Suyash Keshari is not answering the where-do-you-see-yourself-in-five-years question anymore. About five years ago, at a crucial crossroads in his life, his response to that question—his desire to be successful in front of or behind the camera in the world of wildlife—would face dissuasion from all quarters. This was despite his status as the youngest winner of the Nature’s Best Photography Asia award. He followed that accolade up with an award by the Smithsonian Natural History Museum (top 10 finalists for wildlife and sustainability tourism), but doubt trickled deeper in his mind, as Keshari chose political advocacy in the U. S.A., his other interest, over wildlife. But a few years later, with a renewed vigour, he decided to give his first love another shot, and the rest, as they say, is history.
On the day I call him up for a video interview at his lodgings in a wildlife camp, Keshari—already making waves and winning over audiences from across demographics—is hours away from launching his own OTT platform of sorts. Called Safari With Suyash TV, it is India’s first virtual safari experience and is expected to add to his ample young audience enthusiastic about wildlife. Five years down the line, he just wishes to see the platform do well under the charge of a capable team.
One sees you running close to African elephants, tracking tiger pugmarks and claw gashes, and bringing the wild to people’s screens with both charm and expertise, and yet you’re just 25. Tell us about your journey.
I’m born and brought up in Central India, MP and Chhattisgarh, and that basically enabled me to spend a lot of time just foraging around in, so to say, our backyard jungles. My father was a Civil Services officer so we would stay in these quaint houses with large farmlands in the back, which would be adjoining some forest area. I would spend most of my time outdoors, be it 48 degrees or 2 degrees, notwithstanding being screamed at by my parents. For me, just being next to a waterhole, observing herons and kingfishers, watching a line of ants parade by, or just climbing up a guava tree because at 5pm all the parakeets would come and nest. Slowly, all of these things transitioned into travelling as much as possible.
Wildlife was always close by. Lots of peacocks, lots of bats, and I think that really inculcated in me a sense of love, passion, and also a sense of duty, towards the wildlife I was seeing. Between the ages of 10 and 18, before leaving for the U. S.A., I travelled a lot to national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, especially in Chhattisgarh, which are completely unexplored. And after I left for the U.S.A, the first chance I would get to come back to India, I would rush to a national park. My parents, my friends all complained a lot that I didn’t spend enough time with them.
I got very close to the locals here in Madhya Pradesh, and Bandhavgarh ended up becoming the place that I call home and my core area of work. I’ve met people who have turned from poachers to conservationists, guides, drivers and naturalists. I met people who have been attacked by different animals, learned from them what saved them and what actually caused that attack. I’ve travelled with the forest department in so many locations to help monitor and track different animals.
How did your training in Africa contribute to your learnings in wildlife tracking and filming?
I interned in South Africa with Africa. And a lot of my training actually happened during that internship and subsequent visits to South Africa and its national parks. There, I received a lot of training on tracking and filming the big five on foot. It’s not so much as running to an elephant, rather it’s waiting really far away and letting the elephant approach you out of curiosity; and in case it sees you as a threat, how to handle that situation calmly and defuse that threat.
Which is your favourite big cat?
Haha, the big cats are tricky because all of them are so special, so different from each other. I wish the cheetah was also in the big cats because they are fabulous. If I had to pick a favourite—I’m sorry, you’re making me—it has to be the tiger, followed by the leopard, and then lions. Tigers… they camouflage so perfectly. How can they be so large and still camouflage? How can they be so silent, and so secretive? It just does not make sense.
Cheetahs, which went extinct here in the early 1950s, are being reintroduced by the Government of India. What do you think of that?
Firstly, for the government of Madhya Pradesh to achieve that is phenomenal. But over the past few decades, we’ve really lost our wild spaces, and I think we are spending a large amount of money on bringing the cheetahs here. I think that those funds could have been used to reconnect tiger reserves, our national parks, habitat development and management, biodiversity management—because we say we’re planting trees but then we go out and plant 10,000 teak trees, which are really not that good for the environment. Teak, for most of the year, is completely bare and so it can’t sustain wildlife. It really makes me question whether it’s the right move.
Are we really bringing a species back from (domestic) extinction, or are we trying to correct a mistake? I’m really not sure if that’s the best use of funds because there are still tigers, leopards, sloth bears, cheetal, sambhar, and thousands of species of birds across India and millions of different insects that need space. But having said that, of course, I would love to see cheetahs in India. I would love to film them sometime, present them, share their stories. And I’m sure it would be great if one day, 10-15 years down the line, when the cheetah population reaches maybe 100 in Madhya Pradesh, we could say proudly that we reintroduced the cheetah, and did it successfully.
Your strong connection with Madhya Pradesh and its wild animals is very perceptible throughout your work. Which other parts of the country would you want to explore and work in?
For me, MP ajab hai, sabse gazab hai. I’m an MP boy. Back when Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh were together, I lived in the latter as well. This part of India is amazing, but I always want to do things that others aren’t doing, and want to explore what others aren’t exploring. For me, that has to be the deep north-east, where we are not looking at anything beyond Kaziranga. I am yet to go but I have read and researched so much about it.
Did visiting National Parks as a young adult, a time when most people are into other kinds of exploration and travel, and having interests like wildlife mean losing out on friendships or relationships?
Yes, and I had never thought someone would ask me about it. It’s indeed a part of growing up that was kind of tough. When you’re always in the jungles, you miss friends’ birthdays, you miss parties, you miss all cool occasions, like a lot of my friends are getting married, and I’m actually unable to be there. Last March, this past March, this past June—all of this period—we were filming, and I couldn’t make it to a friend’s engagement, another’s wedding, and another’s 25th birthday party. In school, too, everyone was always meeting together and I was missing out.
A lot of people didn’t understand what I wanted to do: ‘Arre yaar, tu baar baar jungle chala jata hai.’ People forget that this is my career. And I love what I do. I’ve wanted to do this since I was four-years-old! So, over the years, what I’ve realised is that the people who understand what you do will stick by you and support you throughout. And that doesn’t mean the others are bad—it’s just that they don’t understand what you want to do.
Talking of political advocacy, your other career that you’ve sort of left behind—did it inform or alter the way you looked at wildlife?
Yes, that was a really important part of life that taught me a lot. I had almost given up on this passion when I was about 19 after I’d won an award (the youngest person to win the Nature’s Best Photography Asia award). Followed by that was an award by the Smithsonian Natural History Museum . Then I spoke at a really big nature festival in India. And I was like, wow, this is working out.
But within a year or two, I started realising that no opportunities were coming my way. All the people in my friend circle, in the industry, the wildlife circle, would tell me not to do what I was doing. Then I started with my second passion—international affairs, political advocacy, and intelligence. I dived right into my second year of college and learned a lot working at the US House of Representatives, and then started working in Washington, DC. And I learned so much about entrepreneurship, making change in the world, relationships, being resourceful, networking well, and most importantly, speaking. Now, it is very important as a wildlife presenter not only to speak well about wildlife but to speak your mind.
With that came the realisation that I never gave myself a real wholehearted go. I listened to everyone else, let everyone influence my decision. So at the age of 23, I decided to quit my job. If I didn’t give it a whole hard go right then, I would regret it for the rest of my life. If I failed, it would be okay—I had good grades, a backup. So I think being in politics really taught me how to take that risk and succeed.
What’s your advice for a child or a young adult with a passion for wildlife and with a dream to do the kind of work you’re doing?
In India we’re taught in school how to chase jobs and opportunities but we’re not ever taught to create it ourselves. You can create your career yourself. You don’t have to be hired by someone to create it. What helped me, and what I would love to share with everyone, is doing one’s own research, absorbing as much knowledge as you can from books, articles, and documentaries.
When I was young, I made sure to have as many real-life experiences as possible, with wildlife or conservation, trying to volunteer as much as possible. And then it came down to, you know, designing an idea, believing wholeheartedly in that idea, transforming that idea over a year-and-a-half into a brand. What was very important was developing a community, because anyone who’s followed me since the beginning of the journey, I tried making a part of my journey.
What will it take for wildlife documentation to be a field with a more diverse representation?
Our industry is mostly older men. Look at any of the wildlife filmmakers or photographers in India—there are a lot fewer women than men, even though women are really coming up now. The same goes for young people. There was a time when one used to think that in order to be impactful in your career, you need to be in your 40s or 50s. But people forget that David Attenborough, who is one of the gods of our industry, started very young. He was presenting in front of the camera when he was 17 or 18. Back at that time, he used to be documenting animals from the wild, because that’s how he was doing his research.
And at that time, people listened to him because they didn’t have any better alternative. Nobody was questioning, how can an 18-year-old do that? He was doing it, and he was doing it brilliantly. And I think, to open up this ecosystem for youngsters and women, is up to the industry as well. The industry has to realise that it’s knowledge and execution that matter. I’m about to launch an initiative where I plan to give grants to young conservationists or aspiring filmmakers or presenters. We will do five grants—three for women and two for men, in the way of early career grants.
I’m going to do independent grants and really push them to do it. Because not everyone has access to that money. The wildlife industry is really for the elite at the moment. Park fees, filming charges, and other expenses are exorbitant. So I think the onus really is on (more established) professionals and organisations of the industry. If a 15-year-old, or 18-year-old student wants to make a documentary film, we should allow them to enter for free, and then see how the field will be absolutely levelled. If they want to go out and research, we should do it for free. Right now, they have to pay Rs 8,000-10,000 just for one safari. We have to think differently.
Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.