Pakistan is a haven for its people. But it also serves as home to a fascinating range of spellbinding wildlife, living in hidden valleys and mountainous ranges. Having piqued the curiosity of the world, it seems there is so much that we still don’t know when it comes to the flora and fauna of Pakistan’s wilderness. But wildlife photographer Awais Ali Sheikh is bringing a whole new narrative as he takes on unexplored terrains to give us pixelated stories of majestic creatures that inhabit this region that need to be appreciated and protected. Excerpts from our interview:
SD: How did you venture into the field of wildlife photography?
Awais: Back in 2008, I studied art, and photography was one of my favorite subjects. It covered different fields of photography and undoubtedly helped me in the field of Graphic Design. One day, I was walking through a university corridor and found a pair of bank mayna fighting brutally. I jumped in the middle of their fight and picked them up in my hand and at that moment they totally ignored me. I managed to set them free and after a while, I was sitting alone, and thought, “What did I just witness!”This pushed me to go even deeper into nature, to experience a whole other world, and to enjoy these majestic creatures in their real environment and habitat. Eventually, I started exploring a lot of places in Pakistan and then found myself in that part of a hidden world.
SD: Was it a childhood passion that developed?
Awais: No. As I said, it was this one incident that triggered it.
SD: Any setbacks you had to face while pursuing this field?
Awais: Yes, to achieve something in life, one has to pass through several challenges and one of them for me was facing any training to master your skills?
Awais: I studied photography as one of the subjects of my Bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, there are no such specialized studies in Pakistan where you can learn or master your skills in Wildlife Photography. I am a self-learner; I learned and polished my skills with practical experience.
SD: What has been the most amazing experience of shooting that you’ve had so far?
Awais: There are several amazing experiences. One is meeting the King of the North-the one and only Ghost Cat ‘Snowleopard’ from Khunjerab National Park. Another one is having a close encounter with the Himalayan Brown Bear from the second highest plateau in the world, Deosai Plains.
SD: Considering the beauty of Pakistan, what regions have you been able to cover so far?
Awais: I feel so proud that I was able to cover all the regions of Pakistan except for Balochistan in 12 years of my experience in this field.
SD: With your work, how do you highlight the wildlife conservation efforts of the country?
Awais: I believe by recording different species every year, who reside or migrate, they get protected with the help of certain organizations. Also, legitimate hunting ( like trophy hunting ) helps to raise funds for the wildlife conservation of those particular areas which are protected by the people or NGOs. However, no endangered species are allowed to be hunted.
SD: Among the wildlife, which has been the most endearing to shoot and capture on camera?
Awais: I must say the Himalayan Brown Bear, the Snow Leopard, and the Common Leopard.
SD: Any close encounters or interesting incidents that happened?
Awais: Deosai, is the second-highest plateau in the world home to the Himalayan Brown Bears. Luckily, I got a chance to meet a giant bear just before the snowfall in the month of November back in 2016. And that was actually a close encounter in which he gave me dreadful looks. I can’t ever forget that moment. We were both standing facing each other in his territory with a distance of just 50 meters between us. After a while, it seems he understood my intent and allowed me to take some photos.
SD: Do you feel being a wildlife photographer can be taken as a full-time job in Pakistan?
Awais: Unfortunately, there are no such wildlife photographer jobs in Pakistan. If there are, I will be the first to start. For now, the only way is to do it as a hobby or for your country. But the good thing is, as the wildlife photographers community is increasing day by day in Pakistan, and with their ultimate efforts, I believe there will be a chance to get some possibilities in near future.
SD: What more can be done to create awareness about this field?
Awais: Through workshops, events, exhibitions, contests, and field trips we can spread even more awareness. Besides that, institutions should cover short courses on the subject.
SD: Any interesting assignments you are taking on in 2023?
Awais: I am planning to meet the snow leopard again.
SD: Do you take on international locations too?
Awais: Not yet but let’s see in the future.