The photos are simply mind boggling. An aerial shot shows a man lying next to a crocodile, which is easily at least nine feet in length. Both the reptile and the man share the moment without any hint of fear. Another shot shows the same man sitting in front of nine crocodiles. Then there's the one of the man casually holding onto a python.
The relationship the pictures captured is unique in itself: the predator-prey dynamic, which should be basic instinct, is clearly absent.
These are just some of the snaps of the Reptile Man of Bangladesh – Adnan Azad – who was fondly bestowed the moniker by renowned tiger expert Khasru Chowdhury.
But who is Adnan Azad?
Azad is a self-described wildlife enthusiast with a passion for forests, waters, cameras and crocodiles. He holds several other identities too: an actor, a researcher and a snake rescuer.
His cameras captured a diversified stretch of wild animals – from barking deer to white tiger.
Adnan Azad has been hooked on photography since his childhood. In his teens, Adnan used to take photos of chickens, crows and goats with an analog camera of his mother.
His aunt sent a camera from abroad after coming across her nephew's passion for photography. That was the beginning of ninth-grader Adnan's wildlife photography. From that time, he started going to jungles to take pictures of birds.
In the beginning, Adnan used to take pictures in local jungles adjacent to his Bogura residence. He subsequently bought an expensive camera and other photography equipment.
Adnan's wildlife photos were first published in the national daily Janakantha in 2004-05. Since then, almost all the leading dailies of the country have been regularly publishing his pictures.
Adnan said he has trekked through almost all the forests of Bangladesh more than once, some of them hundreds of times, to take pictures. He has also visited several forests abroad, including Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand and Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan.
Adnan's photographs were published in several international magazines, such as National Geographic and BBC Earth.
"Even neighbouring India has a big market for wildlife photography, but there are no such markets in Bangladesh," Adnan regretted.
"I don't think there will ever be a wildlife photography market in Bangladesh in the future. It is very difficult to do wildlife photography here as the density of our forests is so high that you cannot even see what is just a few yards away," he commented.
The crocodile calling
Adnan said he had been a fan of Australian wildlife expert and television personality Steve Irwin since childhood. He used to watch Irwin catching snakes and crocodiles on TV.
In 2010, a crocodile was caught at a village in Rajshahi and Adnan went to rescue it. That was his first close encounter with a croc. But just seven years later, Adnan officially got involved in crocodile farming.
The Managing Director of Akij Group was in Adnan's Facebook friends' list, and he came across Adnan's involvement in wildlife activities. One day he called Adnan to his Motijheel office and proposed that he take charge of Akij Wildlife Farm Limited.
With no second thought, Adnan agreed to the proposal and moved to Akij's farm in Cox's Bazar. The farm, spanning more than 100 bighas of land, is the largest in South Asia.
"In my childhood, I had cage birds and used to breed them. That instinctive obsession with eggs being hatched and childhood experience came in handy later in crocodile farming," said Adnan.
So far, there are two private commercial reptile farms in Bangladesh – one in Mymensingh owned by late writer Mushtaq Ahmed and another in Cox's Bazar by Akij. There is also a government crocodile farm at Karmjal in the Sundarbans.
Adnan said he had visited the reptile breeding centre in India to see how crocodiles were farmed. Besides, crocodile experts Hasan Zahid Chowdhury and late Mushtaq Ahmed lent a hand regarding crocodiles.
When Adnan took charge of the farm, there were nearly 500 crocodiles, including 50 parent stocks imported from Malaysia. Then in the last five years, he worked tirelessly to increase the number to a few thousand.
Adult crocodiles are kept in pairs in separate enclosures for captive breeding. The enclosure has a pit eight feet deep and thirty feet long inside. During the rainy season, the female crocodile builds a nest near the water and lays eggs. Then it digs the ground with its hind legs and covers the eggs with leaves. From there, the eggs are picked up and bred in the incubator.
Adnan said the female crocodile guards the eggs all the time until they hatch, so that no other animal can eat the eggs. So, egg collections are very risky.
According to Adnan, there are 23 types of crocodiles in the world. Of them, the leather quality of saltwater crocodiles is the best and more valuable than other types. Saltwater crocs are the largest in size, the most ferocious and the most territorial.
Many netizens now call Adnan "the Steve Irwin of Bangladesh", but Adnan eschewed the comparison, saying, "Steve is a legend, my childhood idol. There is no way to compare me with the TV celeb."
Left acting for wildlife
After starting the career in 2008, Adnan quickly earned a name in acting. He starred in several films and 88 TV commercials.
But that round of performances before the camera was short-lived, as he left acting in 2017.
"Acting was consuming too much of me. I was not getting enough time for the wildlife activities," said Adnan.
However, he said he wants to return to acting in the future.
A risky affair, but it goes on
To collect eggs for captive crocodile breeding, one needs to be very close to the female alligators. Adnan said he had been attacked by crocodiles six or seven times so far. He survived every time just by sheer luck.
The ligaments on both of his legs got torn when he was hit by a crocodile. He is yet to be healed completely.
Usually, the eggs are collected after tying up the female alligator. But during the period of maternity, they can turn very violent.
About the pictures with the alligators, Adnan said, "It's not all about courage, there are some tactics too. As crocodiles hibernate in winter, their movements slow down at the time. This does not mean that if you go to the crocodile in the winter, it will not attack you."
"At risk to my life, I do stunts to popularise wildlife in the country."
About the viral picture lying next to the reptile wearing a mask, he said it was taken during the pandemic. "I took the risk lying next to a 16-feet-long male crocodile to inspire people to wear face masks during the pandemic."
About the tactics behind taking such shots, he said understanding a crocodile was very important. "You must be able to read the alligator what it can and cannot do at a specific time. It takes a lot of time to master."
Adnan recently quit his job at the crocodile farm. "The work trapped me within the four walls as I felt I did not have time to explore the wild."
"I want to work for the conservation of the country's wild crocodiles. I don't want to confine myself within four walls. I am currently working on crocodile breeding in the Sundarbans. Besides, several research papers on snakes and crocodiles are also awaiting publication," he added.
Saving snakes, humans too
From an early age, Adnan has tried to do things a little differently from others. There were three ponds around their house. In the rainy season, snakes used to enter their house. The adults would kill the reptiles.
But Adnan used to feel different about snakes. He in his first grade found a baby cobra entering the house. Little Adnan grabbed it by the tail and threw it into the pond. He did not even know what a snake was at the time.
After growing up, Adnan started reading snake-related books. Seeing snake catchers and Bede people, he tried to learn their snake catching tricks. He would make snakes out of rope or ribbon at home and practice catching them.
When snakes entered different houses, residents would pick them up with sticks and throw them out. That is how he started rescuing snakes.
In 2014, Adnan learned to catch snakes from his friend and reptile expert Shahriar Caesar Rahman. So far, Adnan has rescued more than 500 snakes alone.
"Snake rescue is very risky. A little mistake or carelessness can take your life. Still, it feels good when I think that the rescue saves reptiles as well as human beings," he added.