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  • February 10, 2015

When Your Backyard Is ‘Big Heaven,’ Love of Wildlife Is Second Nature

Author
Alexa Keefe

Ibex. Chamois. Ermine. Grouse. Red foxes. As a teen, Stefano Unterthiner spent countless hours observing these animals in Gran Paradiso National Park, an hour or so drive from his home in Italy. His uncle Paolo, a passionate nature lover and photography buff, would take hikes with his best friend, Luciano, a park ranger, and invite Stefano along. Together they explored the forests and valleys of this pristine piece of the Italian Alps, looking for wild animals to photograph.

Stefano’s first wildlife pictures were taken with an old film camera Paolo lent him. “I really fell in love with nature in that park. I really fell in love with photography in that park.” These experiences had a strong impact on his decision to study the natural sciences and eventually earn a Ph.D. in zoology before committing full time to wildlife photography. “It was a very special area … like my little Yellowstone,” he says.

150209-unterthiner-granparadiso-02
“Rourounette,” the nickname Stefano’s wife, Stephanie, gave to this female red fox roughly translates to “red red one.” “This was the first autumn I spent in the park,” Stefano says. “At that time of year, the park is almost empty. There are no tourists around. I wanted to get a picture with the fox and the color. The fox was looking sleepy, like a dog. I was very close with a wide angle. It was a very special moment with a wild animal in the forest.”
Picture of a bearded vulture soaring in Gran Paradiso National Park
A bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) soars in Gran Paradiso National Park.

One animal holds a special place in his heart. “I am a fan of foxes. I love many animals but maybe foxes are one of my favorites. They are the coolest animals, so clever, so many behaviors,” he says.

“Everything started with Fred,” he continues, speaking of the red fox that first sparked his interest in the animal (and that became the subject of his 2004 book by the same name). “When I was very young, I remember how difficult it was to spot the fox during the day—almost impossible because the foxes were shy. And then I met Fred. He was special. He was very friendly. When a species is not hunted for decades, they lose their fear of humans,” he explains.

Picture of red foxes sparring
A pair of foxes engages in aggressive interaction, which is more common in the early winter as the mating season approaches—but rare to witness.

Stefano recently spent more time with his beloved foxes during a yearlong assignment photographing in Gran Paradiso for National Geographic—which, he says, turned out to be one of the most difficult assignments he has done in terms of finding fresh views of a place so imprinted on his soul.

Now that he is shooting digitally (Fred was shot on film), he was able to observe a wider range of behaviors, particularly in low-light situations. “Usually foxes are quite solitary,” he says. “During the assignment, I had the chance to see two or three foxes together—interacting, fighting, courtship behaviors—something very difficult to see, even for a fox specialist like me,” he laughs.

“I think you can have a stronger relationships with some animals than others,” he says when asked to define the connection he feels with foxes. “It is easier to have a bond with foxes than mountain goats [or with giant Komodo dragons, I interjected, referring to our conversation on Proof a while back.]. There is a kind of empathy you can have with some species. The key point is trusting each other.”

And how does he create this trust?

Picture of an alpine chamois in Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy
An Alpine chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) stands against a mountain backdrop in Gran Paradiso National Park, Valle d’Aosta, Italy.

“If you read books about wildlife photography, they tell you you have to hide yourself. I do it the completely opposite way. I want the animal to know I am there. I dress myself in red sometimes. I want to be completely visible. When I get something it’s because I have a relationship with them. It breaks down the barrier, and then I become invisible again. But they know I am there. I am invisible because they don’t care.”

Picture of an ermine in Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy
In cold weather, a normally reddish brown ermine changes into its white winter coat.

“It’s something you have to know how to do,” he continues, careful to highlight this method of approaching animals as part of an overall ethos—and a deep understanding of animal behavior—rather than simply a way to get a photograph. “The most important thing is to approach them in a way that you are not disturbing the animal, you are not consuming their energy, you are not feeding the animal, you are not touching them … This is the way I do it whenever I can, but this is not just with photography. This is the kind of relationship I want to have with other creatures, with my wife, with my friends.”

More of Stefano Unterthiner’s photographs of Gran Paradiso can be viewed here.

There are 21 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. cherie warner
    April 16, 2015

    very nice love animal pitcures

  2. Meenu Sharma
    March 18, 2015

    Pics are wonderful… I love fox eyes… eyes speaks….

  3. Linda
    March 16, 2015

    Wonderful article, beautiful photos

  4. barney
    March 15, 2015

    cool

  5. Marie Andrée
    March 10, 2015

    Absolutly breath taking pictures, Bravo

  6. prabin poudel
    March 4, 2015

    these pics are lovely. I could also snap the photographs of species like peacock,deer,etc residing in nearby forest but sadly i dont have a good camera.

  7. Atul
    February 26, 2015

    Beautiful shots & great story , I can relate to your caption ” When Your Backyard Is ‘Big Heaven,’ Love of Wildlife Is Second Nature”

  8. Becky Kauffman
    February 23, 2015

    Great Pics! Wish I had a backyard like that!

  9. Betty Collerson
    February 21, 2015

    Wonderful images, your love of nature shines through. How lucky to have had such a an amazing backyard.

  10. chandrasekaran
    February 20, 2015

    wonder of the outer photos

  11. Nicola booth
    February 15, 2015

    Just fantastic !!

  12. Martha Brinkmann
    February 12, 2015

    Such beautiful pictures. I feel as if I were there.

  13. Harlan
    February 12, 2015

    Simply Beautiful !
    the respect to animals and nature in general is really important !

  14. Rich Persoff
    February 12, 2015

    I appreciate your respect for what you photograph; you are not ‘taking’ photographs; you have the unforced permission of the subjects of your photographs.

  15. Dariusz
    February 11, 2015

    Beautiful story, amazing photos and very good work!

  16. Kim
    February 11, 2015

    I love this article….and such a wonderful ending “…approach them in a way that you are not disturbing the animal, you are not consuming their energy, you are not feeding the animal, you are not touching them … This is the way I do it whenever I can, but this is not just with photography. This is the kind of relationship I want to have with other creatures, with my wife, with my friends.”

  17. Shruthi V
    February 11, 2015

    Awesome clicks!! 🙂

  18. Apple
    February 11, 2015

    The foxes are so cute!

  19. Annarosa
    February 11, 2015

    I go hiking there as often as I can, since it’s not so far from home. You can see also marmots, who are so accustomed to seeing visitors that come so close you can feed them. It’s a real Great Paradise…

  20. Laileb Fang
    February 10, 2015

    I want to see the world through the magzine

  21. Remoteviewer009
    February 10, 2015

    Super cool! Nothing like being outdoors with wildlife.

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