Award-winning photographer Mohammad Murad on how wildlife photography is a study of animal behaviour

The Kuwait-based wildlife photographer recently won the second place under the category ‘Urban Wildlife’ at the 2021 World Nature Photography Awards

African wild dogs. Photo Credits: Mohammad Murad
African wild dogs. Photo Credits: Mohammad Murad

By Anu Prabhakar

Published: Fri 1 Apr 2022, 8:47 PM

Once at the Zimanga Private Game Reserve in South Africa, Mohammad Murad found himself staring into the eyes of a pack of African wild dogs. They are notoriously vicious — a Slate article once described them as ‘brutal killers’ — and are not exactly known for their puppy eyes. “I didn’t approach them because they might get scared and attack me,” recalls Mohammad, via Zoom. “Instead, they approached me till they were about 20 centimetres away. They started getting curious and sniffed me. My guide assured me that it was safe, and I clicked a couple of good pictures using a wide-angle lens. Even today when people see the pictures, they ask me, ‘Didn’t you get scared? How did you approach them?’”.

Mohammed Murad
Mohammed Murad

Mohammad has countless such stories to share. The Kuwait-based wildlife photographer recently won the second place under the category ‘Urban Wildlife’ at the 2021 World Nature Photography Awards, for his picture of Arabian red fox cubs set against Kuwait city’s twinkling lights. The competition, reportedly, had entries from 20 countries spread across six continents. Mohammad shot the pictures in 2017 over the course of almost three months — most of which he spent lying on his stomach, fighting spiders and ants to capture that perfect shot.

A study of animal behaviour

A communications engineer, Mohammad inherited his love for photography from his father, who loved clicking pictures and taking videos of the family, especially while travelling. “I bought my first professional camera, a DSLR, in 2015 and started photographing birds. Before that, I used to click pictures on my phone and upload them on Instagram,” he says. People began to take notice and soon, he was approached by the photography and documentary team at the Kuwait Voluntary Work Centre.

The next two years, Mohammad learnt everything there was to know about bird and animal behaviour. “The team has nine people and they taught me everything — how to identify birds, how to know whether it’s a female or a male, whether it’s a migratory bird or one that’s living here in Kuwait. We used to visit birds’ nests to study them closely,” he says. The team also studied birds’ migratory patterns by visiting farms, deserts and the sea, and tracked them using tracking devices. “We have a network of birdwatcher friends not only in the Gulf, but in Russia, Hungary and most of Europe as well. So when a bird comes to Kuwait, we inform our friend in Saudi Arabia so that he knows that the bird is going to that country next.” They also record bird sightings and send the data to the organisation BirdLife International.

The whole experience was revelatory — until then, Mohammad had no idea about Kuwait’s bird life. “I didn’t know we have eagles, vultures and other birds like owls that nest here in Kuwait. Once, I photographed Griffon vultures — they had migrated from Africa to Kuwait — and they were so big, with about 2.3-2.6 metres wingspan! My friend and I crawled on our stomachs like soldiers until we were close enough to get some good shots.”

“Now, I know when to take a good picture. Let’s say I want to photograph a Pharaoh eagle-owl. I know when and where to go exactly. I know they usually nest from January to May depending on the weather and temperature, in Kuwait, so that’s the time to go,” continues Mohammad, who has won several awards in competitions like the InFocus Photography Contest, MontPhoto Contest, Festival de l’Oiseau et de la Nature and Xposure International Photography Competition, to name a few.

He has travelled to several countries like Hungary, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya and Bulgaria for his photo shoots. Once, when he was in hot pursuit of the white-tailed eagle, he spent 12 days and more than 12 hours each day in small photography hides at the Hortobágy National Park in Hungary. “We didn’t have washroom facilities there so I didn’t eat anything and drank very little water,” he recalls.

In 2017, he ventured into wildlife photography by first clicking pictures of the Arabian red fox in Kuwait. Africa has his heart, though, because shooting in the city can get hard, tiring and time-consuming. “I love working in Africa because the animals don’t get scared when they see you.” Spending hours in the wild there, he quickly learnt that if a lion’s stomach looks narrow or flat, it means that he is hungry and in hunting mode. “That’s when we get ready with our camera. To take a good picture, you have to position yourself in such a way that the prey is in between you and the lion.” Mohammad shares more fascinating details — once when he photographed the venomous desert horned viper in the north of the Kuwait desert, he made an interesting discovery. “The snake followed the lights,” he says. “I placed a torch on the ground because it was pitch-black and I noticed that the snake didn’t come to me — instead, it crawled towards the torch and I was able to take my shots,” the photographer signs off.

An award-winning shot

His most recent accolade, the World Nature Photography Award, came for his 2017 picture of Arabian red foxes near Kuwait’s Doha beach. “We discovered two fox dens through a drone. One den was really close to the shore which amazed me as Arabian red foxes usually breed in the desert, far away from humans. The other den was only about 300 metres away from the houses in an old palm farm. Land degradation, overhunting and a loss of habitat must have forced these two families of foxes to risk everything and breed near the city for food. I told my friend that I wanted to photograph them,” he says.

“Foxes are very smart – if they know that they are being followed, they will take you away from the den. Initially, only the mother fox came out and stayed 30 meters away from me,” he says. So Mohammad decided to camp out there from sunset till about 11pm until the foxes got comfortable in his presence. “I was lying down on my stomach for hours as I had to take eye-level shots and the dens were at sea level. There were some big ants that bit hard and once I even spotted a camel spider just 20cms away from my arm. I took a bottle of honey, drew a circle around me and stayed inside it. This helped, as the spiders and ants ate the honey and didn’t cross the line.”

One month (and one frustrated call to the aforementioned friend) later, all five cubs emerged from their dens and approached Mohammad. “They were very curious and began to lick my fingers. I knew they finally felt safe. I knew that the mother fox buried food in holes and that the cubs usually came to eat the food about two hours later. So I placed a hand flash and waited as they came out for food. They started to sniff the flash and that’s when I started taking the pictures.”

Long after the pictures were taken, Mohammad felt like he had a moral responsibility to keep the foxes safe – what if they trusted all humans like they trusted him and got into trouble? “I used to visit them every day for a long time, just to make sure that they were safe.”

Mohammad hopes to highlight the beauty of the city’s wildlife through his pictures. “In many countries, people still think it’s okay to kill animals. There are hundreds of such videos from Qatar, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and so on and it’s very shameful. Through my pictures, I hope to convince people to stop killing them.”

More news from Arts and Culture