as CamiIla knows that the economic prospects are awful when a new lockdown stays on for too long. “It’s important to try to keep a positive vision, and start planning for better times.”
Help is welcome
We asked her how people can help her, or others like her. “People can help me by sharing my articles and pictures. And if possible, start planning future trips! Wildlife destinations are as safe as they can be. We are now more than used to taking all precautions to ensure that guests feel taken care of while on a safari holiday.” With her answer Camilla is still caring more about her guests than about herself. But the care for wildlife is even stronger.
“More than ever, it is important to be informed and keep raising awareness about the tiger and its habitat. The tiger is an ambassador. Not only for its ecosystem, but also for the local communities that have always been able to coexist. For the tiger is the forest. Every strand of grass, every gust of wind, every lash of rain. And every smaller creature, whose existence is regulated and validated by this silent and wise gentleman,” she tells us and adds subtly “and ours as well, as a guest in tiger territory”.
Moments in time
Camilla Malvestiti has seen many tigers in her life. Each meeting with the king of the jungle is always extraordinary. We wanted to know more about these meetings and asked her about her favourite photograph.
A special place in my heart
“Many tiger encounters have shaped a special place in my heart. The best sightings don’t necessary lead to the best photographic opportunities, although they will teach you a lot about behaviour. There is no privilege more exclusive than being a witness to private moments in the life of wild tigers,” as Camilla tells us in a way that we understand even more how fascinating meeting tigers is. She gets even more enthusiastic when she tells about certain events she was able to witness.
“Seeing the change in confidence that the arrival of the mother will trigger in tiny cubs, instantly reassuring them. Seeing a tiger stalk and (successfully) hunt in front of your eyes. But the most spectacular sighting has been by far a tiger fight.” she says.
“It was in Kanha, January 2020. The humongous Umarpani and the much less impressive Jamuntola, the real underdog of the season, were fighting for the favours of the Dhawajhandi female. The smart tigress, who had small cubs fathered by another male, was watching the scene. At times, she would nuzzle one of the males, subtly pushing him toward the other, to continue the fight.”
The experience of tigresses
In her mind Camilla Malvestiti is back at the scene again when she tells about this moment. “I can still hear the loud rumbling of the feisty, aggravated males, confronting each other. I can still feel the smug, slightly annoyed but curious calmness of the female, who had so much at stake.Tigresses would do everything they can to protect their cubs. Male tigers however would kill those who are not fathered by them, just in order to mate with the tigress and hence perpetuate their own gene pool.
Experienced females have been seen in more than one occasion in the act of mock-mating to induce the males into thinking to be the father of her cubs.This particular sighting happened at a time when I had sent my camera to repair, so I was mainly accompanying guests on safari without carrying one. That day, a friend of mine had lent me hers, and it’s thanks to her that I could take photos of that one-of-a-lifetime moment.”