by Rhys Mahannah
Steve Winter thought he was a dead man.
He’d set out to find the resplendent quetzal, a sacred bird in ancient Mesoamerican mythology, after he’d gotten the story idea from an ornithologist. Now, he was somewhere deep in the Guatemalan jungle.
One night, alone in a one-room shack, he heard it. Creaking floorboards, then creaking stairs. Scratching at the door, then heavy sniffing.
Terrified, he radioed the nearby naturalist, who responded: “Steve, don’t worry – it’s just a black jaguar.”
The experience would prove life-changing and career-defining. “That’s the moment big cats chose me,” says Winter, now a multiple award-winning nature photographer for National Geographic.
Winter has travelled the world, from India’s remote mountains to Myanmar’s dense jungles to Los Angeles’s urban centres, to capture rare and stunning images of these “charismatic, sexy animals.”
His adventures, sometimes months-long in the most grueling of weather, have led to something else: a sense of responsibility.
“One can’t do a story on these animals, then let them disappear,” he says. Beyond the aesthetics, he uses his photography as a medium for discussing, and hopefully expanding, conservation efforts for his animal subjects.
“My favourite photos tend to be those which make the biggest difference to a particular species at a particular time,” he says.
One example is his iconic Hollywood Cougar, featured in “Ghost Cats,” the headline story in the December 2013 issue of National Geographic.
“I love that photo, because it got people in greater L.A. to acknowledge they have animals,” says Winter. “It was also a catalyst to get people interested in building one of the world’s largest wildlife overpasses.” That overpass, to be built over California’s Highway 101, is scheduled for completion in 2022.
Winter’s latest gig, a talk entitled “On the Trail of Big Cats,” is the next step in his education and conservation efforts. It comes to Vancouver this month.
The goal is not only to delight audiences with outstanding photography, but also to highlight the intimate connecti
on between humans and nature – a connection we often don’t think about, and one that could prove essential to our own survival.
“If you stop and think about the areas where big cats live, they’re also important to us. So if we can save them, then we can help save ourselves.”
National Geographic LIVE presents Steve Winter’s “On the Trail of Big Cats” on Wednesday, February 27 the Orpheum Theatre.cats, national geographic, photography, steve winter, wildlife