National Geographic’s Steve Winter is a big cat when it comes to tigers, jaguars and cougars
Park City Institute presents National Geographic Live: “On the Trail of Big Cats with Steve Winter” 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 19 Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd. $29 435-655-3114 parkcityinstitute.org
For more than 20 years, Steve Winter has traveled to the Himalayas, South America and the Hollywood Hills to capture images of tigers, jaguars and cougars for National Geographic.
Not only does the award-winning photographer’s images show big cats in their natural habitats, the stories he illustrates have helped protect and preserve these animals’ lives and homes, Winter said.
“I firmly believe that if you are going to tell a story about an animal and the environment where it lives, you are also responsible to help save that animal and make sure it has a future,” Winter said.
Park City Institute will give Winter a chance to tell Park City audiences what he means when it presents “National Geographic Live: On the Trail of Big Cats with Steve Winter” on Saturday, Jan. 19, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
Winter will talk about his career, his major projects and what got him into wildlife photography.
One of hisfirst projects that resulted in the preservation of habitats and animals focused on jaguars in Brazil.
“We visited ranchers in South America who were killing jaguars because they thought the cats were killing their livestock,” he said. “While we were there, we had compiled the data and showed that only one percent of the cattle killed were by jaguars, so they should quit killing the cats.”
After the story ran in National Geographic, tourists began to visit the area to see the jaguars.
“Throughout the years, we found that one cow will bring the local community $2,000 a year, but one jaguar will bring in $108,000 a year through ecotourism,” Winter said. “No one will kill these cats since everyone living down there has at least one family member who is making money from the ecotourists, whether it be through airports, lodges; restaurants.”
The next project Winter embarked on centered on the snow leopards in India.
“After jaguars, my editor sent me an email and asked what my dream assignment would be,” Winter said. “I had just read a book by Peter Mathiesson called ‘The Snow Leopard,’ which is about the work done by naturalist Dr. George Schaller. So I said I’d go do a story on that.”
Schaller is one of only two people from the West to have witnessed a snow Winter said.
Winter set up a series of unmanned camera traps to capture photos of the elusive cat.
It took more than four months before one of the cameras snapped a photo of a snow leopard.
“It was one of the greatest images I have ever seen,” he said.
One of the images, which won him the 2007 BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year award, was also used in 2009 to promote Apple’s Snow Leopard revision of the Mac operating system.
After the snow leopard, Winter spent the next decade photographing tigers.
“Even though there have been many stories about tigers, I found a way to do them differently when I decided to focus on subspecies – the Sumatran tiger, the Indochinese tiger,” he said. “I found if I found a way to do a story that no one had done before, I knew I wasn’t going to get turned down by National Geographic.”
The first tiger species he wanted to document was the Sumatran tiger of Indonesia, because it was the first on his list that was in danger of becoming extinct.
“The biggest reason it is endangered is because of palm oil, which comes from the indiscriminate felling of the rainforest in Indonesia,” Winter said. “If you lose the rainforest, you will lose the Sumatran tiger, the orangutan and elephants that live in the forest. And to tell you the truth, they don’t need to cut down any more trees to make palm oil.”
Winter also went to the Thailand-Myanmar border region and worked with the Thai Tiger Team in the Western Forest Complex, which located four hours west of Bangkok.
“This protected area is a stronghold of the Indochinese tiger,” he said.
During that trip, Winter and his wife, journalist Sharon Guynup, visited the Thai Tiger Temple, a place known for allowing visitors to interact with tigers.
“We found that it was involved in the black market trade of selling tiger parts and cubs to China,” Winter said. “My wife worked with the Thailand National Parks, the Ministry of Environment and undercover activists from Australia to do shut it down.”
Winter’s most recent project involved a big cat that can be found in Park City’s backyard: the North American mountain lion.
“After I finished the project about tigers, my friend, Howard Quigley, who started the Teton Cougar Project, told me I should do a story on cougars,” he said. “I asked why, and he told me about how the Yellowstone ecosystem was being rewilded by the introduction of wolves and grizzly bears, which changes the natural history of the cougar.”
The changes Winter mentioned is the result of cougars and grizzly bears competing for food. The Teton Cougar Project found that cougars, while near the top of the food chain, are still subordinate to bears and wolves.
“We spent five days on snowmobiles in the Grand Tetons looking for mountain lion tracks, but didn’t find one,” he said.
Winter did find cougars closer to civilization – in the hills of Hollywood – in 2013, as documented in his “Ghost Cats” story.
“When I was a kid, my grandma lived in L.A. and I would go on pony rides up at Griffith Park, and I felt there was a mountain lion there in the past,” he said. “So I had this goal of illustrating the fact that cougars were hanging around the outskirts of L.A.”
Winter’s ultimate goal was to get a photo of a cougar with the lights of America’s second largest city or with the Hollywood sign in the background.
His friend, Jeff Sikich, whose work includes catching and applying tracking collars on the mountain lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, thought he was crazy, and cited variables like the busy freeways that sit between Santa Monica and Hollywood.
“But then, a bobcat camera caught an image of a mountain lion in the Hollywood hills, and I had to figure out how to get one of my own,” Winter said.
Like he did for the Nepalese snow leopard, Winter set up a series of camera traps, and after more than a year, he got his image. The trials he faced this time were more human in nature.“The biggest challenge was not getting the photo, but rather, how do I keep from getting my cameras stolen?” Winter said. “I had three of my four cameras stolen. The one that didn’t get stolen was set up on an animal trail, and not a human trail.”
In spite of his career photographing big cats, Winter said he didn’t start off as a nature photographer.
“I was interested in people,” he said. “When I was seven, my father gave me my first camera, and during that time, there were a lot of things going on like the Civil Rights movement.”
Winter saw photos of the movement in magazines like Life and National Geographic, and when he was 8, he made up his mind to become a photographer.
“I realized photography could change the world, so I decided I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer when I grew up,” he said.
Even when he was hired by National Geographic in 1991, Winter didn’t know a thing about wildlife photography.
“I didn’t take my first animal photo until I was 34,” he said. “Now, 20-plus years later, I’m still doing it.”
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