From playing guitar on massive stages like Lollapalooza to disappearing for months into the hush of the jungle — Apurv Isaac is a man who knows how to follow his curiosity. Little did he realise, however, that it would lead him to tracking big cats. The 30-year-old guitarist of the band The Family Cheese has worked with names like Vir Das on his band Alien Chutney, Kamakshi Khanna and even the Colonial Cousins.
But as we do this interview, he speaks to us over the phone while ‘camera trapping’ in the tea estates of the Nilgiris, a technique wildlife photographers use to camouflage their lenses, sometimes for months at a time, in order to capture that perfect shot.
Since the pandemic in 2020 slowed down music gigs, he got the opportunity to spend some time in the Nilgiris, and inspired by sightings of sloth bears and tigers, began treading a new artistic terrain, as a photographer... and then shortly after, set up Lala Wildlife, where he curates safari tours. In just a couple of years, Apurv has photographed an impressive 159 individual tigers (some multiple times) and 94 individual leopards, showcasing them to a fast-growing audience of over 106K followers on his Instagram.
Ahead of International Tiger Day (July 29), we ask him for a glimpse into his world and find ourselves learning lingo around pug marks, alarm calls and marking territory.
When did this curiosity around big cats begin for you?
I’ve always been enamoured by all things wild. I’m pretty sure I can trace my love for music and wildlife back to a single source — The Lion King. Nature films and documentaries also played a huge role in nurturing this curiosity. I’ve bored quite a few friends and partners by wanting to watch wildlife documentaries all the time.
How did you navigate this identity shift from musician to wildlife tour guide and photographer?
The pandemic brought my ridiculously hectic touring musician life to a very abrupt and indefinite standstill. With all my foreseeable gigs cancelled and with the pandemic taking a toll on my mental health, a few friends of mine very kindly took me along with their family to the Nilgiris. Whilst here, I started seeing some amazing birds that would fly up to the trees outside my window. Soon after that, I realised that there were leopards and sloth bears around as well!
I had never really picked up a camera seriously before August of 2020 but I figured I needed to photograph what I saw so that I could look up what species they were and learn more about them. I’ve always maintained that my first and true love when it comes to wildlife is to track and observe the animals, the photography has always been a by-product.
How do you track tigers? Is there a method, a calendar for the year, or a way you receive tips...
Tracking big cats is honestly the most exhilarating part of what I do. I suppose being a musician does help because I end up using my ears a lot, constantly listening for the alarm call of different animals. Alarm calls are sounded out by deer, monkeys and sometimes even birds to signal to their kin and the rest of the jungle that a predator has been spotted and is on the move. (More in the tip section)
You are on a mission to impact conservation as well. Tell us more.
I am working on a few projects, which include photography and filmmaking to shine a light on the plights of wildlife and the communities that live around our forests and national parks. Apart from this, I’m working on another project with the aid of camera trapping. I’d like to show that co-existence is not only possible, but thriving with very little need for our intervention.
Your photographs are stunning. What is your creative process while in the jungle?
If you’re lucky enough to spot a big cat, the first thing you’d need to get in check is the rush of adrenaline. When it comes to wildlife, each and every second counts and there are moments that if you miss once, you’re likely to never see again. So, once you’ve been able to get your adrenaline and the staggering odds against you under control, which honestly takes a lot of time, you can focus on your angles to take your photographs. Apart from this, a little knowledge and understanding of animal behaviour goes a long way in anticipating what the animal may do next. This makes for some memorable photographs.
How do you capture intimate moments and behaviours of tigers without disturbing their natural rhythm?
Body language is universal and one has to be very sensitive to the cues that the animals are displaying, at all times. Tigers are no different and they are almost always letting you know if they’re comfortable with your presence or not. Moreover, tigers have distinct, unique personalities; some may allow you to get a little closer than others. Having said this, if a tiger really doesn’t want to be seen, you just won’t see it. For every one tiger that you see, there’s been five that have seen you!