August 2019

Issue: August 2019

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Get the shot

1 August 2019

For Dubai’s wildlife photographers, an unlikely city proved the perfect jumping-off point to capture some of the rarest animals on earth

Up in the Himalayan mountain range, at temperatures that hit -25 degrees on any given December night, Sascha Fonseca is adjusting his equipment in order to catch a snow leopard. After weeks of waiting – working on parts in his kitchen at home in Dubai, followed by a flight, an acclimatisation to the altitude, coordinating with his local guide – he is finally ready. He is here for a fortnight, but finding a snow leopard is no two-week task. Some stay for an entire year and don’t find what they seek.

But one fateful day, when all the stars are aligned, a snow leopard chances upon the scene. He sniffs the air cautiously; pads silently into frame. The infra-red sensor triggers the flash, and “click” – the shot is taken.

The pursuit of this snow leopard is of course photographic, rather than barbaric. And the animal itself is fairly unassuming; almost resembling a cuddly toy, with its small round ears atop a quizzical face. Yet it is, perhaps, one of the most sought after creatures for wildlife photographers on earth.

Speaking to Fonseca back in Dubai, where he works full-time at an engineering firm in the city: “it’s an amazing hobby,” he says, wryly adding, “although it takes a lot of time, and costs a lot of money.”

Like others in the city, the German-born photographer’s passion was borne out of a love of animals that started at childhood. It was only while on safari in Africa that he realised he wanted to progress his hobby into something far more specific.

“I was getting a shot of a lion or something that everybody else has, which is nice – but when you look back on it after a couple of years, you aren’t excited by it any longer,” he says “With a camera trap, you can get far closer to the animals, you can get unique shots with really wide angles, in both day and night. Most importantly, the animal isn’t disturbed by your presence, so you really capture it in its natural environment.”

Fonseca raves about the anthropomorphic expressions that such an unintrusive method of photography captures. He christens a shy sloth bear in Rajasthan Baloo, after its Jungle Book namesake, and the other animals caught in the camera trap also seem to embody their stereotypes; a busy porcupine, an imperious peacock – a group of boisterous monkeys that have grouped together for a selfie.

For Thomas Vijayan, like Fonseca: “Big cats are always my favourite,” he says. The Indian-born photographer started at age 10, armed with a roll of film and birds in his sights. “I was at a sanctuary near Bangalore, with a camera that allowed only limited clicks. I used to save up for new rolls with the little pocket money I had.” Vijayan has used a base in Dubai to travel to Africa and Asia to photograph more than 170 big cats, including the black leopard, the Pallas cat, and many other cats including what he describes as “the rarest of the rare”, the Amur leopard. “It is so interesting to study their behaviour… I can observe them closely for hours,” he says.

If you really want your image to stand out: “Give more importance to quality than quantity,” Vijayan suggests. “Be selective: one good frame from a trip is far better than too many clicks with less importance. Sometimes I spent days just to take one frame, the one that was in my imagination. Some trips, I just end up with one frame, but whatever I do get I feel very accomplished – it’s exactly what I wanted.”

For Yousef Al Habshi, animal behaviour is irrelevant – his goal is to make his subjects look as inhuman as they possibly could. The Emirati photographer works in macro, an extreme close-up whereby the subject is larger than it would be in real life. His subject? The humble insect.

“For me, there is a heavy detail, a whole new world you haven’t seen before,” he explains. “It’s like all of a sudden finding new treasures filling the world: some of them beautiful and multicoloured, others like monsters.”

Al Habshi either captures subjects to photograph in his studio or goes into the field – often at night. His last field trip was to Malaysia, where days that started at 9pm and finished at 3am led to the capture of irridescent tiger beetles, assassin and stink bugs, as well as Lynx spiders.

“Each insect has its own characteristic: some of them you’ll find in sandy places, others in forests,” says Al Habshi. Talking to him, you get the sense that these are his big cats. “Visually, I like insects that have metallic bodies, they look out of this world,” he enthuses. “Imagine seeing a big lion with a fully metallic body!”

As well as visual advancement, part of his message is to spread awareness. “If I ask my friends, what species of insect is this or that? They don’t know. It’s the opposite with mammals. So part of my hidden message is to get people interested about the work to the point that they will want to learn about it. Even within a few years I’ve got friends and family who were so uninterested calling me going, ‘Hey Yousef, I found this beetle, have you shot it?’”

“I’m really proud that I managed to give them some sort of foundation that they can grab knowledge from.”

For all, the proximity of Dubai to so many wildlife destinations is what makes it the ideal place to base oneself. “Dubai is what makes this possible,” agrees Fonseca. “Within three hours I’m with tigers in India, or Nairobi with lions and giraffes. Another few hours and I can be in Asia with panda bears, or in Europe, the US, Canada. It’s the perfect place, and its close to the biggest airport in the world in terms of international flights. Even Oman is a wildlife destination, which not many people know; there are still Arabian leopards there. I wouldn’t be able to do this in Europe.”

“I’ve been living in UAE for the past 27 years, and it’s really helped me to easily travel to all the wildlife destinations around the world,” says Vijayan. “I start from Dubai in the early morning, and by the afternoon I’m on safari in Kenya.”

As well as a jumping-off point, the city has been proving its commitment to local wildlife. The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, which is fully funded and sponsored by Emirates, was in 2018 accepted as a candidate for the IUCN Green List for Protected and Conserved Areas, a global standard for the world’s most effectively managed of protected areas. The reserve hosted 285,000 tourists last year, making it one of the most visited protected areas in the region.

The Arabian Oryx was reintroduced into the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve and now forms one of the largest, free roaming herds of its kind in the region. It was the first animal to be reclassified – from extinct in the wild to vulnerable – by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

For all the photographers, conservation is at the very core of what they do. In September, Fonseca will be heading out to Siberia to look for tigers in order to bring awareness to their increasing extinction.

“There’s a big problem with poaching,” he says. “There’s maybe a few hundred left in the world.”

For Al Habshi, his focus is on highlighting the often-overlooked, in attempts to educate. “We cannot deny the importance of insects. Without them, us or the planet would not survive,” he states. “We rely on bees and flies for our fruits and vegetables, on cross pollination. Right now we are facing a massive issue with the disappearance of bees: 70 per cent have vanished for unknown reasons.

“Day after day, our existence as human beings is perhaps less important than other animals in nature. They have their rules, but unfortunately in our modern times, we keep destroying them: their kingdoms, jungles.”

Of his audience, there is an increasing desire to learn. But at its surface, people still want a good shot, he admits. “If I show them an ugly image, or just a normal shot? I’ve lost them.”

Words: Georgina Lavers
Photos: Thomas Vijayan

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