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Sky Islands And Starry-Eyed Frogs: Breathtaking Photos Of Remote Ecosystems

Feb 16, 2019
Originally published on February 16, 2019 2:43 pm

Prasenjeet Yadav's photography grew out of the wildlife and soil on his father's farm in the central Indian state of Maharashtra.

As a kid he loved nothing more than to watch "the ants and the birds. I'd look at the animals day in and day out," Yadav says. "And not just to see them, but to try to understand what they are doing, to understand their behavior."

That passion to comprehend the bugs and the birds led Yadav to get a master's degree in molecular biology. He eventually studied molecular ecology at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. Now he describes himself as a "natural history, environment, ecology, conservation, science photographer based in India."

The 30-year-old Yadav immerses himself in scientific field studies of remote ecosystems and endangered species.

"My approach always has been that these pictures should have a life beyond what I'm showing in them," Yadav says of his projects. "The story should be much larger than just the visuals. The story should reach out to a larger audience. It should create awareness and make people care a little bit."

Prasenjeet Yadav photographs frogs that can only be found in streams in the Western Ghats, a mountain range in southwestern India.
Shashank Dalvi

For instance, make people care about grasslands vanishing in southwest India, windmills taking over a lizard's habitat and climate change threatening local birds.

"Even in India when you talk about climate change, all anyone thinks about is polar bears but there are species in our backyards which are way more threatened than the polar bear," he says. "So a lot of these photos, stories have the agenda to make people connect with the species in their backyard."

Several years ago he got a grant from National Geographic to spend 10 months documenting the work of researchers studying the unique ecosystems that have developed on mountaintops in the Western Ghats of India.

"So this project was about sky islands and how mountains play a role in the evolution of different species in the mountains," he says.

A green meteor glimmers above mountaintops in the Western Ghats of southern India.
Prasenjeet Yadav

"Sky islands," he explains, "are these mountaintops which are floating in the sky and instead of water they are surrounded by a sea of cloud."

Each peak is separated from the other mountains by valleys that are 6,000 to 7,000 feet deep. And each "island" contains an ecosystem of animals and plants that mostly can't survive at lower elevations. "Each mountaintop has its very own species which are found only on that mountain," he says.

Yadav got so absorbed in the sky islands project that rather than spending 10 months on it, he spent 2 ½ years.

This tiny frog is found only in high elevations of the Western Ghats mountains of southwestern India. Only the females have the starry-eyed pattern. The habitat of these frogs is shrinking and it's characterized today as one of the most endangered species of the area.
Prasenjeet Yadav

In late 2017 and early 2018 Yadav spent months chasing snow leopards with a team of researchers from the Snow Leopard Trust and the Nature Conservation Foundation. The project took them across rugged snow-covered terrain at elevations of up to 16,500 feet in Kyrgyzstan, in the Altai Mountains in Central Asia and the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.

"It was crazy," he says, shivering as he recalls how cold it was on the mountains. "I mean I grew up in central India. I'm used to plus-40 degrees [Celsius, or about 104 degrees Farenheit] or plus-48 degrees [C, or about 118 degrees F]. I'm not used to minus 30 [C, or -22 F] degrees."

Not only was it cold tracking the snow leopards, the animals were elusive.

He says there were weeks when the only snow leopards he saw were a mile or so away across a ravine. "Which is not a good distance to create a very interesting picture," he laughs.

Similar to islands in the ocean, these mountaintops "float" in a sea of clouds. Sky islands, like regular islands, are also cut off from neighboring ecosystems by the deep valleys between them.
Prasenjeet Yadav

In 2017 the snow leopard moved off the endangered species list and is now listed as "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature even though the number of snow leopards is decreasing. The change in designation to "vulnerable" from "endangered," according to the IUCN, means the chances of the snow leopards going extinct has gone from "very high" down to "high." The IUCN estimates there are between 2,710 and 3,386 snow leopards left in the wild.

Yadav is unabashedly an activist. He wants his photos to make an impact. For instance, regarding his project documenting a windmill farm's effect on local lizards, he says he wasn't trying to show that windmills were good or bad but to question whether this windmill farm was too big.

"And at that time in India, there were no policy level regulations set on how many windmills a landmass can sustain," he says.

A waterfall in the southern part of Western Ghats mountain range in India.
Prasenjeet Yadav

"We are not in a stage where we can afford to continue living the way we are living on this planet," he says. "What I'm trying to do here is to find these stories which people do not know about, create these visually appealing images which can grab them by the eyeballs and then make people understand more about it."

But he also is trained as a scientist. It's important to him that his photo projects are more than just visually appealing images, that the final presentation is based in science and has research behind it.

"I want to make sure that there's real rigorous knowledge behind [the project]. That there's hardcore science," he says. If his pictures are about a species that's disappearing, the project should provide evidence that this is happening.

"We can't afford to live on just anecdotal things anymore," Yadav says.

So now his work merges his childhood curiosity about the wild creatures on his father's farm with his desire to explain what's happening to the changing natural world around us.

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