Pho­tog­ra­pher fo­cuses in on the elu­sive snow leop­ard

China Daily (Canada) - - TIBET - By XINHUA

Wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher Geng Dong has braved per­ilous ter­rain and freez­ing tem­per­a­tures across the Ti­betan Plateau in search of his sub­ject — the beau­ti­ful, yet elu­sive, snow leop­ard.

Mostly ac­tive af­ter dark, these big cats have great eye­sight and choose to seek shel­ter among rocks or caves dur­ing day­light. This be­hav­ior has earned them the nick­name “moun­tain her­mits” among sci­en­tists, who can only study them with the help of sen­si­tive in­frared cam­eras.

Geng, on the other hand, has braved the frigid cold for hours, days, and some­times weeks at a time, poised to cap­ture a pho­to­graph of these beau­ti­ful an­i­mals.

Although it is a “game of luck”, as he is first to ad­mit, Geng has been re­warded for his pa­tience and en­durance with pic­tures of both lone snow leop­ards and cubs in the shadow of their watch­ful moth­ers — an en­vi­able ex­pe­ri­ence for any wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher.

Yet his pres­ence can some­times be a threat to the snow leop­ard. Once, when he was pho­tograph­ing a mother and her two cubs, he re­al­ized some­thing was wrong. Spooked by his pres­ence, the cubs had fled from their mother — and the longer he stayed, the more dan­ger­ous it be­came for the cubs, as the moun­tains were full of preda­tors.

“At that mo­ment, my pic­tures were less im­por­tant than en­sur­ing a fam­ily re­union,” Geng said.

Af­ter codi­rect­ing the TV doc­u­men­tary series SnowLeop­ard, which won nu­mer­ous na­tional awards, Geng turned his cam­era to the an­i­mal’s life on the Ti­betan Plateau, “to give lo­cals more ex­po­sure to the an­i­mal and its con­ser­va­tion.”

This new doc­u­men­tary is the re­sult of four years of hard work, with Geng trav­el­ing to the Qing­hai-Ti­betan Plateau dozens of times, de­vel­op­ing strong re­la­tion­ships with wildlife con­ser­va­tion groups and sci­en­tists en­gaged in track­ing, study­ing and pho­tograph­ing the snow leop­ard.

His crew have had to camp out in the bleak ter­rain for weeks at a time, en­dur­ing icy winds, al­ti­tude sick­ness and snow blind­ness as they cov­ered more than 40,000 km in Qing­hai prov­ince alone dur­ing the film pe­riod, from 2011 to 2015.

Along the way, Geng has acted as di­rec­tor, pho­tog­ra­pher and pro­ducer, deal­ing with the project’s many headaches and money woes.

Yet de­spite the hard­ships he never gave up, in­spired by the area’s res­i­dents who “have much harder lives than ours”.

Geng said the doc­u­men­tary also pro­files wildlife con­ser­va­tion and the re­la­tion­ship be­tween snow leop­ards and the lo­cal com­mu­nity, which he de­scribed as “the core of the story”.

Take Sori, who herds a flock of 240 sheep and a few dozen yak. He has strug­gled to pro­tect his an­i­mals from snow leop­ards that stalk the plateau and once, al­most at tip­ping point af­ter los­ing a num­ber of an­i­mals, took aim at one of these “hated cats” with his firearm, Geng ex­plained.

Though the snow leop­ard was in his sights, Sori did not squeeze the trig­ger be­cause he saw a cub nearby, which re­minded him chil­dren.

Geng was moved by this re­la­tion­ship be­tween the peo­ple and wild an­i­mals on “the roof of the world”, as the plateau is known, which he said can be partly at­trib­uted to the in­flu­ence of Ti­betan Bud­dhism.

“Many shep­herds have no idea of en­vi­ron­ment pro­tec­tion, but they un­der­stand the Bud­dhist teach­ing that all liv­ing be­ings should be cher­ished,” he said. of his own

An­other story that left an im­pres­sion on Geng con­cerned the Bud­dhist monk Druk­gyab, who chooses to live in the wilder­ness rather than at a tem­ple.

Known for his pi­o­neer­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion work, the monk per­suades lo­cals not to hunt an­i­mals and is of­ten one of the first to spot snow leop­ards in the wild.

“He pro­tects snow leop­ards from hunters be­cause he be­lieves the an­i­mal is weak,” Geng said.

“When he drives the snow leop­ard away from sheep, it is be­cause he thinks the sheep are weak. He can­not bear to see life wasted.”

An­i­mal con­ser­va­tion is a trickle-down busi­ness. If big an­i­mals are pro­tected then so too are thou­sands of other species, and by as­so­ci­a­tion wa­ter re­sources, said He Bing, a project of­fi­cer of lead­ing wildlife con­ser­va­tion NGO Shan­shui.

How­ever, lit­tle is known about the elu­sive snow leop­ard, its num­bers or dis­tri­bu­tion.

Mainly found in Cen­tral Asia, it is es­ti­mated that there are only about 2,000 left in the wild in China.

Cli­mate change, poach­ing, ur­ban­iza­tion and pas­ture ex­pan­sion are the an­i­mal’s big­gest threats, ac­cord­ing to He.

“The des­tiny of snow leop­ards is the des­tiny of all crea­tures in the world,” said Zhou Bing, chief di­rec­tor of the doc­u­men­tary.

For Geng, he just hopes that his footage will raise aware­ness of the snow leop­ard’s plight.

“Some say that there is not enough of the snow leop­ard in my doc­u­men­tary, but I don’t mind. I just hope my work can make peo­ple aware of the an­i­mal and its fight for sur­vival,” he said.


Left: A snow leop­ard seen by Geng Dong in the Qo­molangma Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve in the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion. Right: Pho­tog­ra­pher Geng Dong at the field.

Changchub Lhamo pre­pares food to feed the Ti­betan red

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