Photographing snow leopards and other big cats in the wild

Avatar BCR | August 18, 2010 0 Likes 0 Ratings

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Photographer Steve Winter has an unusual experience when he enters an Apple store. The elusive snow leopard, which he chased for 10 grueling months in northern India, is now everywhere; one of his images is being used by Apple’s newest felinely titled operating system.

The image being used by Apple shows a snow leopard, captured by one of Steve Winter’s camera traps, skulking high in India’s northern mountains.

National Geographic estimates that as few as 3,500 snow leopards exist in the wild. Some have been spotted at altitudes as high as 18,000 feet. Not surprisingly, few have been successfully captured on camera. Less surprisingly, Geographic wanted to change that.

So it deployed Winter to capture the reclusive cat using his famous camera traps. In one instance, it took seven months of waiting to capture one successful frame. But it was worth the wait: Winter’s photos from the expedition earned for him both a World Press Photo award and BBC’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year award.

A mysteriously bloodied rhinoceros was captured by one of Winter’s camera traps in Kaziranga National Park.

For Winter, though, the awards are incidental. In addition to traveling the world on assignment, he is also media director of Panthera, a nonprofit organization devoted to wild cats. Over the phone, he stressed that his mission is to make people care about endangered wildlife — by taking interesting photos of things we’ve seen “millions of times.” His latest photos, in Geographic’s August issue, come from India’s Kaziranga National Park.

It goes without saying that he’ll go to extreme measures to get a photo. In one low-tech instance, he tethered a camera to a bamboo stick and dangled it from atop an elephant — all the while being chased by an angry rhinoceros. In other cases, he employed the fancy trap method.

To get the story’s opening spread of a “smiling tiger,” for example, Winter planted a flash camera in elephant grass — to get an “up-close and personal” face shot. In a sense, the animals are taking self-portraits; they trigger the cameras and, if Winter is lucky, look directly at the camouflaged camera. In this series, you can see the tiger’s head bob around as it looks for the strange flashing light. And after a few successive clicks, voila: a smiling tiger.

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