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Snow Leopards Show Their Spots


You might never guess that the down-to-earth, easygoing Steve Winter has followed and photographed jaguars in Brazil, grizzly bears in Siberia, and tigers in Myanmar. (Though he does show an uncanny sense of direction here on the large Banff Centre campus.)

Steve had the Banff festival audience laughing and gasping as he shared gorgeous photographs and riveting stories of capturing the rare snow leopard in Ladakh, India. Extreme altitude and cold, plus some exhausting travel, had made for an emotionally stressful time for Steve, but fun stories for us!

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Notoriously shy and difficult to find, wild snow leopards number only between 4,000 and 7,000 animals. Knowing this, Steve consulted local naturalists and set up camera traps in places they thought snow leopards might frequent.

The camera traps helped Steve capture intimate views of this elusive animal, glimpses he could not have obtained if he’d been holding the camera himself.

Within three days of setting the photo traps, Steve’s cameras had snapped seven photographs of a snow leopard rubbing his face on a rock. In the last of these, the leopard actually bites the transmitter. “I didn’t take this photograph,” says Steve. “The snow leopard did.”

After early success, weeks passed without the cameras snagging a single image of a snow leopard. During the long dry spell, he thought, ”What am I doing wrong?”

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Armed with tenacity (National Geographic magazine editor Chris Johns has commended Steve for his stick-to-itiveness), the photographer positioned the camera traps at additional mountain locations, and went on to win the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award in 2008 for a photograph of a snow leopard at night. Steve’s images appeared in the June 2008 issue of National Geographic.

Steve firmly believes that photographs of the snow leopard will get people interested enough to make sure the cat has a future. “Photography has the power to move people emotionally and allow positive change. It has done that for snow leopards.”

Steve also stressed that he could never have captured these images without the help of the community. When Steve had to leave the area, a local man, Tashi, ran the cameras and took care of them. Snow Leopard Enterprises, a program of the non-profit Snow Leopard Trust, helps local populations embrace these beautiful and endangered predators by investing in community conservation projects and creating new sources of income to discourage poaching.

Want to learn more about lions, leopards, snow leopards, and other large felines in the wild? Check out National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative.

Photograph by Dan Grogan (top) and by Steve Winter, Director of Media, Panthera