On the trail of jaguars with Steve Winter, National Geographic photographer – Part I

Jaguars in the Yucatan

Steve Winter is down on the ground, crouching over an endless carpet of dry leaves, looking at his surroundings the way a jaguar would. He visualizes the jaguar’s path through the forest, towards a water hole at the end of the trail. He checks the position of his camera in relation to the jaguar’s eyes. He looks up at the trees, searching for interesting features and for possible places to rig lights.

Meanwhile, up on a tree, Bertie Gregory rigs strobe #1 on a crooked branch, amidst columns of ants and a burrowing scorpion. The strobe, together with a cluster of batteries, a wireless synch receiver and assorted cables, are housed together in a capped section of PVC pipe. It all needs to be pushed in, then pulled out to make adjustments, and in again until the system is confirmed to be fully operational. Bertie has worked with these tools many times before, so the finicky nature of the system doesn’t faze him. Once properly set, the strobe can work effectively for weeks.

We’re in El Zapotal, a private nature reserve in northern Yucatan, setting up Steve Winter’s first camera-trap on a mission to photograph jaguars. A widely acclaimed National Geographic photographer, Steve is best known for creating iconic images of tigers that have captivated the imagination of millions of people worldwide. If this trip is successful, it’ll be the first time he photographs jaguars in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Steve Winter walks at a steady pace towards the first possible location for one of his trap-cameras on a mission to photograph jaguars in the Yucatan Peninsula. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Think like a jaguar!, Steve says. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

When setting up camera-traps, Bertie will do whatever it takes. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Steve has photographed jaguars before in Brazil’s Pantanal, a lush habitat where an abundance of prey allows adult specimens of Panthera onca to grow bigger than they do here in the peninsula, reaching a to weight of 150 kilos. Working from the relative comfort of a boat along the banks of the Amazon river he has captured great images of the imposing felines as they come down to the water’s edge to drink, hunt, bathe and swim across to the other side. Cayman is a delicacy in the jaguar’s menu, which makes for spectacular hunting behavior as these two powerful creatures clash. Also spectacular can be the sight of an adult female napping with her cubs close to the water.

But the jaguar’s habitat is quite different in northern Yucatan. The dry season can be very harsh and many natural water reservoirs dry up entirely. There are no major rivers, so animals and humans alike have learned to survive by finding and using thousands of waterholes, known as cenotes, which provide access to the vital liquid in the aquifer below. Our best course of action, if we’re to find a jaguar, is to follow the cat’s trail to such a source of water.

Water holes known as cenotes provide access to the aquifer in Yucatan. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón, with aerial support by Lighthawk for PPY).

Still, having found a trail to the water, what then? A photographer might set up an elevated blind, hoping his human scents will be blown away from the jaguar’s acute sense of smell, then patiently sit down to endure heat, bugs and boredom for an undetermined number of days, in hopes of seeing a jaguar. But weeks earlier, during one of our pre-production meetings on Skype, Steve had told me, “You know, I’ve never been a guy to sit down in blinds, waiting…”.

Instead, when not busy photographing tigers with the longest Canon super-tele lenses from the top of an elephant (which he prefers as mobile shooting platforms), Steve creates landmark images using a tool that is by nature unpredictable and quirky: camera-traps. Many photographers use them, but Steve has been able to consistently put these devices at the service of his unique personal vision, to great effect.

Setting up a camera-trap in “El Zapotal”, a private reserve in northern Yucatan. A laser emitter must be carefully aligned with the receiving sensor of the TrailMaster triggering system. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Tigers and elephants

Some clues on how Steve Winter achieves his images are revealed in the pages of Tigers Forever, a stunning National Geographic book covering a decade of his work in India, Thailand, Sumatra and Myanmar. His images, in tandem with fine writing by author Sharon Guynup (Steve’s wife and partner), tell a compelling story that is as much about people as it is about tigers.

Many of the great photos in the book are the result of long days endured by Steve astride an elephant, on which he sat barefoot, his heavy Gitzo tripod tied to the saddle with a big telephoto on a Wimberley head, exploring the landscape and moving through it for weeks on end.

Elephants are in fact Steve’s vehicle of choice when entering tiger territory. They provide all-terrain capabilities, a raised platform to shoot from and, most significantly, some degree of protection. The powerful images he’s created from these “camera-elephants” have opened windows for humanity to peek into the private lives of tigers.

Steve Winter on assignment, shooting from an elephant. Reproduced from the pages of “Tigers Forever”. (All rights by Steve Winter / National Geographic).

Riding on elephants has granted Steve access to unique photo opportunities and he’s seized them, but his hunger for great images didn’t stop there. He wanted to bring his camera close to the tigers, eye to eye with them, using wide angle lenses to convey a sense of intimacy that no telephoto, regardless of how big or expensive, could ever hope to achieve.

Make no mistake, a close encounter between a person and an adult tiger is bound to end badly for the biped, likely to be killed or maimed. A quote from Tigers Forever says it all: “It’s no wonder that tigers have long been feared: in every ecosystem they inhabit, they are the dominant predator -huge, stealthy and muscular. They possess fearsome teeth and claws and a roar that resounds for miles. As human populations explode across Asia and habitat continues to disappear, there is a growing conflict between people, their domestic animals, and tigers. Tigers wander into villages and through pastures; they sometimes eat livestock, occasionally injure or kill people – and often end up in the crosshairs”.

It follows that, unless aiming for a very short, kamikazee style photographic career, one would be wise not to walk up to a tiger. A different kind of strategy is needed to pry safely into Panthera’s intimate world.

Faced with this challenge, Steve added camera-traps, wireless triggering systems and portable strobes to his toolbox, and proceeded to master their use. Already a photojournalist at the top of his game, he embraced these new tools to expand his vision. The rest, as they say, is history. His camera-trap images bring viewers right into the world of tigers, to be with them.

One of Steve’s iconic camera-trap images of Bengal tigers. Reproduced from the pages of “Tigers Forever”. (All rights by Steve Winter / National Geographic).

But having the right tool for the job is only part of the equation. In India, having selected a location for a camera setup, Steve’s first challenge often was to be allowed off the elephant. Keenly aware of the possibility of tigers lurking nearby, park rangers were reluctant to let him set foot on the ground. An attack could happen in an instant and, as I will experience during Steve’s production in the Yucatan, setting up camera-traps with multiple lights is anything but instantaneous.

In an ironic twist, the elaborate lighting strategies he’s implemented to create these images are so effective that people often wonder if the photographs have been “photoshopped”. Steve laughs it off. “I love it when they think there’s something fake in it”, he says. “It means it looks so incredibly real that it makes them wonder. So it gets their attention.

Getting people’s attention is key. For Steve, in fact, that’s the whole point: telling the story of tigers and moving people to save them. And when he says tigers, he really means all the cats, snow leopards, pumas, lions and cheetahs, all of them, and all of nature. Steve’s gospel is unwavering: in order to save tigers we must save the ecosystems they need to survive, which really means saving ourselves.

The same logic applies to jaguars in the Yucatan Peninsula: saving them entails saving our forests and other animals jaguars prey upon. Steve Winter has come here following that story, prepared to deploy three camera-trap systems and leave them in place for several weeks. But where should he put them? The question is of the essence. The answers will be revealed as this story continues.

Chances of coming across a jaguar as we walk the trails are close to nil, which makes camera-traps the preferred tool for this mission. Why then carry heavy cameras and lenses slung across the shoulders at all times? “Simple”, says Steve. “If you don’t have them, you can’t use them”. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

I.G.H.

With special thanks to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatán for logistical support and access to El Zapotal private reserve.

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