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World Press 2014: Cougars and Bonobos

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The flash of a remote camera diverts a Wyoming cougar from its kill. Photograph by Steve Winter, 1st Place Story, Nature

Each year, an international panel of visual luminaries gathers at World Press Photo in Amsterdam to judge tens of thousands of images submitted by photojournalists from around the world.  The results of this year’s contest were announced on February 14, with six awards going to photographers on assignment for National Geographic magazine, and a seventh for a project funded with the magazine’s support. Over the next few days, we will go behind the scenes of the winning shots with the photographers and their picture editors. Kathy Moran is a Senior Editor at National Geographic who specializes in Natural History. She edited three of the winning World Press entries for the nature category. Here she shares about Steve Winter’s 1st place nature story on cougars and Christian Ziegler’s 3rd place nature story on bonobos.

Kathy Moran, Senior Editor, Natural History

When photographer Steve Winter and I pitched a story on mountain lions, we imagined a play on country cat vs. city cat. Imagine is all we could do because National Geographic had never before attempted a coverage on free-ranging mountain lions. We weren’t sure that cougars could thrive in two such different environments and we weren’t sure that we could deliver the images.

It was a leap of faith that paid off thanks to the generous cooperation of researchers from Panthera in partnership with Craighead Beringia South and the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Working with the researchers we put out camera traps and things started to happen.   We knew that camera traps were essential to producing new, intimate views of cougars, but nothing prepared us for the serendipity that came our way—a female and her kitten with the stunning Wyoming landscape in the background and a big male striding through Griffith Park with the Hollywood sign as the scene setter. Country cat vs. city cat.  It came down to the final days of the assignment, but Steve delivered the contrasting photographs in a way we never imagined.

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Photograph by Steve Winter, 1st Place Story, Nature. From “Cougars,” published in December 2013.

The mountain lion is kind of a forgotten cat because it’s so secretive and elusive. The cats exist over a really wide range, but they are very hard to see. Most of these pictures took a year or longer to get, even with a remote camera and with cats that had GPS collars on them. Since mountain lions aren’t endangered, you think, “Oh this is going to be pretty easy. There must be a lot of them.” It wasn’t easy at all.

I thought the photograph of the mom and the cub at the entrance to the cave would be very easy to get, but for a long time I didn’t get a single picture of a mountain lion. Not even a taste of a tail or a paw or a nose. Nothing. Instead I got 50,000 pictures of a field mouse who lived in the cave, which filled up the memory card and used up all the batteries.

I happened to check the camera almost one week shy of a year. We had just fixed the camera because the field mouse also liked to eat the cords. I knew it was working and boom! The next week the mountain lion comes in to hang out with her cub. We got the shot and it was incredible. We were able to show the readers of National Geographic all around the world a wild picture like this, and trust me, even though these cats have collars on they are totally wild.

When I learn an animal exists in a specific location, I try to visualize what I would like to get from a photograph. I walk along a trail where I know the animal has been, so I will know where an animal might go as it’s traversing its home range—where it lives—by walking down its “street.”

It takes a lot of time to understand that behavior. I compose the image first and place the camera as if I were standing there, so there is also a lot of room for failure if animals don’t come or move a different way within the photograph. Before this, I’d never waited fifteen months for a photo like the mountain lion in front of the Hollywood sign, or twelve months for the mother and her cub in the cave. Having the time and support of the magazine and the Expeditions Council was the only way we could do something like this.

I am trying to get much better at visualizing the picture beforehand and turning it into an art form. The zen of camera trapping, I call it. You have to be very calm and patient and understand the animal’s movement as best you can. And then you wait.

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Photograph by Christian Ziegler, 3rd Place Story, Nature. From “The Left Bank Ape,” published in March 2013.

Kathy Moran, Senior Editor, Natural History

We decided to pursue a story on bonobos in order to introduce readers to one of the least known members of the primate family. Their deep forest habitat in the Democratic Republic of Congo and intermittent war in that country hasn’t made research easy. But what really stood in the way of photography was the problem of trying to capture images in the low light conditions of forests there. The magazine had made several previous attempts to support photo expeditions in pursuit of bonobos in the wild, but the results were disappointing. Digital technology and the ability to photograph in extremely low light conditions enabled Christian Ziegler to take his winning set of photographs. With the right tools, his research, patience, and tolerance of insect bites and stings paid off handsomely.

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Photograph by Christian Ziegler, 3rd Place Story, Nature. From “The Left Bank Ape,” published in March 2013.

Photographing bonobos in their natural environment was both an amazing and a challenging endeavor. The more I learned about bonobos as I was preparing my field work, the more apparent it became that we barely know anything about this species of ape – our closest living relatives on earth.

The bonobo’s home, the deep forests of the Congo basin south of the big river, has been shaken by violent political conflict for decades, which came at a huge cost of human suffering along with uncontrolled poaching and habitat destruction. Countless bonobos have been killed for bush meat, not to feed local populations, but to be sold in specialty restaurants in Kinshasa, Brussels, and Paris.

By documenting the bonobos’ daily lives in their forest home—their search for varied foods, their complex social interactions, the care they take of their young—we hoped to give the bonobos more visibility, a more tangible existence, and a better chance to survive.

They are our gentle near cousins and need our help. Hopefully the coverage in National Geographic magazine, along with the extra attention from the World Press award, will help the people and organizations whose goal it is to ensure the bonobo’s survival.

View more of Christian Ziegler’s work on his website and read more about Steve Winter’s incredible “Hollywood” cougar on Proof. Winter’s work with cougars has not stopped with photography. He is partnering with the Annenberg Foundation later this year for a fundraiser to help build a wildlife tunnel across the 101 freeway in Los Angeles.

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