SINGAPORE: He may have braved the rainforest jungles of Borneo to get his prize-winning peekaboo shot of a wild orangutan.
But this year’s National Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year says Singapore is as good a place as any to shoot some fascinating wildlife, from local and migratory birds to its loveable otters.
In fact, Jayaprakash Bojan told Channel NewsAsia that the latter are his favourite subjects here.
“I’ve been photographing the Pasir Ris family for a year and a half now. I live in Pasir Ris Link and the park is one of my favourite places. When I’m not travelling, I go there three to four times a week, and there are a few spots they show up very regularly. Typically, in the mornings, they’d come and roll on the grass,” said the 41-year-old photographer from Tamil Nadu, India.
He has even won an award for one of his otter photos – a scene depicting an encounter between the animals and morning joggers had previously won first prize at a contest in India.
“There were these uncles who were taking photos with their handphones and the otters were curious and even walked closer to them," Bojan recalled.
"I used that photograph to tell the story of how wildlife can still coexist with humans in an urban place like Singapore. It’s got really limited wildlife but it’s just amazing to see how people here are very appreciative of what is there, preserving and taking care of them.”
ENCOUNTERING ‘COOPER’ IN THE WILD
At the heart of Bojan’s love for photography is animal conservation. His award-winning photo of the male orangutan – fondly nicknamed “Cooper” by his wife for its copper-tinted fur – is part of an ongoing project of photographing endangered primates all around the world.
Another of his photographs – of an African cheetah – also made it to the National Geographic finals, but Bojan said he was glad it was the orangutan image that won.
“I’m happy to just put the spotlight on the orangutans – they deserve it more than me winning the award,” he said, recalling the shock he felt at the sight that greeted him at the beginning of his trip to Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan in August.
“When you fly down from Jakarta, all you see around are palm oil farms – probably 60 to 70 per cent of the habitat of the orangutans have been destroyed by palm oil cultivation. I was impacted by the loss of habitat,” he said, adding that he plans to donate part of his prize money – US$7,500 (S$10,000) – to orangutan conservation.
As for the real story behind the prize-winning shot, Bojan knew he was on to something special when he was told by one of the local rangers that there were occasional sightings of orangutans crossing the Sekonyer River.
“Historically, there are very few documented evidence of orangutans in the river, because they hate water and some parts of the river have crocodiles. So we took the risk,” said Bojan.
It was only on the second day of living on a boat when he and his companions finally spotted the great ape.
“I decided to jump into the river and hid behind a tree. It happened that the orangutan saw me and kind of hid behind another tree trunk in the river. So I just stood still – and after a few seconds, the orangutan came out to see if I was still there. I took a sequence of around 25 pictures. It was an exciting, thrilling moment for me,” he said.
FROM SINGAPORE ZOO TO INDOCHINA
And there have been many such moments for Bojan, who had simply been a hobbyist until his move to Singapore a couple of years ago to follow his wife, who works in the banking industry.
After working in the corporate sector in India for 18 years, he decided to quit his job to pursue his passion for travel and photography as a freelance wildlife photographer.
In the past 11 months, he has been to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and Malaysia – primarily to focus on his endangered primates project, which he hopes to publish as a photobook by the end of next year.
His passion for endangered primates began thanks to a visit to the Singapore Zoo upon moving here two years ago – and seeing the orangutans, gibbons and red langur.
“It’s honestly one of the best zoos I’ve seen. The design is so beautiful you don’t feel you’re in a zoo. Something was triggered and I thought should go and find all these primates and photograph them in the wild.”
He added: “In Indochina alone there are about 25 rare monkey or primate species that are highly endangered. For some of them, there are only about 40 to 50 alive. So far, I’ve only captured around nine species because they’re really hard to spot, especially since I’m trying to photograph them in the wild.”
And there’s more on his plate. In February, he’ll be in Japan to shoot their famous snow monkeys. The month after that, it’s off to the Himalayas in the hopes of spotting the elusive snow leopards.
“That’s going to be a really tough one. It’s maybe 10,000 feet about sea level and very low on oxygen. But we have a good team there,” he said.
And is his wife okay with his constant travelling? “She’s a huge nature lover. In fact whenever she has time she travels with me. But it’s not easy to be away from home weeks at a time. Obviously, you need a supportive wife,” he said with a laugh.