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'Big Cat Week' Returns With the Defiant Roar of "Jaguar vs. Croc"
December 4, 2017  | By Alex Strachan

When you first hear the words “Big Cat Week,” it’s easy to make the association with Shark Week, the Discovery Channel’s annual conversation-starter that did for appointment television what the original Jaws did for movie theaters in the summer of 1975.

Over time, though — and especially now, as National Geographic’s showcase Big Cat Week returns with a week of big-cat related programming starting Dec. 10 — programs like Jaguar vs. Croc, Man Among Cheetahs, and Savage Kingdom: Uprising have taken on added meaning, meaning that goes beyond a mere entertaining couple of nights in front of the TV.

NatGeo Wild’s Big Cat Week is also part public-awareness campaign, part promotional tie-in to the National Geographic Society’s self-explanatory Big Cat Initiative, a far-reaching program that combines scientific study, ecological surveys, behavioral analysis, and population counts to help save what remains of some of planet Earth’s most iconic, familiar animals.

The numbers make for sobering reading. As recently as the 1940s, wild lion populations numbered some 450,000. Today, that number has dwindled to, at most, 30,000. On a planet where the world’s human population is expected to top 7.5 billion by Jan. 1, 2018, virtually all big cat populations are crashing.

According to National Geographic Society figures, lion populations may have dwindled as low as 20,000. The puma — also known as the cougar or mountain lion, depending on regional influences — numbers anywhere from 13,000 to 15,000 individuals. There are just 7,000 cheetahs remaining. Snow leopard estimates, hard to pin down because of their remote, hard-to-reach habitat, range anywhere from 5,000 to 9,000. Wild tigers, the public face of some of the most prominent, prestigious conservation programs, number just 4,000, and some big cat experts consider even that number to be optimistic.

The trade organization CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) has declared 2018 the year of “Big Cats: Predators Under Threat,” and adopted that as its slogan (#PredatorsUnderThreat, #WWD2018), 100 days in advance of World Wildlife Day on March 3.

Big Cat Week, then, is not just entertaining programming the whole family can enjoy, but a way to raise awareness of the plight facing iconic animals that evoke fear and inspire awe in equal measure.

Big Cat Week, the 2017 edition — the showcase week’s eighth overall — kicks off Sunday, Dec. 10 with Jaguar vs. Croc, veteran wildlife photographer and 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year finalist Steve Winter’s (right) months-in-the-making pursuit of jaguars in Brazil’s Pantanal region. It’s a big deal because, of the thousands of nature films that have been made over the years, you can literally count on one hand the number of programs that have focused on jaguars in the wild.

That’s because, despite being the world’s third-largest big cat in terms of overall size, jaguars are nocturnal and hide in the jungle, where they’re hard to spot at the best of times, let alone capture on film.

As a still photographer, Winter was one of the first photojournalists to embrace the use of camera traps — remote-operated cameras that use motion sensors to capture images of unsuspecting animals that pass in front of the lens, without the need for any human presence other than the camera rig. Over time, Winter and other photographers were able to learn the habits of elusive, hard to find animals, like jaguars and, in Winter’s case, some of the earliest image captures of snow leopards in the wild.

Jaguar vs. Croc, which Winter made alongside veteran film cameraman Bertie Gregory, gets its name from a dramatic confrontation the two men captured, quite by accident, of a jaguar taking on a crocodile in a muddy Pantanal wallow. Crocodiles are one of nature’s oldest surviving predators, dating back to the era of the dinosaurs, and one of the toughest. The raw power of the jaguar can’t be discounted, however. Among the big cats, jaguars have disproportionately large skulls, compared with the rest of their bodies. Jaguars also have exceedingly powerful neck muscles, strong jaws and are thick around the middle — thicker, for example, than the sleek, built-for-speed cheetah or the relatively lean, built-for-tree-climbing leopard.

In an exclusive interview with TV Worth Watching this past summer, Winter — fresh off a plane from Peru and looking a little worse for wear after jetting from the wilds of South America to the luxury confines of the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills, CA — admitted that jaguars proved to be every bit as difficult to capture on film for a primetime TV documentary as he thought they might be. He resisted the temptation, though, to say he had bitten off more than he could chew. In a 25-plus year career photographing big cats in the wild for National Geographic, there is not a lot left that can dissuade him.

He still retains the passion of that young boy who, while growing up in small-town Indiana, saw National Geographic magazine as a way to see the wider world beyond the relative confines of the US Midwest. Over the years, he began to see himself as more of a conservation photographer — capturing and sharing images of a vanishing natural world, in the hopes that it would galvanize people to taking action — and less of a nature photographer content to take pretty pictures.

The audience hook in Jaguar vs. Croc is the title, but beyond that Winter hopes families sitting at home will marvel at the majesty and awe of the New World’s oldest big cat, and realize that they’re in genuine danger of disappearing if something isn’t done to preserve what’s left of their natural habitat.

There are signs of hope, Winter said — tourist revenue, for one — but much work remains.

“When I first went down to the Pantanal, 20 years ago, the only good jaguar was a dead jaguar,” Winter recalled. “Today, each animal in this area brings in about  $108,000 a year in ecotourism income. So nobody will touch a jaguar in this specific area of the Pantanal because local people benefit from living with the predators. Everybody's livelihood is tied into the ecotourism of the jaguar. So, in this one area, it helps save the cat, and that is vitally important.”

Winter’s still photographs from his months in the Pantanal anchor an article on jaguars in this month’s (December) issue of National Geographic magazine. He feels the experience brought him full circle in his career of photographing big cats, he told TV Worth Watching.

“Years ago, I did the first ever jaguar story for the National Geographic,” he said. “I did it partly for economic reasons. I was struggling to do stories other people hadn’t done because that way I wouldn’t get a ‘no.’ I had a great interest in jaguars because my first-ever animal encounter with a big cat was with a black jaguar, (while staying in) a shack in Guatemala. It came up to my screen door at night because cats are curious. Scratched under the door, sniffed. Luckily the door was locked.

“If anybody would have told me then that my next story would be jaguars, I would have told them they were crazy because I didn’t know anything about them. The interesting aspect of that was I soon found out that National Geographic had never done a story on jaguars. My wife, who is the smarter of the two of us, said, ‘If Nat Geo has never done a story on the world’s third-biggest cat, don’t you figure there must be a good reason why?’ Ha! What she said is true. They’re a jungle animal. You do not see animals in the jungle. You see birds and monkeys. That’s it. And insects. You don’t see a jaguar. That’s why I had to come to the Pantanal, to find them.”

The Pantanal is different from most Central and Southern American jungles, including the Amazon, because there are many flat grasslands and tree groves that border wide, relatively easy to navigate rivers, pools and other water points. There are just as many jaguars in the Amazon; you just won’t see them. Not as easily, anyway. The Pantanal is unique.

“I just figured I had to come face to face with the animal,” Winter explained. “You don’t see much about them on TV and in the media now but you will in the future because this is the one area where you can actually see them.

“I always say, I didn’t choose big cats, big cats chose me. Working with big cats became my life, after that first encounter (in Guatemala). It’s vitally important to me not just to show people pretty pictures in these films, but to have a stated goal about protection of the species. Because pretty pictures alone aren’t going to save them.”

For Winter, National Geographic was the only option.

“To me, it’s the organization’s broad expanse and its history. There is no organization on the face of the earth that has done more to disseminate knowledge to people around the world than the National Geographic, in my estimation. It had a profound effect on me as a kid growing up in the cornfields of Indiana, because I got to go and daydream about places that I dreamed about, walking down those dusty tracks of some village. I never ever had any thought of being an animal guy; I didn’t take a picture of an animal until I was 34-years-old.

“Today, it’s an all-encompassing organization —  especially today, with the magazine, television, social media. The reach of social media is absolutely incredible. We’re the number one brand on social media, and that makes a huge difference. It means we’re reaching so many young people who are vital to the protection of our world, whether it be animals, people, what-have-you. They believe in climate change — or I would think the vast majority of them do, anyway.

“We have a huge educational division most people don’t even know exists. It is huge.

“So, to me, number one, it was always a great privilege to work for them. As long as you still feel it’s an honor to walk across that seal when you walk inside the door, then you’re doing okay after being there 26 years.”


Eighth Annual Big Cat Week Premieres:

"Jaguar vs. Croc?," Sunday, Dec. 10, at 9 p.m. ET.?World-renowned wildlife photographer Steve Winter and cameraman Bertie Gregory capture the rarely seen, remarkable lives of jaguars in the Pantanal of Brazil. The pair follows a mother jaguar as she teaches her cub survival, while a determined male jaguar, appropriately named Scarface, dives headfirst into a river to tackle the deadliest of opponents — a 6-foot-long caiman. Meanwhile, capybaras and giant otters stick with their family members to avoid being jaguar dinner.

“Man Among Cheetahs,”? Monday, Dec. 11, at 9 p.m. ET.?Veteran wildlife filmmaker Bob Poole follows a formidable cheetah mother who is determined to keep her cubs alive. Along the way, Poole negotiates the reality and risk of filming in the African wilderness while trying to keep up with the fastest animal on four legs.

“The World’s Most Famous Tiger,”? Tuesday, Dec. 12, at 9 p.m. ET.?Known as Queen Machli, Lady of the Lake, and ruler of her territory in western India’s Ranthambore National Park, Machli was a legendary tigress who went down in history as one of the most well-known wild tigers in the world. A successful mother, Machli — the Hindi word for fish, because of fish-like markings on her face — played a key role in the regeneration of the tiger population in Ranthambore and Sariska National Parks.

“Lion Kingdom,” ?Wednesday, Dec. 13, at 9 p.m. ET.?The story of three lion prides battling each other for territory, food, and power along the Mwagusi River in Tanzania. Destiny conspires to bring the prides together, leaving one lioness fatally wounded and devoured by hyenas. A teenage son is excommunicated and unlikely to survive, in a story of family, death, and revenge.

“Safari LIVE,”? Thursday, Dec. 14, at 10 p.m. ET.? National Geographic heads back to South Africa and Kenya to revisit Safari LIVE (daily on YouTube) for a special, one-time-only, two-hour broadcast during Big Cat Week. Chat with the driver guides in real time using #safarilive.

“Savage Kingdom: Uprising?Season Finale,” Friday, Dec. 15, at 9 p.m. ET.? The Marsh Pride’s aging king, Sekekama, is forced to lead his family into hostile territory on a mission to save them from a drought gripping the kingdom. His gamble leads him into a bloody contest against rivals old and new. His control over one treacherous son will determine Sekekama’s hold on power, and the future of his own legacy.

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