Science, Tech & Environment

A National Geographic photographer tries to save endangered tigers through his photos

Who doesn't love a tiger?

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

There’s Tigger and Tony, those cuddly, striped creatures peddling sugar cereal and fun, fun, fun. And then there’s Shere Kahn, the deceptive and dangerous Bengal tiger villain from the "Jungle Book." 

Perhaps he’s a more fitting representation of the creature that has been terrorizing villagers in India this past month. More than 17 people have been killed by tigers in villages across several states of India.

While some villagers insist that these large cats must be killed, conservationists are rushing to their defense.

That's because tigers are extremely endangered. A century ago, there were 100,000 tigers in the wild in India, according to the BBC.

Today there are only around 1,600 left. Around the world, it's estimated just 3,000 remain in the wild.

And it should come as no surprise that the biggest tiger predator is us, humans.

“Tigers are poached for almost every part of their body,” said journalist Sharon Guynup. She and photographer, Steve Winter, know the problem well.

They are authors of the new National Geographic book, "Tigers Forever: Saving the World's Most Endangered Big Cat." They have been photographing and researching tigers in the wild for several years.

“The most valuable part [of tigers] are their bones, which is used in tiger bone wine, a very expensive tonic used in Chinese medicine,” said Guynup. Tiger skin furniture is also popular.

According to Guynup, most of this illegal trade is going to China.

Winter and Guynup hope to raise awareness about the dwindling wild tiger population through their book. It took several years to capture their images of the wild cats.

Let’s just say, photographing tigers is not easy.

It’s too dangerous to go anywhere near the cats, so Winter had to photograph them from on top of an elephant or inside a jeep. He also set up remote cameras with infrared sensors. 

In the end, however, it wasn’t the cats that gave him trouble, but the rhinos. Winter’s jeep was attacked by rhinos several times. Once, a rhino even attacked him while he was riding an elephant.

  • Book Lecture 2.jpg

    Credit: Steve Winter

    These 2 cubs have both killed people – the female in the foreground killed 2 people – an accident as they came in to collect forest products. The male in back killed and ate a guard.

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    Credit: Steve Winter

    Tigers live in perhaps the highest density in Kaziranga National Park of any place in India. In other national parks in India, tigers are in great peril, heavily-hunted by poachers, but here the park is protected by armed guards—and poachers tend to target the Indian one-horned rhinos instead. Here, a young male is photographed by a “camera trap” as it emerges from the elephant grass.

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    Credit: Steve Winter

    This is why tigers have stripes! Camo.

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    Credit: Steve Winter

    Kaziranga is the only park in India with a shoot to kill policy for poachers. Here guards heard a gunshot and are looking in the direction it is coming from – Kaziranga has the highest density of tigers in the world.

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    Credit: Steve Winter

    These men were apprehended in January 2011 while trying to sell a tiger skin near Chandrapur, India. The illegal trade in tiger bone, eyes, whiskers, teeth and other parts for traditional Chinese medicine is run by international crime syndicates that also traffic drugs and guns—a five million dollar a year business. On the ground, poachers may be either roving gangs or local people trying to supplement their income. These men were capture by local informants in a program set up by The Wildlife Protection Society of India who pay local people for information when they see someone poaching wildlife or cutting trees.

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    Credit: Steve Winter

    Poachers caught for killing rhinos for their horn – tigers are safe here as it is much easier for poachers to kill a rhino and cut off its horn, where a tiger needs to be skinned and de-boned as the bones are so valuable.

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    Credit: Steve Winter

    Pancham Baigher was killed with one swat of a tiger’s paw to the back of the head. He was walking thru a village – wrong place wrong time. The tigress had come into the village to kill a cow to eat with her 2 grown cubs – the park took the cow and buried it – then on elephant back they tried to move the tigress back into the park – while they were doing this – this man was killed in front of me. His brothers work for the park and were on the elephant that was moving the tiger.

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    Credit: Steve Winter

    Steve spent weeks on an elephant, waiting to get a photo of the cubs in a secluded den, only glimpsing the tips of this cub’s ears as it nursed. But after 24 days, this wary, cautious three-month-old cub finally made its appearance—and Steve got off three frames before it bolted for the cave.

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    Credit: Steve Winter

    Although usually found in tropical area, tigers have a low tolerance for high temperatures and direct sun and seek refuge from midday heat. Here, 14-month old sibling cubs cool off in the Patpara Nala watering hole in Bandhavgarh National Park, India.