May 7

How do you prepare for a Skype interview with one of the world’s leading wildlife photographers – or photojournalists (a big difference as you’ll soon read) – Steve Winter, whose breathtaking images of big cats around the world have resulted in positive conservation gains for species?

At ARKive, it’s a no-brainer. You turn to your audience of incredibly passionate nature fans who are bursting at the seams with meaningful questions on all things wildlife imagery and conservation. A few weeks ago, we asked you to send us the one burning question you would ask if you were about to Skype with Steve Winter. He is currently in the throes of capturing emotive images of the illegal tiger trade in India. Working with author Sharon Guynup, Steve has chronicled everything from the tiger black market to tiger sanctuaries ill-equipped to handle today’s sophisticated poachers.

A tiger photographed inside Bandhavgarh.

A male tiger in Bandhavgarh National Park, India
(Photo by Steve Winter/National Geographic)

We randomly selected five of your questions and each of them buzzed through my head in advance of the interview last week as I patiently waited for Steve’s Skype name to turn from translucent to green. It turned green, he called, and the interview was on…

“If you don’t tell the story, all the pretty pictures in the world won’t do a thing.”

Rafael asked, “How did you wind up on the wildlife and conservation photographer path?”

While Steve was very happy to answer this question, he was adamant about making one thing very clear from the beginning. “I don’t want the label ‘wildlife photographer’. I more consider myself a photojournalist with a conservation concentration. Being a photojournalist, you have to tell the story of the photography, the people, the environment and the animals. If you don’t tell the story, all the pretty pictures in the world won’t do a thing. All the incredible beautiful parts of the wild and species we work with doesn’t make a difference unless you tell the story.”

I had never heard this concept explained quite so elegantly before and I couldn’t help but completely agree with Steve.

Tourists at the Tiger Temple in Thailand view a “tiger enrichment” show. Young tigers entertain tourists daily, but adults rarely leave tiny, decrepit cages and are often beaten. There is documented proof of sales to tiger farms in Laos that illegally traffic tiger parts. (Photo by Steve Winter/National Geographic)

Tourists at the Tiger Temple in Thailand view a ‘tiger enrichment’ show. Young tigers entertain tourists daily, but adult tigers rarely leave tiny, decrepit cages and are often beaten. There is documented proof of sales to tiger farms in Laos that illegally traffic tiger parts.
(Photo by Steve Winter/National Geographic)

So, how did Steve end up sitting atop the back of an elephant in India taking pictures of one of the world’s most threatened big cats? He explains, “I got a job with Merck Pharmaceuticals photographing species in the Costa Rican rainforest and it changed my life 180 degrees. I didn’t know anything about being a wildlife photographer and I viewed what I was doing as photojournalism. I always wanted to be a National Geographic photographer but never thought in a million years I would be a wildlife photographer. I started as a photojournalist and having a concentration on the natural world happened in Costa Rica while working for Merck. It’s where it all began.”

“Camera traps are so worthwhile because you can put them places you can’t go.”

Sascha asked, “When is the best time of day to photograph a tiger?”

Just as Stefano Unterthiner answered in our last wildlife photographer interview, Steve said, “It’s the same as most wildlife photography – early morning and late evening but also whenever a tiger is moving. Tigers are cats so they sleep most of the time and they will be moving by the time you’re allowed to go find them in the tiger parks and up to the time you are forced to leave the tiger parks at dusk.”

Steve then went on to explain more about his technique in capturing powerful images of such an elusive species. “It’s one of the reasons camera traps are so worthwhile because you can put them places you can’t go. For a normal story, depending on the species, a camera trap will encompass 10 to 20% of the images, sometimes more for the rarer animals. They give you an opportunity to investigate and understand an animal’s movements and behavior. With that knowledge, which is given to you by scientists, researchers, and local people, you’re able to find locations similar to where you might set up a blind or hide. I use camera traps and a wide angle lens at a close-up, intimate location similar to where I would focus my long telephoto lens if I was using a standard camera. Using the camera trap, I center on a spot in the frame using an infrared beam to get the animal front and center. I know exactly where the animal is going to be.”

Mirchani Tigress cubs at the Patpara Nala waterhole and fence traps.

A camera trap captures 14-month-old sibling cubs cooling off in a watering hole. Bandhavgarh National Park, India.
(Photo by Steve Winter/National Geographic)

Camera traps were the tool of choice used to capture the incredible, iconic Hollywood cougar image which, Steve shared, took 15 months of trials and preparation to achieve!

“There are just so many moments out in the wilderness that transcends anything in your life.”

Claudie asked, “For you, personally, what is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen in a tiger?”

Steve didn’t hesitate a moment before answering, “Everything.” He then continued to say two of the most profound statements of the entire interview, in my opinion.  “There are just so many moments out in the wilderness that transcends anything in your life. It brings you closer to the whole universe, not just the animal.” He went on to tell the story behind the cover image for his new book, Tigers Forever, a pictorial and factual tribute to the tigers of India and Southeast Asia, the life they live, and the threats they encounter every single day. “The cover picture of my book, Tigers Forever, marked a moment in nature for me. I waited 24 days for the image, much of it on top of an elephant and the other part in a jeep. Just the fact that everything came together…it really was a moment, just 10 seconds! I got five frames and one of them was the moment.”

Tigers Forever cover photo

A wary three-month-old cub briefly investigates our intrusion before ducking behind his mother. This tigress gave birth in the same remote cave where she was born.
(Photo by Steve Winter/National Geographic)

He then described the transcendental experience of seeing a tiger in the wild. “You look into a tiger’s eye and it’s primeval. It takes you back to caveman times in your brain because it’s an absolutely amazing animal to me. I don’t like to have favorites because they are all special and have their own uniqueness to them. You become close to any species you work on for months or even years.”

“Just like an old western movie on horses, branches try to knock you off the back of a running elephant.”

Azhurel asked, “What’s your scariest encounter?”

Luckily, Steve shared that he hasn’t encountered any scary moments while working on tigers in India. However, he did recall a very scary moment while on assignment in Kaziranga National Park, India.

“I was on an elephant photographing rhinos but we were attacked by a rhino. The elephant tried to defend himself and was bit by the rhino. The elephant turned 180 degrees away and ran towards the forest. In the commotion, we lost the gun.” The rhino continued to chase the elephant, with Steve on top, for at least 300 yards into the forest and the only way the rhino relented was after repeated jabs with a long bamboo pole that Steve’s camera was attached to.  “Just like an old western movie on horses, branches try to knock you off the back of a running elephant!”

“It’s vital that we help when we can to bring the public to the story.”

Bernie asked, “In your words, how does wildlife photography support species protection and conservation?”

And in Steve’s own words, he answered, “How can you work on something without wanting your pictures to make a difference, support education, and give people a reason to care?  As a wildlife photojournalist, you don’t want the conversation to end on the pages of National Geographic magazine. You want the conversation to begin. Telling the story is important but in the end you want it to go further. Fundraisers and giving images to scientists and organizations you work with helps. It’s vital that we help when we can to bring the public to the story. That’s what protects the species.”

A male tiger crosses open grasslands in early morning. Bandhavgarh National Park, India.

A male tiger crosses open grasslands in early morning. Bandhavgarh National Park, India.(Photo by Steve Winter/National Geographic)

“In India, it’s difficult and I’m doing what I can there. Our book, Tigers Forever, shares the story with the public and our 10 years of efforts there. The book isn’t the end, it’s just the beginning.”

So, why not start your own journey now! Have a look at the ARKive tiger page with nearly 200 images and film clips as well as a full biological fact-file. Or, learn how the kids of India are doing their part to make a difference for tigers. Finally, you can pick up your own copy of Tigers Forever with 10% of the proceeds donated to Panthera, the world’s largest big cat conservation organization.

Liana Vitali, Education & Outreach Manager, Wildscreen USA

Apr 25

A study has highlighted how two rare species of Chelonian are being threatened by hunting in India.

Two endemic species of the Western Ghats in India, the Travancore tortoise and the Cochin forest cane turtle are being threatened with extinction due to poaching from indigenous and non-indigenous people. The Chelonians (turtles and tortoises) are the second most imperilled vertebrate group in the world and the two species highlighted in the study are no exception, with the Travancore tortoise classified as Vulnerable (VU) by the IUCN Red List and the Cochin forest cane turtle classified as Endangered (EN). Cochin cane turtles inhabit evergreen forest habitats, and unlike many other turtles, do not require the presence of water. This turtle species is so rare that no scientists saw the species for 70 years between 1912 and 1982. The Travancore tortoise is an omnivore, and can be found in evergreen, moist deciduous, and bamboo forests. This tortoise species is known to produce chorus calls at night, but the purpose of the call is unknown.

The Cochin forest cane turtle

A study published in The Asian Journal of Conservation Biology in 2013 investigated the illegal hunting and consumption of these rare animals, and found that many individuals are caught by non-local forestry workers, including those who work as part of fire management initiatives. However, there was also evidence that Chelonian experts were harvesting these rare species and some individuals even used trained dogs while hunting. The study indicated that 77 percent of the 104 people that were interviewed had consumed the Travancore tortoise and 22 percent had consumed the Cochin forest cane turtle. Chelonian meat was reportedly on sale in local establishments. Although it was found that the primary reason for harvesting wild individuals was for consumption, there was also some evidence that the two species were taken due to superstitions and for medicinal purposes.

The Travancore tortoise

The authors of the report, said, “Wildlife hunting in India is illegal and punishable via the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) 1972, which includes most of the susceptible species … However, hunting continues to be widespread in several regions of India even though it is disregarded or refuted”. The interviews indicated that all 104 respondents knew the illegality of consuming the two species, but problems with pressing charges and corruption are thought to mitigate the risks.

Cochin forest cane turtle on leaf litter

The authors of the study suggest that a limit on the number of dogs allowed at each indigenous settlement may help to reduce the risk of Chelonian hunting, and that the forest department must make a concerted effort to properly supervise forest staff and educate them about the plight of Chelonians. The authors also highlighted the past success of poster campaigns introduced by the Kerala State Forest Department, which aimed to challenge similar local use of animals. Threatened Chelonians, including the Indian star tortoise, were targeted by the previous campaign, and the authors suggest that this kind of promotion could be repeated for the Travancore tortoise and the Cochin forest cane turtle.

Read the original article at Asian Journal of Conservation Biology – Hunting of endemic and threatened forest dwelling chelonians in the Western Ghats, India

Find out more about the Travancore tortoise at Conservation Biology of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises – Indotestudo travancorica

View photos of the Travancore tortoise and the Cochin forest cane turtle on ARKive

Find out more about the wildlife of the Western Ghats on ARKive

Read more about this story at Mongabay – Chelonians for dinner: hunting threatens at-risk turtles and tortoises in India

Read more about turtle and freshwater tortoise conservation at the IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group

Jul 6
Photo of captive female Rameshwaram parachute spider, camouflaged among dead leaves

Rameshwaram parachute spider (Poecilotheria hanumavilasumica)

Species: Rameshwaram parachute spider (Poecilotheria hanumavilasumica)

Status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Interesting Fact: Instead of using a web to catch prey, the Rameshwaram parachute spider actively catches its victims by ambushing them and injecting paralysing venom.

The Rameshwaram parachute spider is a colourful, tree-dwelling tarantula with an attractive pattern of light and dark markings. As its name suggests, this species is found on Rameshwaram Island, off the coast of Tamil Nadu, India, although it also occurs on adjacent parts of the mainland. It can be distinguished from other spiders in its genus by the distinctive yellow colour on the underside of its front legs. Although relatively little is currently known about the Rameshwaram parachute spider, it is likely to live in dark, well-protected cavities such as tree holes or inside house walls. This species feeds mainly on insects. Females can live for several breeding seasons, and may produce up to 52 young at a time. The Rameshwaram parachute spider typically lives in tree palm, coconut or tamarind plantations, but also occurs in human habitations.

The main threat to the Rameshwaram parachute spider is habitat loss, as the plantations it inhabits are being destroyed to make way for houses and other developments, as well as rice fields. This rare spider occurs in only a few highly fragmented locations, and its remaining patches of habitat are very small. Although not common in the pet trade, this attractive tarantula has also been known to be exported. Unfortunately, the Rameshwaram parachute spider is not protected by law. Proposals to create a spider sanctuary at the Hanumavilasum temple, which is home to the largest colony of this species, were sadly never put into practice.

 

Find out more about conservation in India at Conservation India and Wildlife Conservation Society – India.

See images of the Rameshwaram parachute spider on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

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