National Geographic photographers install a camera trap in Sri Lanka to capture photographs of leopards.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

"Living with Leopards"

 
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.Just as a white summer cloud in harmony with heaven and earth
freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon
in the same way the pilgrim abandons himself
to the breath of greater life
that leads him beyond the farthest horizons
to an aim which is already present within him
though yet hidden from his sight. 
~Lama Govinda,
The Way of the White Clouds
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When I saw the posting on Indeed.com for a "National Geographic Photographer Assistant",  I thought it was too good to be true. But I knew if it was possible, I would find a way. One day I was struggling to survive in New York City while working three customer service jobs, and the next I was on a flight to Sri Lanka to work with National Geographic.

There is proof that if you believe in yourself, anything can happen.

•••

The first way I knew I was in a different world was the overbearing sound of the cackling birds. Stepping out of the airport, jet lagged from New York to Mumbai to Colombo, Sri Lanka, I was greeted by a wave of heat, a honking of taxis, and a gentleman with a sign that said "Zach Mason, National Geographic." 

We were quickly shuttled away from the madness of the capital city into the jungle. We arrived at the massive gates of a Buddhist statue, the entrance to Yala National Park. Situated on the island's windswept Southern shore, we slowly uncovered a trove of wildlife that was hesitant to exhibit itself. In the deep jungle bush we witnessed elephants playing, sloth bear with vicious claws clamber for berries, venomous snakes bask in the sun, and leopards surreptitiously slip through the brush. Crocodiles and leopards would fight for deer carcass. Hornbills would sit atop water buffalo. And on the beach we found leopards tracks walking right alongside the shore, as if it were taking an early morning walk to welcome the day.

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A Day in the Life of National Geographic Photographer

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We woke up every morning at 4:30 to beat the sunlight and improve our chances of leopard sightings.

Due to an abundance of tourism and lack of training, most guides were rather predatory about leopard sightings. When one was sighted, all the other guides were contacted and the safari jeeps would race through the park to arrive and stalk the leopard. Because of this, leopards avoided the sound of motors all together and chose to hide in the bushes and avoid being spotted. This became increasingly difficult for our expedition, which primary focus was the leopard. One morning after following leopard tracks on the beach, my colleague Alexander Brackwoski and I followed the tracks into the reeds. Without knowing if one was hiding just out of sight, my heart never raced so hard in my life. We installed various camera traps throughout the national park, in hopes to capture a photograph like never seen before: a leopard on the beach.

Around noon, we would return back at our safari camp and eat foods like I had never seen before in my life. A myriad display of purples, greens, yellows and oranges was set out on the table. Spiced coconut, curry chicken, roti, dhal, sambol, pickled vegetables, and ginger juices graced our palate. We were served like royalty and the Sri Lankan staff were incredibly generous and kind.

After a quick rest and a coffee break, we would head back into the jungle to explore until sunset. After you've been on safari for a few days you will feel inspired from everything you've discovered. But when you've been on safari for a whole month, separated from the ones you love and stranded on the corner of a foreign country, you begin to miss the familiar comforts of home.

 

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Pada Yatra​: A Sri Lankan Pilgrimage

During the course of our expedition, we encountered one of the most marvelous spiritual practices I have ever witnessed.

Known as padayatra, or pilgrimage in Sinhalese, thousands of Hindu and Buddhist devotees undertake the week-long walk to express their devotion to the faith of their choosing. The pilgrimage is unrestricted by any deities, expressions, or walks of life. The sole purpose is to get deeper in touch with their soul, to express their faith, and to join in community for the 100-kilometer trek.

The Sri Lanka Pada Yatra goes from Jaffna and ends in Kataragama, and walks right through Yala National Park. In previous years, one pilgrim had been killed by a leopard, however most people seemed unconcerned about the risk. Instead they filled the air with chants of "Haro-Hara!" This expression, arOharA cries out to Shiva to remove suffering and grant salvation.

The pilgrims beamed us toothless smiles, shared their food, and welcomed us into their celebration.

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What I Learned on a National Geographic Expedition 

As the expedition drew to a close, I was honestly very relieved to welcome freedom back into my life.

The work was tough, the hours were constant, and I felt like I couldn't be myself, because of something that I chose to hide.

On the first day of the trip, my colleague asked me "do you have a girlfriend back home?" I froze. Because I did, but I had a boyfriend. I didn't yet have the comfort of sharing that part of myself with these people. I felt like I had something to prove and I didn't want my sexuality to be something they used against me. So, I told them that yes, I had a girlfriend. From that day on, I constantly felt like I had to be somebody different than who I was. It's ridiculous to think something so trivial as who I love could cloud my experience, but it's the reality of what I felt.

But I learned many valuable things while working with National Geographic.

What I learned on this National Geographic Expedition is that you have to first have patience. Photographing wildlife means you wait for the world to exhibit itself to you. Never miss an opportunity to capture it. You always take the picture now and don't wait until later.

 

Second, you have to be flexible. We continually faced roadblocks like not getting permits from the government, camera traps not working properly, and much of our wires needing fixed after a mouse chewed through them. If we would have allowed these to defeat us, we would have never achieved what we set out to. You have to embrace the difficulties, seek solutions, and maintain a positive attitude. 

Next, I learned that success is random. You can do everything in your power to create an outcome, but sometimes it might not work. My fellow colleagues, Bertie Gregory and Alex Brackowski, both acclaimed wildlife scientists and photographers, acknowledged that their success came because of a happenstance. Factors out of their control lead them to where they are today. They laid the groundwork, the put in the effort, but an element of being at the right place at the right time enabled them to achieve the success they met. I felt the same way. The slim chance that I was chosen for this position, out of thousands of applications, was the result of something greater than myself and my skill set. I had a very mediocre portfolio of wildlife photography and very limited professional photography experience. I did everything in my power to secure that job, like writing personal emails to Steve, editing my website, manifesting and prayer, but something random clicked and I landed here. Trust that randomness is on your side. If you take a hundred pictures, you will be lucky if one of them is good.

Most importantly, what I learned on this National Geographic assignment is that you have to embrace yourself. You cannot be anyone but yourself. Your unique perspective is your gift. By trying to fit in to who I thought I should be, I was missing out on experiencing it from my unique poinrt of view. You have to always bring your best self, free from the judgment of others.  

 

The more you try to fit in to the mold, the less you are yourself.

Just like the leopard, the more you try to hide yourself, the less you will be seen.

And baby, you're beautiful. Spots and all. So don't hide.

 

 

Photographs published in Intrepid Explorer  

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