Tigers and territories

Wildlife filmmaker Kalyan Varma filmed tigress Raj Bhera and her cubs for more than three years, for the series Dynasties

Deep in Bandhavgadh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, tigress Raj Bhera is about to litter. A patient camera crew tracks her every move, from birthing to raising the cubs over the next three years, until they are old enough to face environmental and other challenges. Following the journey of the tigress was Bengaluru-based wildlife filmmaker Kalyan Varma for naturalist Sir David Attenborough’s wildlife documentary series Dynasties. The five-part series also looks at chimpanzees in the Sahara Desert, emperor penguins in Antarctica, hunting dogs in Zimbabwe and lions in Kenya.

In an interview with MetroPlus ahead of the India première of Dynasties on Sony BBC Earth, Kalyan reveals that the India-specific portions for Dynasties was filmed over four years. Kalyan calls it “one of the roughest tiger films ever made”. The risks were high, he explains, “During the time of filming, had something happened to any of these tigers, our film would not have been possible.”

The tiger episode took four years in the making. The idea came up in 2013. The BBC team decided that one of the species to be followed had to be the tiger; the task was to find a tigress who was just pregnant and would deliver cubs soon. “While doing our research, we got to know that Raj Bhera was about to litter and hence decided to start filming her in 2014. The team followed her though 2014, 2015, 2016, and to the early parts of 2017. The editing process took over a year,” says Kalyan.

The Bandhavgarh National Park is one of the well known tiger reserves in the world, with different habitat types — from grasslands to woodlands. Kalyan explains, “Most tigers in the tourism zone are habituated to people. This allowed us to intimately follow Raj Bhera and her cubs over four years. At Bandhavgarh, we could use elephants to track the tigers even when they were away from the main roads.”

Kalyan Varma

Kalyan Varma  
| Photo Credit:
By arrangement

The intent of Dynasties was to highlight the challenges faced by different species in protecting their families from environmental and human threats. Kalyan observes, “Tigers need huge territories and a large prey base to support good populations. India has over 50 tiger reserves and thanks to the protection by the forest department over the years, the numbers have been steadily going up across the country. But remember that for every two to three cubs to reach adulthood, they need to establish their own territory. This means they either displace their mother or go to a new area and displace the local tiger. This leads to infighting between tigers; some of these could be fatal. Some tigers might venture out of National Parks and come in conflict with people. They start feeding on cattle and in rare times, there are human fatalities too. The future of tigers in India will depend on how we manage corridors between forests for tigers to disperse and how we manage conflicts with people.”

Filming Raj Bhera and her cubs was a challenging process. Kalyan’s team shot for long hours through the days. The tigers, he says, rest 10 to 11 hours and venture out only when they are hungry or thirsty. Wildlife filmmaking calls for patience, with long hours of wait, especially during summers. “There would be days when we could come back without even switching on the cameras and days when we would be close to dehydration after a long day at work in 45° Celsius,” he says.

Kalyan has worked on a few BBC series, including the Big Cats in 2018. He quit his job at an IT company 15 years ago, to pursue wildlife photography and filmmaking. Looking back, he says it was the best decision in his life: “Back then when I was watching David Attenborough films, I would dream of being a part of his crew. I cannot be happier now since I have worked with him on three films so far and have three more in the pipeline,” he signs off.

(Dynasties premières in India on June 17, on Sony BBC Earth)

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