Photography

Curiosity is Saving the Cat


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Earlier this week I went to a great talk by National Geographic photographer Steve Winter about his award-winning work documenting snow leopards and tigers – and how his photography has directly impacted the conservation of these wild animals.

Winter is the media director of Panthera, an organization founded in 2006 whose mission is to “ensure the future of wild cats through scientific leadership and global conservation action.” They focus on lions, tigers, jaguars and snow leopards – all of which have current global populations of less than 30,000.

And of all endangered animals, why big cats? They’re what Panthera calls a “keystone species” – they’re at the top of the food chain, so losing the big cats means losing the entire ecosystem. I’d say that’s a pretty good reason to care.

Winter took us through his trip to India a few years ago where he was able to snap some never before seen shots of snow leopards in the Himalayas. Snow leopards are stealth and ghost-like by nature, so because they are very rarely seen, very little is still known about them. They are prized in Southern and Eastern Asia for their furs, bones, and organs (and one can make a fortune on the black market) so poaching has become an enormous issue. But in order to save an animal, scientists must first understand the animal. According to the National Geographic piece featuring Winter’s photos, “Perhaps no other large, popular land mammal has so many details of its natural history still missing…Saving an animal means getting to know it, and scientific information about the leopard is scarce.” Winter’s photos, however, were able to change this.

Winter and team set up remote cameras in areas where tracks, droppings and other clues indicated that the leopards frequented such spots. The cameras and equipment were built by National Geographic as prototypes (using relatively low-cost Canon Rebel models). Through sensors and motion detectors, the cameras started snapping photos whenever a cat came near. The flashes and focus were set up for the first frame and then every picture after that was literally a crap shoot. What began as an experiment in new techniques for wildlife photography resulted in nothing short of game-changing, breathtaking images.

The above photo went on to secure Winter the honor of BBC’s 2008 Wildlife Photographer of the Year award, but he remains blown away himself at how many images he was able to capture after being told repeatedly that the expedition was doomed from the start. It took one element that could not have been predicted: the instinctive participation of the cats themselves. Many of the photos would not have been possible without the snow leopards stopping to get a closer look at the sounds and lights coming from the equipment. Curiosity killed the cat? More like curiosity is saving the cat.

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