How do you photograph an animal often called the ghost cat? The answer is simple: you don’t do it by yourself. I have had the honor of photographing wild cats for Panthera for over four years, each time working alongside their incredible biologists studying animals they may have never seen themselves.
In the fall of last year, the task was to photograph snow leopards in the Tien Shan Mountains of eastern Kyrgyzstan. Teaming up with principal investigator Shannon Kachel from the University of Washington, we determined locations to place my customized SLR camera traps.
Snow leopards often travel along ridgelines, at the base of cliffs, and routinely visit scent-marking boulders. Shannon and I hiked for miles and miles in the thin mountain air to look for fresh tracks and scat, even smelling rocks to check for that distinct, pungent smell of cat urine. Once we determined that a trail was actively being used by a snow leopard, it was time to set up the 30-pound camera traps.
Camera traps solve a lot of problems—and create them, too. Parts fail, batteries run out, flashes don’t fire, and rodents often chew through cables, rendering everything useless. Sometimes, after being 100% sure about which way the cat will walk on the trail, all you get is a butt shot. Camera traps are not pop-up tents—they often take up to four hours to set up—and since an animal may only walk by once a month, you need to get it right the first time.
During my seven-week stay, we were able to get five different images of snow leopards. The most thrilling captured the moment after a snow leopard had crossed the freezing river below. I distinctly remember seeing that image for the first time.
On the four-mile hike to the camera trap, I felt anxious, excited, and nervous. Did it work correctly? Did any animal come by? When I reached the camera, I pressed the playback button and scrolled backwards through the images. The first photographs showed a group of rangers on horseback from two days earlier. Then there was a picture of a moth flying through the night sky.
Then, I could hardly believe my eyes: a gorgeous snow leopard, dripping wet in front of a sunrise lit alpine sky, staring straight at me.
Before that, there had only been two moments in my photographic career when I knew that I had gotten a great picture—this was my third. I threw my arms up, danced around like a kid, and let out a lung-bursting scream in pure jubilation. After hastily re-setting the camera trap, I started power-hiking back toward camp. I couldn’t wait to show Shannon and the rest of the team; this picture belonged to them as much as it did to me. I gave Shannon a strong hug and we looked at the image for the next hour, so grateful that this snow leopard allowed us a glimpse into its otherwise secretive life.
As a wildlife photographer, this image is incredibly special to me, but as a conservationist, it’s important to appreciate why it can exist in the first place. Panthera’s actions in Kyrgyzstan, including supporting the development of community-based conservancies, building anti-poaching networks, and training sniffer dogs at border sites, are major reasons snow leopards still inhabit this part of central Asia. Their work is critical, and I am proud to be able to support it through my photography.
To learn more about Panthera’s work to protect snow leopards, click here.
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