“You know when there’s a reason to be afraid. And she will let you know if you’re getting too close,” National Geographic photographer Steve Winter says, referring to a mother leopard looking at him from just ten feet away.
After being tracked and photographed in the South African savanna for two months, the feline matriarch is so comfortable with Winter that she approaches him to merely lie down and take a nap. “In many instances I just watch what we call a ‘flat cat,’ which means a sleeping cat, all day. And you wait for those great moments of natural history behavior where the animal is running after prey or climbing a tree at the end of the day with the hyenas below them,” Winter says, busting the myth that wildlife photography is all about the chase.
While photographing just one leopard in action can be a challenge, Winter’s mission is to capture an entire family dynamic. “What I’m looking for is a relationship between mom and cub that evokes an emotion within the person immediately. We see their family and we can connect and think about our own families.” Winter is relying on that empathy to drive his audience to act on behalf of the at-risk big cats. Leopards are hunted for their bones, whiskers, and other body parts for use in traditional Asian medicines and habitat loss is also devastating leopard populations.
Winter admits, “Not everybody is even going care about the leopard, you know?” But they should—because there is another major species that would benefit from saving leopards. Winter explains: “The forests big cats live in are the lungs of the world, providing the air we breathe, pulling carbon from the atmosphere, and slowing climate change. Seventy-five percent of all freshwater comes from forests. So if you save the top predator in any ecosystem, you save everything underneath them. If we can save big cats, we can help save ourselves.”
Watch National Geographic Live! to see some of Winter’s unbelievable big cat images, and hear him tell the stories behind the photos on the National Geographic Radio podcast below: