Interview with Dr. Munir Virani on Wildlife Photography and Raptors

by Meera 25. April 2013 14:01

Dr Munir Virani has been researching on birds of prey for the last two decades. Munir is the Program Director for Africa and South Asia for The Peregrine Fund and a Research Associate at the National Museums of Kenya. He has published over a 100 popular and scientific articles and was awarded the Aga Khan Award for Excellence in 2002 for his work on vultures in South Asia. He also won the Twende Africa Photographer of the Year award in 2007. He sits on the Board of Directors of the Raptor Research Foundation and is on the Editorial Board of Swara and Ostrich (The African Journal of Ornithology). He is passionate about photography and his images can be viewed on www.munirvirani.com. He has also spoken on TED.com about his love for vultures. He lives in Nairobi with his wife and two sons and loves playing squash and cricket. 

Today, he gives us an exclusive interview on wildlife photography and his love for raptors.

 
Photo Credit: Munir Virani

1. Share with us something interesting about you?

I grew up eating, sleeping and breathing cricket and would play with my brothers and friends at every opportunity I got. When I was selected in the squad to represent Kenya in the 1990 Associate World Cup in Holland, I was forced to choose between cricket and academics. My Dean at the University of Nairobi made the choice for me and I will always be indebted to him. Naturally, academics took precedence over cricket. Over the last two decades, I have developed as a scientist who loves being outdoors and working with nature and wildlife. I have my wife Zahra to thank because she encouraged and stood by me over this period. I have a very strong passion for birds of prey (raptors) and wildlife photography. I find every excuse under the sun to explore the outdoors and watch and photograph raptors. I don’t think I could ever be a golfer because I would simply stop and watch birds in the sky. I am one of those people who have multiple talents (singing, cricket, squash, musical instruments, writing, photography and acting) but find it hard to stay focused on just one. I have genuinely felt that I am an artist trapped in a scientist’s body and feel very fortunate that I can approach my work more in an artistic fashion than as a scientist.

2. What type of camera do you shoot with?

I started with a Pentax, and then moved to Canon but have now settled for a Nikon D300 and have a Nikon 300mm F2.8 that I sometimes use with a Nikon 1.7 Converter. 

3. How would you describe your photography style?

I’d like to think that I am a versatile photographer. I am not tunnelled to wildlife only as I like shooting abstracts and people. I would say that my photography style ranges from being rapaciously vivid to unassumingly unctuous. More importantly, I aspire to take photographs that portray a message. Each image should speak for itself and therefore “less is more”. That’s my philosophy. I love shooting birds in flight and could wait hours before one takes off just to get the wing-patterns in motion. I also like dabbling with Black and White because it just has an alluring perspective altogether. I especially like converting elephant shots into Black and White. I am not an expert by any means and have so much more to learn.

Photo Credit: Munir Virani

 

Photo Credit: Munir Virani

4. There are lots of wildlife shots that a photographer can take. What’s your inspiration to take the wildlife photographs that you take?

Birds of prey are charismatic, glamorous and very sexy. There is something inherently mysterious and mesmerising when watching a hawk or an eagle bob its head and focus on its prey. On take off, a bird of prey uses a lot of muscles and energy. There is something hypnotic about watching flight feathers and wings at full stretch, or watching a Cheetah coil like a spring when it’s chasing a Gazelle. Predators have always caught the attention of man. They are revered and respected and watching an eagle or a falcon come down full stoop and grabbing prey inspires me a lot. They are the epitome of perfection, grace and athleticism. In many ways, man strives to be like these predators but we have ended up extirpating them. 

Photo Credit: Munir Virani

5. Could you tell us what was one of your most dangerous shots when taking a photograph in the wild?

In 1993, when I was young and naïve, I spent that entire year conducting research on the endemic and endangered Sokoke Scops Owl in Kenya’s Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. My work involved radio-tracking these birds at night. The forest has always had a healthy population of elephants. One early morning as I was leaving the forest, I heard sounds of some branches being broken and I got very excited. I walked with my camera in hand for about half a kilometre and as I turned a corner, I saw a herd of about 30 elephants walking towards me. I stood head on with my camera to click away as that was the first time I had seen them in that forest. Suddenly, I realized that my zoom lens was far too close to focus and as I lifted my head to observe them, the elephant leading the herd was within ten feet of me. My heart was thumping as I stood there motionless with camera in hand. There was a cold chill down my spine and yet, I felt calm and at ease. Then, the elephant stopped, raised its trunk and made the loudest trumpeting sound I ever heard. I thought that was going to be the end of me as I had heard stories about people being trampled by elephants. And then, within a fraction of a second, the elephants bolted into the thickets of the forest probably uprooting a tree or two. Whilst I felt a huge adrenalin rush, I had realized that I was irresponsible and foolish. Elephants have my utmost respect as do all wildlife. There have also been times when I have walked into wild tigers in the forests of Bandhavgarh National Park (India), and a pride of lions in Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park, but the elephant encounter was without a doubt, the most exhilarating if also dangerous.

Photo Credit: Munir Virani

6. How did you develop an interest in raptor photography?

I think those two words were mutually exclusive before they came back together. At university, my dad bought me my very first camera – a Pentax, which I cherish even to this day. I was inspired into photography by my very good friends Hitesh Mehta and Dr. Patrick Benson, both of whom are first class photographers. One evening at a slide presentation at a friend’s house, I showed 36 slides to friends about my trip to Lamu in coastal Kenya. Hitesh Mehta ordered me to throw 35 of them into a bin and said that the one he allowed barely made it. I was completely distraught and shattered. I had turned red with embarrassment and anger. Humans don’t take well to criticism. But I learned a very important lesson that evening.  I was inspired to improve my skills and I am thankful to Hitesh for doing that. I learned to take criticism positively and my photography got better. I got interested in raptors when I was taken “under the wing” of The Peregrine Fund in the early 1990s to train as a raptor biologist under the legendary raptor expert and guru Simon Thomsett. Simon injected me with one lethal dose of his passion for raptors and I became an addict. My research work enabled me to travel to some very exciting and fascinating places and I am very fortunate to see so many types of raptors so it was only a matter of time that I became hooked on raptor photography.

 
 
Photo Credit: Munir Virani

7.How high have you gone to take a photograph of a raptor?

About six years ago, I got a call from my friend Rob, who worked with an NGO. He said “Munir, you better get here as soon as you can, I am looking at a falcon at the top of the Kenyatta Conference Centre.” The KICC is an iconic 18 storey building located in the heart of Nairobi. I rushed there with my colleague Simon, camera on my back, only to find that the elevators had a very long queue. Simon winked at me and I knew that this meant only one thing! We were going to go all the way up by stairs. So off we went, panting and puffing and by the time I reached the 18th floor, my tongue was hanging out of my mouth. It was quite a comical sight but as I stared at the balcony from the 18th floor, I forgot everything and we saw a resplendent Lanner Falcon with two cute little chicks. It was most amazing to see this fantastic bird-predator over looking the city. I took many pictures and the climb up to the top was certainly worth it! There is also a massive cliff plateau in the heart of Bandhavgarh National Park from where we walk and climb through tiger-infested terrain to take pictures of vultures and peregrines.

8. You did interesting research on vultures – would you be able to tell us more about the project and an interesting encounter you faced while taking your photographs? 

Vulture populations have plummeted across the globe. In Africa, efforts to conserve these highly specialized and threatened scavengers have met with limited success and are fraught with challenges. Our research has shown that vultures forage over vast areas, spanning multiple countries in the course of a single year.  Their extensive movements coupled with communal feeding means that a single poisoned carcass in an area the size of Spain could have a regional impact on vulture populations.  High mortality rates are compounded by the fact that vultures have one of the slowest breeding rates of any birds so even small population declines require decades to recover. In south Asia we discovered that a pain killing drug called diclofenac was responsible for the catastrophic collapse of 99% of three species of vultures within a span of two decades. Fortunately, the governments of India, Nepal and Pakistan banned this drug in 2006 and now we are starting to see populations stabilize in areas where they had been extirpated. 

I must add that I am extremely fortunate and privileged to be working for The Peregrine Fund, a world class organisation. We are a hands-on bunch that have been around since 1970 and we pride ourselves in getting the work done. From restoring Peregrine Falcons and Californian Condors in the USA to identifying the cause of catastrophic declines in South Asian Vulture populations. I could not wish for a better organisation to work for.

There have been very many interesting encounters whilst photographing vultures, but the most memorable one took place in Bandhavgarh National Park. I was there with my colleague Dr Patrick Benson and we had to walk to one particular location to count vulture nests and photograph the cliffs where they nested on. As we walked to our census point, we saw numerous fresh tiger tracks along the way and my heart was racing quite fast. Finally from our point as we were recording numbers of nests, there was a gargantuan growl, and from the back of a huge boulder about 6 metres away, this massive tiger simply got up, stretched, and stared at us (we were in complete shock!) and sauntered down the hill into oblivion. I think words simply cannot describe how we were all dumbfounded by that experience which will forever be etched in my mind. 

Photo Credit: Munir Virani

9. What advice could you give to someone who wants to get in to wildlife photography?

The most important aspect to remember when you want to get into wildlife photography is that “the animal comes first”. You must never compromise the vitality or the behaviour of any wildlife subject to “get the perfect shot”. It is extremely important to understand the behaviour of the animals that you want to photograph. Patience is key! I would encourage budding photographers to spend as much time in the outdoors as they can. Also interacting and asking lots of questions to other established photographers really helps. Never be afraid of experimenting with different light settings, and never be discouraged by criticism of your shots! In fact, use the criticism as a tool to improve your photographic skills. You also need to be organized from keeping your equipment clean, to archiving and showcasing your images. A good camera and lens always helps!

 

Photo Credit: Munir Virani

10. Are there any photography blogs or websites that you follow?

Paolo Torchio www.paolotorchio.net and Federico Veronesi www.federicoveronesi.com are two photographers based in Kenya who are extremely talented wildlife photographers and I have learned a lot from them. 

You can check his video on Ted on “Why I love vultures?

Source 

You can also visit his Notes from the Field site on The Peregrine Fund: http://blogs.peregrinefund.org/author/46

A collection of Munir's Photographs:

 

 

All the photographs on this interview are courtesy of Munir Virani.

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Comments (2) -

WASHINGTON WACHIRA
WASHINGTON WACHIRA Kenya
4/29/2013 2:28:41 PM #

I have really enjoyed reading through the interview with Dr. Munir.  He is one of my greatest inspirations in my photography and conservation arena. Congratulations for the journey so far Munir and soar higher to become the best of all time.

Reply

Meera
Meera United Kingdom
5/9/2013 10:44:58 AM #

Hi Wachira,

Thank you very much for reading Dr. Munir's interview. His work is truly admirable! I am glad that he has inspired you. I wish you all the best in your photography.

Best wishes, Meera

Reply

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