Photographer Yury Shibnev© Alina Starostina
03 February 2016

Photographer Yury Shibnev: I simply could not allow myself to pass up the leopard

Yury Shibnev, a veteran research associate at the Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve, an animal photographer who has captured some unique shots of the Far Eastern leopard out in the wild, spoke about his first encounter with the spotted predator and what it required to take a picture of the world's rarest cat during the film-camera era.

Question: Good afternoon, Mr Shibnev. Today, we'd like to talk about your photo career and how you took shots of the Far Eastern leopard at the Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve. You've repeatedly come across the beast in the wild. What's it like, from your perspective?

Yury Shibnev: In my opinion, it's a very interesting animal, a very interesting cat. When I first saw it — it was a wonderful picture… This was in November 1978, I think. When I spotted the leopard in the wild, on a snow-covered slope of a hill, I was greatly excited and afterwards decided to take a picture of it no matter what.

And this is what the encounter was like. For count purposes I went out to keep track of leopards by following their trail after a snowfall and d I discovered a drag trail, i.e., a leopard dragging its prey. I followed the trail and saw the way it hunted. It killed a roe deer. It approached the roe in a lair along the river bank. It came to within five metres of the prey and then reached the roe in a few leaps. They fought for a long time. The snow was all dug up.

Question: The entire scene could be reconstructed from the trail pattern?

Yury Shibnev: That's right. So I decided to follow the trail to see where the female leopard had dragged the roe. I learned that it was a female leopard from its smaller tracks. Male tracks are larger. I followed the trail, and when I looked up, I saw a leopard cub. There was a big, lonely fir tree among the oak forest, and a cub sat there looking at me. It seemed so tender. I studied it through binoculars: a pretty, fluffy cub. I kicked myself for not taking a camera gun.

Question: So your first encounter was without a camera?

Yury Shibnev: That's right. I did not take a camera because it was too cold. We looked at each for about a minute. Then the cub turned around and disappeared behind the hill. I quickly climbed the hill and saw a female leopard walk gracefully along the snow-covered slope, followed by one cub, while the other — the one I had encountered — was running to catching up with them. The leopardess did not even look at me, as it kept walking with the cubs until they disappeared behind the slope.

That was when I felt I wanted to take a picture of a leopard at any cost, because it seemed very, very beautiful to me. I'm an ornithologist, but I simply could not allow myself to pass up the leopard. I also took many pictures of birds. I tried to take a picture of a leopard on the go, but it never worked.

Question: How did you take the first picture? How did it happen?

Yury Shibnev: It was in March. It snowed a little. I went in search of a leopard, reaching Mt Chelban. I looked down and saw cubs, two little cubs about 100 metres away, in the snow. They sat there looking. I ran quickly towards them. I thought they would run away, but they both climbed a tree. So I started taking pictures of them, looking around all the time to make sure there was no female leopard, which could attack me. I took a lot of pictures, wondering where their mother was. Then I decided to take a close-up shot of a cub. I started to climb the tree, and it immediately jumped off the tree into the snow and started running away. I also jumped down and ran after it. The cub disappeared into a hole under the river bank. I returned to the second cub and took more pictures of it. Then it also jumped down into the snow and ran away. I chased it. As I almost caught up with it to take a picture at close range, it suddenly turned around, bared its fangs and roared at me like a grown-up leopard, and then turned around and ran again. I followed it. I thought I would chase it up a tree to take more pictures, but it jumped across the stream and disappeared in the forest among the fallen trees. As I ran up, it bared its fangs and roared. And then it retreated further, and I did not see it again.

Later, I saw that the female leopard had climbed up the hill, from where it watched me — the way I treated her cubs.

Question: But the leopardess did not approach, did not attack you? In other words, it allowed you to take pictures?

Yury Shibnev: No.. The leopardess retreated immediately, casting the cubs to the whims of fate. But that's the way it always is out in the wild. Because if a female animal is killed by a human, it will never produce offspring, whereas if cubs die, it will have a new litter next year. In other words, it is a begetter.

Question: How did you take pictures, technically speaking? After all, it is difficult to take a shot of a leopard even now.

Yury Shibnev: When I took pictures of the cub, we only had black-and-white film. Then, maybe eight to 10 years later, German film appeared. It proved to be inferior. Kodak was also bad. The best film was Japanese Velvia. But it was expensive, and you had to save every frame. With a digital camera, you can take thousands of shots problem-free. When I photographed leopards, I tried to approach them either by following their trail or by following crows. When a leopard kills a roe or deer, crows fly from all over the place, converging over the site.

Once, I just walked along a stream. Suddenly, I saw a flock of crows flying over the slope of a hill, cawing and perching on trees. I decided that there must be a leopard there, and maybe some of its prey was still there. I could not climb straight up, because it would see me and escape. I walked up the stream, making a bypass and getting to the place where the crows were. However, by that time the crows had already flown away, and so I walked along the ridge to where they had been. As I approached a large boulder, I saw two cubs playing around, chasing and nipping at each other. I thought, "Where is their mother? Maybe she is sneaking up on me." I raised my head, looked behind the cubs and saw their mother. It looked around, like a periscope, but did not see me. I did not budge. It must have taken me for a boulder. I admired the cubs and went back. It was already twilight.

That time, I did not have a camera, either. It was frosty, and film freezes and breaks. So I had to walk away empty handed.

Question: Tell us about the bait photo session. Was it your invention?

Yury Shibnev: It was. One day, I was told two dogs were killed by a train. I thought I would give it a try and see whether I could lure a leopard. I took one dog to a cliff where leopards usually come and left it there. Two days later, I found that a leopard had dragged it to a tree and ate half of it. Therefore, I decided that it was possible to take pictures of a leopard by setting up bait.

Question: Can you tell us about the tripwire camera?

Yury Shibnev: I used one for leopards. The photo trap is my invention. I attached a wire to a camera, which was set on this bipod, and fixed it to a trail. When a leopard tripped on it, the camera was activated.

Question: Did a leopard trip on it and activate, set up a shot, so to speak, so you did not handle the camera?

Yury Shibnev: I only trained and focused the camera, and fixed it to a tree with a bipod. It worked on its own. In other words, a leopard took a selfie. I used to put the camera on trails, under rocks, where leopards relax — wherever they walk.

Question: It is, essentially, a camera trap?

Yury Shibnev: They are one and the same but under different names. However, today, camera traps are easily available. I had about 30 cameras scattered around the forest.

Of course, bears, deer and roes — whoever walked the trail — were also captured on camera.

Question: Did leopards break these devices?

Yury Shibnev: Tigers and bears did.

Question: Did they smash them?

Yury Shibnev: A bear would knock it off the bipod, pull it out, hit it and smash it on the ground. I even found one of my cameras open. It is noteworthy that only some of the film was exposed to light. And there was one shot of a bear and one of a leopard.

The same goes for tigers. One tiger heard a camera click and jumped at it, knocking it down into the snow and smashing the mount. Then it lay down and stared at the gun, wondering why it kept clicking but did not shoot.

Question: What do you do now? Do you still take pictures?

Yury Shibnev: I'm a bit too old for that. I don't walk very far now. I mostly do butterflies on wild flowers. We do night butterflies here. I have a lamp on a birch tree. I switch it on at night, they come flying and I take pictures of them. I continue to do landscapes. I choose the most beautiful scenes — with a beautiful sun, the sunset.

Question: Do you still shoot here at Kedrovaya Pad?

Yury Shibnev: I do.

Remark: Thank you very much, Mr Shibnev, for inviting us and telling us about the Far Eastern leopard.

Yury Shibnev: I'm glad you came. I hope I've contributed to the leopard conservation programme.

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