Sanjitpaal Singh: Rock star wildlife photographer and activist


Sanjitpaal Singh – Photo: SC Shekar

By Elena Koshy | New Straits Times | Malaysia |

FOR many people, the picture of the Helmeted hornbill is among Sanjitpaal Singh’s most powerful images. And he gets it. “It’s a rare bird to photograph,” he concedes, with a slight shrug of his shoulders.

It was important now more than ever to try, though. The Helmeted hornbill is heading towards extinction because of the booming black market for carvings made from its “horn”. Other hornbills have hollow casques, as their horns are called, but the Helmeted hornbill’s is solid and easy to carve into beads, figurines and intricate scenes.

“Parts of the hornbill were being sold off by locals for a pittance. It’s such a pity because they could actually earn so much more through ecotourism. The latter allows them to make money off natural resources while protecting them,” he asserts.

It’s not too late to save the Helmeted hornbill, Sanjit (as he’s fondly known) tells me, but to get people to care, they had to be able to show the bird in all its splendour. “I knew it was going to be hard,” he says, adding: “Twenty years ago, it was hard. And now they’ve been hunted so much more, they’re even rarer. But it turned out to be even harder than I expected.”

Sanjit spent around 450 hours and walked approximately 180 km to get this shot of the critically endangered Helmeted hornbill! – Photo: Sanjitpal Singh

Too demanding? Well, consider what he did to get the striking picture of a Helmeted hornbill with a very small fig in its bill.

He took a two-hour flight to Sabah, and journeyed for another two-and-a-half-hours to the village where he and his researcher wife, Dr Ravinder Kaur (or Ravin as I know her) were to stay for the duration of their trip.

They travelled by boat daily through the misty Kinabatangan River — at an unearthly hour of 4am — to reach the forest, traversed through rugged terrain in the dark while juggling equipment that weighed more than 14kg to arrive at the hornbill’s roosting site before the break of dawn.

“We didn’t want to miss the first feed of the day,” he says, referring to the breeding season where chances of catching a glimpse of the male Helmeted hornbill is almost a guarantee if they can spot an active nest.

That’s when the female seals herself inside a tree cavity to incubate her egg and raise the chick for up to 150 days. During that period, the male must deliver food multiple times a day.

Ravin and his wife have been studying the breeding biology of the Helmeted hornbills. The daily journey to and fro the Lower Kinabatangan Forest Reserve for a whopping 45 days wasn’t without risks.

Read the full story, ‘Wildlife photographer and activist Sanjitpaal Singh is a rock star out in the wild!’ (NST, 16 Jan 2022), here.


Malaysia’s hornbill girl (Asia Samachar, 12 Oct 2020)

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