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Michael Vickers: Photographing Tigers

Michael Vickers (Picture ©Toby Phillips)

Published 1st June 2017

I was born in Ealing, London in the middle of the war in 1943. My father worked for British Railways as a time study engineer.

I always had a passion for nature. My parents loved to have cats in the house and that inspired a life-long love of felines. I wouldn’t visit a conventional zoo now, but when I was young it was the only way to see animals. I loved all the animals but it was tigers, lions, cheetahs and other big cats that captivated me.

I loved nature programmes by Armand and Michaela Denis. They were conservationists and photographers who made great documentaries, including Filming in Africa, that were aired by the BBC throughout the 1950s. They encouraged me to take photographs of local wildlife. I had a little box camera and would take pictures of birds in the park near my home. 

When I was 17, my parents decided to move to the south coast. I didn’t want to move because my friends were in London and I was happy there. I was an only child, so it was a difficult time, but my only real option was to go with my parents to Angmering-on-Sea.

I did reasonably well at school but didn’t go to university. My dream job was to be an airline pilot but my maths wasn't good enough. I remember my grandfather saying, ‘You should join the Inland Revenue or the bank, as you’ll have a job for life and a good pension.’ I couldn't bear the thought of that being my future! I didn't have a clue what I was going to do until my parents called the estate agents in London. Being an impressionable fellow, I saw this chap visit us and tour the house and the thought of being an estate agent appealed to me. 

I wrote to half a dozen estate agents in Worthing asking for a job, but none had a vacancy. Instead, I worked in a bookshop on Goring Road. Then, a few months later, a letter arrived from Fox & Sons. They had a vacancy for an office junior at the Goring Road branch. I took the job and after a few years there, I founded Michael Vickers & Co with a single branch in Worthing.

It was not an easy decision. I was married with two young children with a mortgage. At Fox & Sons, I had a secure job that I enjoyed and wasn’t sure if I should leave when I had so many responsibilities. When I first walked into my new office, I thought ‘I hope I've done the right thing.’ As it transpired, we were busy from the outset. We had a small team of a secretary and junior estate agent, but I worked hard six days a week to build the business. 

I was friends with a surveyor who joined the business and we went from strength to strength. We eventually had six branches, in Littlehampton, Lancing, Shoreham and three in Worthing. We’d been going very well for 11 years when the market changed. Major financial institutions were taking an interest in the property market, not because they wanted to sell houses, but because they were interested in making money through associated insurance, home loans or mortgage protection.

Out of the blue, I received an offer for the business. I turned it down as I had no desire to sell. But, shortly after, I was approached by someone I knew at Royal Insurance. We had lunch, discussed terms and agreed a deal. Although I worked hard, I was fortunate. At the time, institutions were buying out small estate agencies for considerable amounts of money. Some years later, one of my former managers gave me an opportunity to rejoin an estate agents. I missed the companionship so I returned, taking care of the financial side of the business. It was fun for a while, but eventually I decided to call it a day.

After retirement, much of my life revolved around on horses. My wife Ann and I looked for a home with land where we could keep horses. We found a farmhouse in Ashington and have been there ever since. We now have a dog, three sheep, a tortoise and an old duck! We once had four horses and loved to ride along the South Downs. Sadly, all four died with the passage of time. Davis was the one I rode the most. I had to make the decision to have him put down and I cried my eyes out. I was stroking him as he went to sleep and thinking about it still brings a lump to my throat.

Photography was a hobby, but I couldn’t invest much time in it whilst I was running my own business. However, after I sold it, I had more time on my hands and in 2000, we went on our very first safari.I read a BBC wildlife magazine and saw an advert for a safari. It was something I desperately wanted to do and Ann was keen, so we set off. We visited tiger reserves at Panna, Bandhavgarh and Kanha. It made such an emotional impression on me that I wanted to go back again to see these magnificent animals in their natural environment. 

I can distinctly remember seeing my first tiger in the wild. We were riding  elephants and the mahout (elephant guide) took us to a spot where a tiger had been seen at a dried-up river bed. We saw him sitting there, looking at us with a huge belly, as he had killed a Sambar dear. 

On my second trip to India, I was riding an elephant and saw two young tigers that had been left for a short time by their mother. It was incredible to see tiger cubs in the wild. I’ve been able to take up to three trips a year and it still gives me a buzz every time I see a tiger. You have to be patient and there has been times when I’ve been waiting for several days and seen nothing other than deer and monkeys. I will take pictures of birds, elephants, giraffes, hyenas, gorillas, rhinos, otters and sloth bears too. But it’s always the big cats that I’m there for.
I love all big cats, but the tiger is my favourite. I think the stripes makes it more attractive and charismatic. I love lions and have been to Gir National Park in Gujarat to photograph Asiatic lions. However, I always come back to tigers. 

There are many companies organising safari trips, but now I have experience and contacts in India, I tend to make my own arrangements, choosing my guide and accommodation. I’ve been to tiger reserves all over India, including Tadoba Andhari and Pench. However, I tend to concentrate on Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan. I feel an attachment to certain tigers and can identify some by markings alone. My favourite tigers include Machali, who was perhaps the most famous tigress in India when she died last year. 

There have been moments where my heart has skipped a beat! I was on an elephant once, tracking a mother and two male cubs, about three years old, as they entered a cave to cool down. The elephants were on the edge of a precipice overlooking a gorge. I kept quiet but an elephant snapped a branch with its trunk, startling the two cubs. They both leapt just in front of me on to a ledge to the side, looking down on me. Whilst I was absolutely terrified, I was perhaps more fortunate that the elephant didn’t stepped back and send us tumbling into the gorge. It was a heart-stopping moment, but the tigers settled and I took some beautiful pictures. There have been rare cases of tigers attacking vehicles or elephants, but you’re usually safe. If you were out on foot, it would be a totally different matter!

When I first visited India, the overwhelming majority of visitors to the reserves were westerners. As the Indian economy has grown, there are a great number of middle class Indians earning good money. A strong Indian economy is good for the tiger. With more Indians visiting, more jobs are created and there’s a financial incentive to protect the tiger. 

I regularly speak to guides and sadly, if anything it has become harder to protect animals from poachers. In China, people like to demonstrate their wealth by displaying tiger skins and will pay huge amounts for one. China has an estimated 6,000 tigers on tiger farms, supplying the black market, and in India poachers still kill many tigers. There is a great deal more that needs to be done.

I have been to South America to photograph the jaguar. On one occasion, I saw an elderly cat stalking the bank of the river. We were following in a small boat, when suddenly, the jaguar jumped in the water, on top of a caiman. They were thrashing around in the water and the jaguar eventually killed it. In The Pantanal, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has done terrific work, buying land to help conservation.

Another trip took me to Katmai National Park in Alaska to see brown bears. Every morning, we would climb aboard a skiff to reach the bank and watch up to 20 bears milling around. The guide insisted we were safe as the bears’ sole interest is catching salmon. The guide told us to act nonchalantly and don't eyeball them! A very strange, amusing thing happened. An adult bear sat down at the end of a line of seven photographers, right next to an American. He pawed a camera bag belonging to the American, who said, “No bear!” The bear sat there for five minutes before wandering off. He then did it again on another day, when a terrified woman was on the end of our line of seven. I wished I could have been on the other side of the river, as it would have made for a brilliant photo.

I still love to take photos of birds. I visit the Cairngorms in Scotland to see the osprey at a lake on the Rothiemurchus estate. A guide keeps in touch with the photographers in the hides and tells us when an osprey is circling overhead. You need to be ready when it dives!

I sell photographs online, but it doesn’t generate a huge amount and certainly not enough to fund my trips. This is very much my own passion. I am a supporter of conservation organisations and charities including Born Free, the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Care for the Wild International and the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). I supplied the photographs for the WPSI calendar and have financed a vehicle to help combat poaching. I’ve provided funding for Tiger Awareness to build surrounds around wells, as tigers and other animals have fallen into open wells in parts of India. 

It is a tragedy that poaching continues when so much is being done to try to protect vulnerable species. I visited Kenya and saw Maasai warriors protecting a handful of white rhinos. The white rhino horn was worth so much, perhaps more than a diamond. It's a very sad situation.

Whilst I like to travel, there is much to enjoy locally. I love visiting the wetlands in Arundel and Warnham Nature Reserve to photograph birds like the Eurasian Kingfisher. In terms of my next big trip, I’m tempted to visit northern India to find a snow leopard. However, that’s very difficult as they are only found at high altitude where it is very cold. I'm not sure I want to do that at my age!

For more of Michael’s photos and for details of charities supporting wild tigers in India and beyond, visitwww.tigersintheforest.co.uk