Photographer Steve Winter’s snow leopard photographs currently on display in London

December 1, 2009

Story behind the picture: Snow Leopard, 2008

Photographer Steve Winter on his candid picture of the elusive cat

The editor of National Geographic asked its photographers: “What would be your dream project?” I wrote “snow leopards”. I’d read a book about them years before I started photographing animals. We did a recce in Hemis National Park in Ladak, northern India, and met local people. Standing in the valley, it felt like being on the Moon: no trees, just rock. I’m a jungle guy, used to hot and steamy but I thought, I can do this. It took us four days to get our equipment in by horse and set up a base camp. Snow leopards are habitual: they mark locations by rubbing their necks on rocks to leave a scent, especially during the mating season. To see one, you have to find a trail: you won’t see one just walking around. I found a trail with the help of a local man named Tashi. We set up 14 remote cameras that use an infrared system with a laser beam. I wanted the photograph to be composed the way it would have been if I were lying on the ground, taking it myself. I wanted to make people say “wow”. This project was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. We spent six and a half months in the valley and at night, it reached -50C (-58F). I spoke to my wife at night on the satellite phone until my hands were freezing. We would check the cameras every one to two weeks so that we didn’t leave our scents there and put the leopards off. There was one camera with a frame that I loved, but the cats never went past it. Then one day there was this shot of a leopard in a snowstorm at night. I couldn’t have asked for better. You look at it and your jaw just drops. Steve Winter’s Snow Leopard is on display at the World Press Photo exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall, London, until December 13, 2009.

Snow Leopard Photographer Steve Winter Wins World Press Photo Contest

On 13 February 2008, Steve Winter won first prize in the Nature Stories category of the 52nd annual World Press Photo Contest for his June 2008 NG article and photographs, “Snow Leopards: Out of the Shadows”.

About the contest:

The annual World Press Photo contest is at the core of the organization’s activities. It offers an overview of how press photographers tackle their work worldwide and how the press gives us the news, bringing together pictures from all parts of the globe to reflect trends and developments in photojournalism.

How to Enter
The contest is open to all professional press photographers. There is no entry fee.
Not only photographers, but photo agencies, newspapers and magazines from anywhere in the world are invited to submit their best news-related pictures of the previous year. Both single images and photo stories are eligible. The results are published on this website. Entry forms for the contest come out in October. To enter the 2009 contest click here.

Judging & Results
Judging takes place at the beginning of February each year. The contest jury comprises thirteen picture editors, photographers and representatives of press agencies from different parts of the world, with widely divergent backgrounds.

This brings to the process a breadth of experience, a variety of perception, and a contrast in viewpoint that keeps judging dynamic and bolsters objectivity. The jury acts independently of World Press Photo, and the organization has no influence on its decisions.

Winners are announced at a press conference in the second week of February. Prizewinning photographers are invited to receive their awards at the annual Awards Days in Amsterdam at the end of April.

Shafqat Hussain honored for work with snow leopards

Eli honored for work with snow leopards

Ilana Seager

Staff Reporter

Published Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Love is blind, and Shafqat Hussain GRD ‘08 learned this the hard way. Despite having devoted his professional life to his passion for saving snow leopards, the closest he has come to one is the zoo gift store.

Yesterday, Hussain, a doctoral student in anthropology and the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, was officially named one of 10 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2009 for his work with snow leopards in northern Pakistan. The $10,000 research grant, which recognizes adventurers for their contributions to world knowledge, will allow Hussain to continue to work with local communities to ensure the survival of this endangered species.

Hussain first appeared on the international radar when he pioneered Project Snow Leopard in 1998, a self-funding livestock insurance scheme that offers Pakistani villagers compensation for any livestock they lose to snow leopards. But some environmentalists remain unconvinced that insurance is the only way to save the majestic cat.

“Our program is still expanding,” Hussain said in an interview with the News. “We don’t have any grand visions or plans. We just somehow want to see that large conservation projects that are funded by international agencies can see that the approach of separating human society from the environment is not the answer.”

Hussain dreamt up Project Snow Leopard after witnessing the threat snow leopard populations pose to local villages in the Skoyo and Basha valleys of north Pakistan. The cats hunt the villagers’ livestock — their only source of income. The villagers, in return, hunt the cats to protect their livelihood, creating a vicious circle of predation.

The idea has taken off since it was put into effect in Pakistan and serves as a model for similar projects in India, China and Nepal, Hussain said.

“Shafqat Hussain’s Project Snow Leopard is an example of innovative thinking and the ability to balance the needs of individuals, communities and the environment,” said Cheryl Zook, National Geographic’s manager of Emerging Explorers and Special Projects. “It is an example of forward-thinking, holistic conservation work.”

But Hussain is not your average conservationist. With an undergraduate degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in economics, a master’s in biology — and soon enough, a Ph.D. in anthropology — the son of a Pakistani civil servant has sampled a wide range of disciplines. His heart, though, has remained with the imposing mountain landscape he recalls admiring in his childhood.

“When I was young I used to go to the hills,” Hussain said. “I found out there were these amazing mountains in the north, and I knew that I wanted to go back and work there.”

His own fascination with nature convinced him that the solution to problems of conservation was not to artificially separate humans from their natural surroundings.

This view has shaped his outlook on national parks, which he sees as sources of historical conflict and as an ineffective means of preserving nature.

“The whole idea of the national park is enshrined in this philosophy that there is wilderness and pristine nature and that it’s timeless,” he said. “But historical records show that there is no part of the world that hasn’t been touched by humans.”

But Todd Remaley, chief ranger with the Appalachian Trail, argues that Hussain’s idea — that nature and humans should coexist naturally — is not in opposition to the thinking behind a national park.

While he acknowledged that there is no one right way to tackle all problems of conservation, Remaley remained doubtful that programs like Project Snow Leopard could be entirely effective without the environmental preservation that the national park framework provides.

“On the surface it sounds like he’s found a solution, but what is he doing to preserve the habitat?” Remaley said. “One of the biggest problems facing endangered species today is the destruction of their habitats.”

But Hussain argues that such thinking — conceiving of an animal’s habitat as wilderness — represents a “typically first world view of nature conservation.”

“A habitat is separate from human society,” he said. “Humans have been part of the same habitat for millions of years, so clearly it is not their presence, but their behavior and

practices that are [at fault]. And that is what we are trying to address.”

Only two sightings of snow leopards have taken place in the past fifty years.