Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ashok Captain, Herp Photography, & his Love for India

Ashok Captain is a world renowned herp photographer and Indian snake enthusiast. Read on to learn about some of favorite spots, hear some photography advice, and get a peek into his favorite herping trips.
Viridovipera (Trimeresurus) medoensis - Medo Pit Viper  A. Captain/ Adu Ile Me/ The Lisus

How did you first become interested in reptiles/amphibians (particularly snakes) and photography?

A. Captain: In the 90's, we used to go on a lot of jungle trips - initially in the Western Ghats - places close to Pune (where I live). Most trips were during the monsoons (our rainy season) and we'd see a lotta creepies. Initially I tried to 'study' everything - monsoon plants, spiders, solifuges, amblypygids, scorpions, frogs, caecilians, lizards and snakes. I photographed all of these and needed captions for my slides (now digital images)! I soon gave up trying to 'id' everything and drifted towards snakes 'cos it was possible to do a lot (but not all) of the identification without killing 'em/ collecting 'em/ dissecting bits and pieces. This wasn't possible with several of the other animals.

Was anyone influential in your decision to go into herpetology as a profession?

Umm, nope. Snake taxonomy isn't a profession for me. Pros get funded to do this kinda thing. I spend most of my own money doing this stuff! Three guys who were extremely helpful (when I was a newbie) were Anil and Neelimkumar Khaire (brothers who run both the snake parks in Pune) and Rom Whitaker (he needs no introduction)! (Drum roll as Rom takes a bow).

Where is your favorite herping spot in the world?

Pretty much anywhere in India (I have a distinct Indian bias) though I have spent most of my 'field time' in the northern Western Ghats and eastern Arunachal Pradesh. 

Do you have any favorite herps to find in the wild? Anything that still gets you excited to find?

No favorite spots as such. Finding any herp is exciting for me! 
Oreocryptophis porphyraceus (formerly Elaphe porphyracea) - Red Mountain Rat Snake A. Captain/ The Lisus

Do you have a life list? If so, what herp is at the top of your list to find in the wild?

No life list as such, but I would love to see Indian Trimeresurus (Peltopelor) macrolepis; the Sri Lankan Trimeresurus (Craspedocephalus) trigonocephalus and the African Bitis gabonica (all in the wild).

Is there any country/area that is at the top of your list to visit still?

Injun bias again! In India, there are still so many places left to visit - the deserts, southern Western Ghats, Eastern Ghats, the Andamans, Nicobar Islands . . .

Do you keep any herps as personal pets? If so, what species and any favorites?

Nope. 'Tis illegal in India. We have a 'Wildlife Prevention Act' that does just that! Did not know that!

I know when I’m behind the camera I get pretty focused, have you had any “close calls”?

Nope, again. Yup, I get pretty focused too, but I usually have several folks I trust helping [me] with the snake and photography. If it's a hot 'un, there are usually two guys (with their mobiles switched off) with snake sticks between me (camera, tripod and flashes) and the model. Most of my pics are posed. There may be another 2-3 guys holding the flashes and/ or umbrellas. Sometimes its not possible to get a pic. That's okay. 

Elachistodon westermanni - Indian Egg Eater
       A. Captain/ S. Deshmukh/ R. Nande
What’s more exciting, winning a cycling competition, discovering a new herp species, or getting that perfect photo published on a cover?

All three are equally exciting! : )

What has been your favorite/most memorable herping trip you’ve ever made?

Actually 4 of 'em! 1. I once spent 8 months in Arunachal. It was to be a year, but I had to meet my landlord in Pune! Anyways, I saw 26 Trimeresurus (Viridovipera) medoensis and several other beautiful snakes in the wild. One of the Medo Pit Vipers made the cover of a Christmas supplement of Geo (Germany)! Impressive! 2. On another trip to Arunachal, with the help of the villagers, we found a Protobothrops kaulbackii. 3. In Maharashtra (the state I live in), some young herp enthusiasts found a snake they couldn't identify - I took a bus there and the snake turned out to be Elachistodon westermanni (previously thought to be extinct)! This was like finding a live dinosaur. 4. A professor who studies fish, found a snake in Trivandrum (it was netted by some fishermen). I went there and it was a Homalopsinae - Enhydris dussumierii. The only place in the world its found in is Kerala state, India. So its not always in the deep dark jungles (as seen on telly)!

Of the new species you’ve described and helped to describe, has there been a favorite?

Ahaetulla c.f. nasuta - Green Vine Snake           A. Captain/ R. Whitaker/ A.R.R.S.
I've not described any new species yet! New records for India, several - Sinonatrix percarinata; Trimeresurus medoensis; Lytorhynchus paradoxus, Protobothrops kaulbackii, Amphiesma venningii. . . . No favorites! I apologize for my mistake, as I had read some false information that stated otherwise.

For those of us that know nothing of Indian herp culture, is it a developing hobby to keep snakes as pets there?

In a bad (according to me) way. Though illegal in India, there are several 'sarp mitras' (snake friends) who keep snakes in the name of 'educating' folks. Let's be honest - its a man against dangerous 'beast' adrenalin rush. My opinion is that this is extremely uncool. We've so few wild spaces left in India that preserving our wild populations is way more important than having 'em in (usually) smelly bags/ boxes/ jars. This is very different [compared] to the herp culture elsewhere in the world.

A lot of people have a negative outlook of snake charmers in India, do you have an opinion you could share?

Chrysopelea ornata - Ornate Flying Snake
           A. Captain/ R. Whitaker/ A.R.R.S.
               (Agumbe Rainforest Research Station)
For me its kinda complicated. Sure, I'd rather see snakes in the wild, sure, but these guys are making a living 'using' snakes and have been for generations. Unless they get an equally profitable/ more lucrative means of getting cash, I doubt they're gonna quit (even if a few snakes are 'seized' by the authorities). In fact I think taking away their snakes is bad for the wild population. They'll go get some more (and deplete the wild population still further). Besides this, we misguidedly release the rescued snakes. This is daft 'cos we've no idea where the snakes originally came from; they'll most probably die in new territories/ ranges and if they're infected with mites or something worse, they could wipe out an entire wild population. 

I also see an amusing double standard - guys in the US catching snakes/ herps for profit are no different (from the snake's point of view) to Injun snake charmers. (Whoops, they got me! There goes my 'wild' life). Yet these folks are called snake wranglers! I'm not dissing 'em, nor am I pro-snake charmer (I am not). 

You’ve worked with several other herpetologists – anyone you’d like to work with again?

Yup lots of 'em actually! Rom (Whitaker), Kedar (Bhide), Varad (Giri), Aaron (Bauer), Mark (Wilkinson), David (Gower), Andreas (Gumprecht), Frank (Tillack), Patrick (David), Gernot (Vogel), others whom I've written to and would like to work with are Frederick (Wagner), Wolfgang (Wuster), Anita (Malhotra), Anslem (de Silva) and Van (Wallach).
Do you have any photography tips for shooting herps?

Be patient (be prepared to spend all day/ several days if necessary). Corny, but I think herps sense 'impatience' and one never gets a good picture if one is in this 'zone'. Use the best equipment one can afford. [It is] better to have a macro lens (as opposed to a zoom with a macro feature) than a 'fill up the memory card' fancy camera - 6 MP is fine. The lens is IMPORTANT. I use smart flashes off camera and a light tripod with an 'action head'. *Pelican cases (in plastic bags that are carried in rucksacs) also keep the camera gear alive in rain forests. I put a sock full of fresh silica gel into the case every time I open it (if I'm on a long trip). This keeps the inside relatively dry. *This sounds ridiculously unwieldy but read on . . . I wrap the cases in plastic bags 'cos we once crossed a river and, though the cases were watertight, I couldn't open them until water in the gutters had dried (this took ages in a rain forest). If you open them when wet, drops from the gutter actually enter the case and water is sealed into the case. I carry the cases in a rucsac, 'cos its impossible for me to carry a suitcase-type piece of luggage in rough terrain.

How did it feel to have a snake named after you in 2007 (Captain’s Wood Snake - Xylophis captaini)

Embarrassing actually, 'cos we didn't find it first. My mum dampened the mild euphoria (that came later) by saying something like - "It's dirty and brown like your room." Actually there are two snakes named after me (more embarassment). The other is Dendrelaphis ashokii.  

Here in the US, I hear a lot about how great the tropics are to herp – do you think India gets proper recognition for it’s herpetological diversity?

The tropics are different. Great to herp, I don't know. If one is out in the right season and at the right time, there is lots of 'stuff'. Off season (at least in our neck of the woods) everything disappears. Proper recognition? I don't know.

A school of herpetology at the North Orissa University has (or will be) opening this year in India, how do you think further herpetological education will influence the conservation of India’s herpetofauna? **Edit - I received some misinformation, corrected by Ashok. As it turns out, this school had been opened previously and was run more as a short course.

About 5 years back Dr Sushil Kumar Dutta got the Department of Science & Technology to part with some cash and arranged this 'school' once every year in different Universities/ institutions - the first was in northern Orissa (and the last from this grant), the others were at the Wildlife Institute of India (Dehra Dun), Guwahaty (Assam), and at SACON (Salim Ali Center for Ornithology and Natural History) close to Coimbatore. The 'school' lasts about 10-12 days and is pretty intense. Most of the 30 or so folks that attend are really sharp, and some of them have already started doing really good work, so it's helping. However, these efforts are all drops in the ocean till we sort out our problem of rapidly vanishing wild spaces. This issue is kinda political and ecological, and I'm gonna stick to taxonomy and not get stuck in conservation arguments.

Any herp publications in the works? A possible follow-up to 2004’s Snake of India, The Field Guide?

A few short notes. Rom wants 'at least 25 species additions' before we consider a follow up. Guess who has to go get 'em? Kidding. But yup, we'd definitely like to do another version. I'd like to add an annotated key as well, but Janaki (the editor) is of the firm opinion that no one will be able to lift the field guide if we keep adding stuff, so negotiations on point number two are still on.
Macropisthodon plumbicolor - Green Keelback
                     A. Captain/ S. Thakur/ J. Kadapatti/ S. Mukherjee/ A. Patel

Anything else you’d like to share?

Nope! Think I've yakked quite enough. Happy, safe herping to you all. 


Ashok's and Rom's field guide can be purchased here: Snakes of India: The Field Guide

The interview with Rom Whitaker can be found here: Dr. Rom Whitaker & the Madras Crocodile Bank