These questions where posed to Steve during an  “Ask and Expert” Q+A session on the Australian National Geographic Channel Facebook page by followers of that page. We’ve reposted them here with permission.

Q.What’s been your scariest moment while on assignment?

A. I think it has to be when I was on an elephant with the anti poaching patrol in Kaziranga (National Park in) India–and a rhino attacked us. I almost flew off – that was the scariest moment so far!

My assistant who was also with me on that elephant was able to capture it on video. Check it out here!

Q.What drives you to do what you do? Have you always had a love for animals and photography or did it develop with your astonishing skills?

A. I began my career as a photojournalist and did not take a photo of an animal until I was 34 years old. Once I visited the rainforest for the first time and worked with passionate and dedicated scientists, I was hooked! I realized that if we save big cats and their homes we can save the forests in which they live–which provide about 50% of the oxygen we need to survive and about 75% of fresh water comes from forests also. So saving big cats is vital to our survival! If we save big cats we can help save ourselves!

Every day is a school day – so I learn on the job – and always try to compete against myself to make images that have not been seen before – to get the readers excited about the story I am working on.

We need to get the next generation to do a better job of protecting our planet than we have – so I am driven to start conversations about these big cats on the pages of National Geographic Magazine and on Nat Geo WILD!

Q.I’ve noticed in the majority of your photos the subjects (cats) tend to look in your direction. Do you feel a connection build? Or an understanding?

A. There is a connection. Cats are so curious, whether they are our house cats or big cats in the wild. There is no feeling like looking in the eyes of one of these magnificent creatures!

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Q.What cat is your favorite to shoot and why?Do you have any pets yourself?

A. At work, I am a big cat guy. At home, I am a dog lover, although we do have one cat, Punk. I don’t have a favorite big cat species as every one unique. My favorite is the cat I am photographing at the present moment. But I must say because I’ve spent so much time photographing tigers I’ve grown incredibly fond them. That fondness led me to produce the book “Tigers Forever” with my wife, journalist Sharon Guynup who wrote the book – so it was a family affair!

Q.You must have seen some amazing things and some scary/not so amazing things in your life. What was the most amazing thing you have ever seen and what don’t you want to see again?

A. My amazement in many instances stems from being given the opportunity to take a photograph of an animal that I have been dreaming of, or an image I’ve been visualizing. I also have the opportunity to be out in some of the world’s last wild places, among amazing creatures. Those moments are magical and are truly a gift.

What don’t I want to see again or experience again? Working in Kaziranga National Park, we were repeatedly charged by rhinos—and that’s an experience I would choose to avoid. I have very lucky, scared but not physically attacked – ever! Knock on wood!

Q.I can imagine that throughout your travels you’ve experienced a lot of different and unique cultures. How have you found your reception has been with natives or locals? Have you ever had any hostilities? Is their a mutual respect?

A.I learned as a young man that we are all the same – we just come from different cultures. I have never experienced any hostility. Time with someone in their home or community always brings us closer together. But having the time to get to know someone is very important! Being able to live out my dream job gives me the opportunity to spend weeks or months with different cultures and make friends all over the world.

Q.How big is the team that travels with you “on assignment” ?

A.Well right now we are finishing the National Geographic Magazine Leopard story and working on a Nat Geo WILD leopard show, so I have 3 guys with me: 2 cameramen sound and assistant. I totally rely on local people and park staff to help me find the animals I am looking for, so working closely with local people is very important: I spend every day, 7 days a week with them. I am a guest in their country, their park and they are the experts that help us get the images and video we need to suceed.

Q.On average how many photos would you say you take before you capture the money shot?

A.That is a hard question – as sometimes on camera traps I have waited for 15 months, like with the picture I made of a cougar under the Hollywood sign, or 23 days sitting in an elephant for the photo that became the cover of my NG “Tigers Forever” book cover – so it all depends on the situation! But the answer is thousands and thousands of images, taken over many months or sometimes, years.

Q.How do you pick your next assignment?

A.Sometimes I find my next story while I am on assignment – or pursue something that’s always fascinated me. I research to find out whether it will be possible and then find the right people to work with and write a proposal to Nat Geo Magazine!

I propose the vast majority of the stories I work on. I work closely with my editor, who is like my guides throughout the story. My editor of many years is Kathy Moran, who has been an incredible inspiration to me. We work together as a team to bring about the best coverage possible and to always look for images that we have not seen before!

I would like to talk about connection – specifically the connection between our love of the natural world and the animals we profess to love.

To start: Why did the death of Cecil spark such outrage—and start a movement to end trophy hunting in Africa? Over 600 lions are killed each year in trophy hunts, so why did Cecil become so famous after he was illegally killed? One reason is that he had a name, and he was famous in Zimbabwe.

It has been reported in the press that Cecil was still breeding because other younger males that would have fought for control of the pride had been killed by hunters. In fact, 72% of the male lions collared by the Oxford University study that Cecil was part of had been killed by trophy hunters.  (We know this because their collars were returned.) Unfortunately 30% of those males were under four years old. Taking out a large percentage of the young males is not sustainable for any lion population.

So we need to ask questions and start thinking about trophy hunting.I think that we need to look at all sides and get expert opinions from scientists like Craig Packer who runs the Serengeti lion study – the longest running study on lions in the world.

One thing I will say about those of us who love animals – whether they are our pets or in the wild- animals have emotions! I’ve seen it observing big cats and other species in the wild as I’ve watched them over weeks or months in their habitat in the wild.

Big cats are like us: They play, eat, mate and have families; they just kill their food instead of going to a supermarket or restaurant and eat food others have killed for us.

But back to connections: Remember the first time you ever went out into nature, maybe a family trip to a National Park or just a walk in the woods where you felt something mystical or emotional when you saw a deer for the first time, visited a waterfall, or just listened to the symphony of the birds? So many of us live in urban areas now, that though we love certain animals, our love only goes so far. We might categorize big cats as predators (which they are) and think of them with fear, but you are more likely to be hit my lightening than ever being harmed by a big cat. Even ones that live close to urban areas whether it is P-22, the “Hollywood Cougar” who lives in L.A.’s Griffiths Park, or the population of cougars where he came from that live in the largest urban park in the USA, Santa Monica National Recreation Area— no attacks on humans have ever been reported. That’s also the case for the leopards of Mumbai which you will see in my upcoming NGM Leopard story in the December 2015 issue. It is difficult to even see most of these cats, if not impossible!

We are bombarded with shows like “When Animals Attack!” but guess what: unless we are in their space or meet them by accident, they will not attack. We are not apart of their prey set and have not been for thousands of years.

We need to find a way to understand that if we save these top predators, we preserve huge tracts of land and  we save everything that lives in their ecosystem. So if we save a big block of Amazon forests for the jaguars, we are also helping to save ourselves. Forests provide 50% of the oxygen we breathe and are responsible for 75% of all fresh water in the world,  and we can’t survive without  air and clean water. S whether it is jaguars in the Western Hemisphere or lions and leopards in Africa or tigers in India and south Asia – if we save these wide ranging predators we profess to love, we will not only save magnificent, iconic creatures, but we will also save creatures that are crucial to maintaining a healthy balance in their ecosystems, and in the process, help save ourselves.

– Steve Winter

A male and female lion in the Sabi Sands Reserve, South Africa.

 

 

A tiger photographed inside Bandhavgarh National Park, India.

A tiger photographed inside Bandhavgarh National Park, India.

Today, July 29th, is International #TigerDay. The tiger, one of the world’s most iconic species, hovers closer to extinction than any of the big cats. There are just 3,200 tigers left in the wild, scattered in small pockets across Asia. A century ago, more than 100,000 of these majestic cats roamed across 30 nations. Today, they hang on in just 12 countries. They’ve disappeared from 93 percent of their former range.

Lost of habitat, illegal poaching and animal-human conflict are three of the biggest issues facing today’s remaining 3000 or so wild tigers. Good news is there are solutions to these issues and there is still enough habitat to support healthy tiger populations. They thrive with just the basics, food, water and a place to live. When you add boots-on-the-ground protection of the cats and their prey, strong laws, enforcement and careful monitoring, they bounce back.
Saving them will require targeted action and creative strategies—and the expertise of the best scientists. Those experts must share their knowledge with governments and prod them to act. Governments must protect remaining habitat. And they must safeguard tigers from poachers with armed protection in the national parks and reserves where the cats still thrive.  But saving tigers also requires a world that cares. In the words of renowned field biologist George Schaller, “I learned long ago that conservation has no victories. It’s a never-ending process that each of us must take part in.”
So, today, let’s do more than like a photo on Social Media. Consider making a donation to the organizations listed below. Every dollar donated to these organizations goes towards work that front-lines tiger conservation.

UPDATE: National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative current campaign, HighFive Give $5 is creating a worldwide vitual high five chain in support of big cats. And considering today is International Tiger Day why not participate?

Here’s how:

  1. Snap a photo of yourself giving a high five to a friend, a pet—get creative!

     2.Share your photo on social media using #5forBigCats and #BigCatsForever. Tag five friends to send them a virtual high five!

     3.Give $5 (or more) to the Big Cats Initiative at donate.ngs.org/5forbigcats. Then watch the high-five chain grow across social media here:

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/big-cats-initiative/high-5-give-5/

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