When forest guard Bhera Ram Bishnoi began dabbling in camera trap photography in 2016, little did the 34-year-old know that his amateur interest in creating images would develop into an all-consuming passion a year later. Today, a Nikon DSLR camera is an essential part of his gear as he patrols the Desuri range of Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, Rajasthan.

“I improved my camera trap photography skills through trial and error,” reveals the self-taught photographer over a phone conversation in August. Though the sanctuary was closed to tourists from July to September during the monsoon, and earlier due to the national lockdown imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was business as usual for Bishnoi and his colleagues.

Preventing cutting and illegal collection of firewood inside the sanctuary by livestock grazers is their main concern while patrolling the forest. Bishnoi carries his camera and manages to pursue his passion for wildlife photography during his patrols. Bishnoi’s encounters with wildlife are numerous.

“Once a young leopard (Panthera pardus) sitting on a tree sprang right in front of me,” he tells me. “It must have been less than five metres away from me, when I scared it away with the lathi in my hand.” Another time, “a sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) appeared out of nowhere as a colleague and I were inspecting a camera trap. It turned away after noticing that there were two of us there.”

Bishnoi happily shares a ringside view of the lives of the wild animals he is privileged to observe in Kumbalgarh in the course of his regular workday. My WhatsApp is constantly buzzing with photographs he sends. Here is an intimate glimpse of the rich and varied wildlife this 578-sq-km wildlife sanctuary harbours, from a forest guard’s point of view.

Named Noor by locals, this leopardess is Bishnoi’s muse. Frequently moving in and out of the sanctuary, she is used to his presence and allows him to photograph her, sometimes even when she is feeding on a kill. “I occasionally find her lounging about on this rocky outcrop just outside the sanctuary,” says Bishnoi.
Noor feeds on a cow she dragged from a cattle shelter outside the sanctuary. She enjoys the tolerance that locals have towards large cats. “I took this photograph in 2018 when she had two young cubs to feed,” says Bishnoi. According to a wildlife census carried out in 2020, an estimated 136 leopards (Panthera pardus) are found in and around the Kumbhalgarh sanctuary. Those that live on the periphery of the sanctuary may occasionally take a goat or a cow, especially when they have hungry cubs to feed. Leopards are opportunistic scavengers too; they will not pass up an opportunity to feed on a carcass, such as a buffalo (next image) dumped by villagers near the boundary wall of the sanctuary.
“A leopard was the first to arrive at this buffet, followed by this female striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena). After the hyena had her fill she left and came back to the carcass three or four times, taking with her a morsel each time. She was probably transporting food to her cubs,” says Bishnoi, who was surprised to see the scavenger on the carcass well into the morning. Primarily nocturnal, the striped hyena normally leaves its den only under the cover of darkness and returns to it before sunrise. Kumbhalgarh is estimated to have around 141 hyenas.
A striped hyena litter typically comprises two to four cubs, who begin to venture out of their den when they are around one month old. This cub seems lost in deep happy thoughts outside its den. It was one of two that Bishnoi had the pleasure of observing. “I use a zoom lens and stay absolutely still while photographing hyenas or jackals to ensure that I do not spook them,” he says.
Bishnoi has observed that golden jackals (Canis aureus) are usually among the last scavengers to arrive at a carcass in Kumbhalgarh. Leopards and hyenas usually arrive before them and make the task of tearing the tough hide of large animals easier for these opportunistic canids. “These four jackals arrived at the scene in the morning after the leopard and hyena had consumed their share,” says Bishnoi. Jackals are frequently encountered at dusk around the villages on the outskirts of the sanctuary.
The Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) spends most of its time on trees and it is very unusual to spot one strolling along the ground as seen here. A solitary and nocturnal animal, it mainly feeds on fruits and the sap of palm flowers. “The odour of offerings left behind by pilgrims near a temple within the precincts of the sanctuary attracts individuals like this one,” explains Bishnoi. “Otherwise, they are extremely shy and bolt immediately when they feel threatened.”

Kumbhalgarh’s dry, deciduous brown forests transform into a magical green oasis during the monsoon and one can sight various birds. During the monsoon of 2020, Bishnoi photographed birds such as the Indian paradise flycatcher, Indian pitta (above right), and common hawk cuckoo (above left).

Bishnoi ran into this Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans) during his routine patrolling in the park. An inhabitant of dry, scrub forests across India, this tortoise is threatened with extinction due to a demand for it from the illegal wildlife pet trade.
Marsh crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris) can be seen around reservoirs of dams and anicuts within the sanctuary. In the winter of 2018 Bishnoi counted around 50 near the Seli dam, where they were basking in the warm sunshine along the banks of the reservoir.
Muggers (marsh crocodiles) primarily feed on fish found in the reservoir but, if necessary, can survive for months without eating. Once water levels in the reservoir recede, they disperse to other waterbodies nearby.

Anirudh Nair is a feature writer with RoundGlass Sustain. He enjoys walking through the wilderness and is constantly in awe of wild nature.

Bhera Ram Bishnoi is a forest guard with the Rajasthan Forest Department posted at the Desuri range of Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. You can follow Bishnoi on Instagram where he posts as bheru bishnoi.

First published in RoundGlass Sustain, a treasure trove of stories on India’s wildlife, habitats and their conservation.