For his filming, production and editing, Singh and his documentary, "Indian Leopards--The Killing Fields," will be honored as Best Documentary on March 13, during the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation College Awards in Los Angeles.
"I've always had a fascination with the leopard, more so than with tigers," said the 31-year-old graduate student in MSU's Science and Natural History Filmmaking Program. "As a youngster, I read a famous book, 'The Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag,' by Jim Corbett about a leopard credited with 126 human kills. I was forever hooked on leopards."
Singh became a scientist and worked at the Wildlife Institute of India, the country's premier research institute. His duties included setting up a digital production facility to document wildlife research projects.
"In 1998, when I worked for a small independent documentary production company in New Delhi, we wanted to do a film on the conflict between leopards and people," said Singh, who expects to graduate in May. "But we couldn't get funding for a film because people didn't believe that we could get footage of leopards. Later, when looking to do a film for my course work at MSU, I met a researcher who was to going to study leopards, and he agreed to allow me to make a film on his project. While filming in India with him, I also started filming a sudden spurt of conflict between people and leopards in sugar cane fields about 200 kilometers from the city of Mumbai."
Singh explains that as more wild lands are cleared for agriculture and habitat and wild prey disappear, the country's estimated 7,500 to 10,000 leopards more often roam close to human habitations and agricultural fields in search of stray dogs and livestock. Statistics are fuzzy, but one government estimate says that 100 people were killed by leopards in northern India's Pauri-Garhwal District between 1987 and 1997. More recently in the Junnar region's sugar cane fields, 20 people were killed and many more injured by leopards in a two-year period.
Since leopards are elusive, nocturnal creatures, Singh used remote infrared video camera traps to film them, succeeding in capturing a few on film.
During the nearly six months of filming in Central India, "I only had two sightings during the day," he said, even though he had hired trackers to look for leopard kills. "For a long time, I had no success. Then when I was nearly finished with my stay, I found them.
"By pure coincidence, a couple of times a leopard that the scientist had nicknamed Tangamani, which in Tamil means, 'golden jewel,' killed a deer close to our camp. On one occasion, I heard deer alarm calls. We ventured out with shining torches and saw a leopard with a deer in its jaws."
On another leopard kill, Singh set up his camera trap and sat in a tree for six dark hours. The same leopard, Tangamani, made the kill.
"For the first ten minutes, I was nervous and scared. I did not have protection--you're not allowed to have a gun in the park. I didn't even have a stick, just my camera and tripod. I was wedged in the tree such that I couldn't even lift my tripod to use as a weapon."
The footage is among the 52 award-winning minutes in Singh's documentary. Singh's program is now playing on the Discovery Channel. He receives a $2,000 cash award and recognition that may help his film career. Upon graduation from the world's only science and natural history filmmaking program, Singh plans to raise funds for a film in the Himalayas, an ecological story about a Buddhist community living in conjunction with wildlife in harsh yet beautiful terrain.
"The intent of the film program is to produce a new generation of documentary filmmakers trained in science and filmmaking," said Ronald Tobias, MSU media professor, who created the graduate program.
"In the last year," Tobias has pointed out, "student work has appeared on NBC Nightly News, CBS Evening News, Sixty Minutes II, Larry King, National Geographic, The Discovery Channel and the Discovery Science Channel, which tells us we are on the right track: scientists make terrific filmmakers and can still do good science."
Contact Ronald Tobias at 994-6227 or Praveen Singh at firstname.lastname@example.org.