Trailblazer

Meet the leopard man

Nayan Khanolkar, Mumbai, India

Nayan Khanolkar grew up in Mumbai fascinated by the natural world around him. But it was while travelling in the Himalayas that he became intrigued by one of the most feared and maligned animals in Asia: the leopard.

“There was a very sad story of locals killing a leopard in a National Park, and it got me thinking about them, because there had been incidents with leopards in Mumbai too,” he says. “But it occurred to me that humans were encroaching on their territory, rather than the other way round. I wanted to find out more about them.”

“I had to study their habits more, and when I did, I got lots of photos”

The biology teacher, 44, dug deep. Travelling to meet a community on the outskirt of Mumbai that had experienced attacks, Nayan discovered that aggressive animals were often not from the area. “They tend to be ones that have been captured by humans and then re-released into other areas,” he says. “The people told me that they had being coexisting with other leopards for years.” With very little research on the topic existing, Nayan set out to take pictures of the elusive beasts. “And I didn’t get a photo for six months!” he laughs. “In the end I realised I had to study their habits more, and when I did, I started to get lots of photos.”

“There are areas in Mumbai that are shared by leopards and people”

What his shots revealed astonished experts in the natural world. “It was amazing – there are areas in Mumbai that are essentially shared by leopards and people,” he says. “Between 9pm and 5am is leopard time, and the rest is for humans. The leopards won’t come out until the humans are gone. So they’re waiting, and respecting the humans – they don’t want to hurt us, or get hurt.” Nayan won the 2016 urban category of Wildlife Photographer of the Year – but also earned a real sense of fulfilment. “The thing that really made me happy was getting to know these animals,” he says. “You realise they are the most adaptable of all the big cats, and they deserve our respect.”

Photography by Ashima Narain