• February 24, 2014

World Press 2014: Cougars and Bonobos

Proof Staff

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.

Picture of cougar and cub
Photograph by Steve Winter, 1st Place Story, Nature. From “Cougars,” published in December 2013.
Steve Winter, Photographer

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.

Picture of a bonobo
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.

Picture of bonobo mother and infant
Photograph by Christian Ziegler, 3rd Place Story, Nature. From “The Left Bank Ape,” published in March 2013.
Christian Ziegler, photographer

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.

There are 22 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. rocky chaudhry
    March 20, 2014

    great work steve.

  2. Gail Schomer
    March 11, 2014

    Excellent commentary too.

  3. Dong Lei
    March 4, 2014

    what a nice work! thank you,Steve!

  4. Margaret Pilling
    February 26, 2014

    Outstanding photography. I enjoy sharing on Facebook reaching a wider audience who may not but aware of your excellent magazine. Well done National Geographic.

  5. Rupa Anand
    February 26, 2014

    Brilliant work supported by NatGeo towards awareness of the lives of our fellow creatures … Love the pics & write up….

  6. jane malick-nugent
    February 25, 2014


  7. Lise Boisseau
    February 25, 2014

    merci d etre nos yeux et nos oreilles pour nous montré ce qui a ailleur que la vie bat

  8. Karen H.
    February 25, 2014

    I just wanted to add that I lived on a wildlife sanctuary for 23 years. I saw mountain lion tracks all the time, but only saw a cat once in all those years!

  9. Karen H.
    February 25, 2014

    Steve Winter’s photos of the mountain lions are absolutely breathtaking! The photo of the puma beneath the Hollywood sign (not shown here) is absolutely sublime.

  10. kenju
    February 25, 2014

    Such a pleasure to see them in their natural habitats.

  11. Barbara Finch
    February 25, 2014

    be still my heart.

  12. S Terry
    February 25, 2014

    Absolutely Beautiful Pictures! They make me feel as though I am there in person. Everyone needs to help Save these and other Animals!

  13. KhushbuSunny
    February 25, 2014

    all photos r amazing n reveals the emotions of animals. I like the mother n baby chimps most

  14. prohar roy
    February 25, 2014

    lovely pictures. amazing ….

  15. Vėronique Cousin-Theof
    February 25, 2014

    Always a pleasure to read your articles and watch emotional pics!

  16. lbourne
    February 24, 2014

    Keep doing your job it makes me dream am with you thanks

  17. Dr.Manas Chakraborty
    February 24, 2014

    Outstanding job!! No word to express its brilliance!! Dream of every lensman to snap like this.

  18. shizuka
    February 24, 2014


  19. a
    February 24, 2014

    Very nice, do not bother, thanks for taking such great photos that normally are not available.

  20. Remedios Agudera Yambot
    February 24, 2014

    I am not giving up reading every article of the National Geographic.

  21. dian cahyana
    February 24, 2014

    Great work! remind us to take care the nature,

  22. Matthew Martin
    February 24, 2014

    Great work by the artists and to Nation al Geographic for giving them the opportunity to create their work. The work is amazing and once again shows how precious our planet is.

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