This week, wildlife photojournalist Steve Winter’s story about cougars appears in the December issue of National Geographic. He’s become the big cat guy—it’s the fourth species he’s covered for the magazine. This is a also a big week for him and me: our new book, Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat, published by National Geographic Books, just hit the bookstores! I recently caught Steve during a pit stop at home between trips to the Yucatan and Banff and we talked about his work over the last 15 years with jaguars, snow leopards, tigers and cougars.
The funny thing is, he never chose to work with cats. “A cat chose me,” he says. He was working on his first story for National Geographic magazine (NGM) on an exotic bird, the quetzal, living in a tiny cabin atop a mountain in the Guatemalan cloud forest. One night as he lay in his cot, he heard creaking on the steps. Scratching at his door. Loud sniffs. The next morning, he found large pugmarks outside. Two days later, as he sat in a blind high up in a tree, he glimpsed a huge black tail hanging—too large for a howler monkey. Moments later, a black jaguar crashed down through the branches and ran off.
So naturally, his next story was on jaguars. It was the first that NGM had ever done, and it didn’t take long to figure out why: these elusive cats are rarely seen. He knew he was going to need expert advice to pull this one off. So he contacted Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, the man who had helped create the world’s first jaguar reserve in Belize, the Cockscombe Basin Wildlife Preserve. With Rabinowitz’s advice—and remote cameras set in places where jaguars walked trails or marked territory—he did get the pictures. That story launched a lifelong collaboration between the two.
In 1999, Steve’s editor, Kathy Moran, asked photographers to email her their dream assignment. Steve had read Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard while in Nepal years before. He was on an around-the-world trip after dropping out of an urban renewal program at Indiana University, trying to figure out what to do with his life. He’d been captivated by the story and by George Schaller’s search for the snow leopard. Flash forward 20 years later, and he was shooting his “dream assignment,” camping at 15,000+ feet in the Himalayas, with temperatures dipping to 40 below at night, trying to photograph an animal that he would never see—though he did capture images of their secret lives using remote cameras.
Steve had no inkling that his next assignment would launch a decade of work with tigers. Rabinowitz was negotiating with Myanmar’s military junta, trying to convince them to protect the Hukawng Valley, a sprawling forest where the country’s few remaining tigers could thrive. But a gold rush had brought waves of people swarming into the valley, and the threats that faced tigers became the story.
Steve photographed hordes of people reducing huge tracts of the tiger’s forest home to wasteland, hunting the same animals the cats preyed on—and poachers who were illegally hunting and trading cats and other endangered wildlife. He never saw a tiger, nor made a picture of one.
His first face-to-face encounters came in September 2007, when he began work on a National Geographic story on India’s Kaziranga National Park. This small reserve, nestled in the Brahmaputra floodplain, is home to the highest concentration of tigers anywhere in the world. It’s perhaps the last place where they still share the land with elephants, rhinos, deer and the entire array of creatures they once lived beside.
He soon discovered that Kaziranga’s thriving tigers were the exception, that despite millions of dollars spent on conservation over decades, tiger numbers continued to plummet.
Steve wanted to investigate further, and returned to Asia in 2009 to shoot a tiger story, focusing on three subspecies in three countries: the Sumatran tiger in Indonesia, the Indochinese tiger in Thailand, and the Bengal tiger in India. “By then,” Steve said, “I’d fallen under the cat’s spell, the fire in its eyes, its power and dignity, its unchallenged rulership of the jungle. My goal was to reinvigorate a passion to protect these iconic cats,” he said.
With just 3,200 tigers left in the wild, we decided to collaborate on a book about tigers. The result: Tigers Forever includes over 100 of Steve’s images; I tell his field stories, discuss tiger behavior, describe why these cats have been both feared and revered throughout human history, and detail the threats that face them and the bold initiatives to save them.
Chief among them are initiatives pioneered by Panthera, a New York-based big cat conservation organization headed by Alan Rabinowitz, where Steve also serves as media director. We named the book after their “Tigers Forever” program, which applies a business model to wildlife conservation, recognizing that all tigers really need to survive is enough land and food; when you add boots-on-the-ground protection, strong laws, enforcement and careful monitoring, they bounce back. By adding cooperation among researchers and conservation organizations to the mix (wildlife NGOs traditionally compete, fighting over funding), tiger populations in key sites in Thailand, India and Sumatra have stabilized or are increasing.
Two years ago, Steve helped marry the big cat scientific expertise of Panthera with National Geographic’s media and educational powerhouse; the two organizations now collaborate on National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative. Together, they are developing and implementing global strategies to save the most endangered cats, including tigers.
Ten percent of our book’s profits will go to Panthera—and 100 percent of that money will go directly to field programs.
Steve had spent many years photographing the world’s cats, but not America’s cats. In his newest NGM story, “Ghost Cats,” he shares images of “America’s lion”—the cougar. He shot the story in the high, frigid peaks of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and in Southern California. (Related: “A Cougar Ready for His Closeup.”)
His favorite picture took 14 months to get. When he first met biologist Jeff Sikich and asked for help finding a cougar in the Los Angeles area, he told him he wanted to get a shot of a cat under the Hollywood sign. “He later told me he thought I was crazy,” Steve remembers. But Sikich tracked a satellite-collared cougar named “P-22” for months; he eventually wandered into Griffiths Park, in LA. And Steve got the shot!
Do you have a question for Steve Winter? Click here to find out how you can ask your question during a Google Hangout with Steve and other big cat experts on December 3rd.