Yuri Shibnev© Alina Starostina
17 November 2017

An artist, a teacher and a trailblazer

Yuri Shibnev (1951-2017)

Yuri Shibnev, a zoologist and the longest-serving employee at Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve, has passed away. He was one of the best wildlife photographers and a brilliant specialist on nature in the Far East.

Zoology specialists will undoubtedly name Yuri Shibnev as one of the authors of the groundbreaking research papers on avifauna of the Primorye Territory. People at the reserve will say in one voice that Shibnev was a living legend, while animal photographers, despite all their modern equipment, have yet to outdo Yuri Shibnev, who took photographs using film. He was the first to take legendary photos of Far Eastern leopards and rare birds in the wild, as well as of fantastically beautiful landscapes. Many regarded him as a teacher, a trailblazer, a role model and a person with a singular artistic flair, who had profound knowledge of nature and a talent to convey what he saw in a photo.

Yuri Shibnev simply could not escape becoming what he was. He was born into the family of a student of local history and enthusiastic explorer, Boris Shibnev, whom the Udege called the "white chief." Their family lived in the taiga village of Syain (near the village of Verkhny Pereval) in the Bikin River basin in the Primorye Territory. Together with his Udege peers and his father, Yuri walked through the taiga, learning to understand the habits of animals and birds, to hunt, angle, handle omorochki boats up and down the rivers of the taiga and learn the skills that today seem to many as being from old adventure novels.

In his younger years, Shibnev was a professional hunter in the taiga in the Bikin River valley, then studied at Far Eastern State University, from which he was later expelled after failing his exam in the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. For 47 years, from February 1970 until his death, he worked at Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve.

He knew his native land, the Far East, and walked it all over, reaching the most remote corners, from the Amur River to Lake Khanka and from Sakhalin Island to the Kurile Islands. Wherever he went he returned with unique photos of the places he visited, which became the object of artistic envy of his animal photographer colleagues. Those who knew Shibnev well say that it was precisely he who in 1985 invented a smart device which today would be called a camera trap — a camera that was planted in a special manner to be "on alert", so it could take singular photographs. There is every reason to say that Yuri Shibnev was the first to use photographs to study Far Eastern leopards. In his interview with Ogonyok magazine of 2008 he said the following:

"In November 1974, I first met leopards for the first time and this marvelous picture is still before my eyes: a cub on the snow and a family of leopards slowly vanishing into the white void… Since that time I have been obsessed with leopards. I could not sleep at night, all the while thinking about taking a beautiful photo. At that time I had neither a good camera that could work in the frost, nor good film. At first, I turned my back on the affordable but terribly primitive child's camera with poor optics, Lyubitel, but then I realised that I had no other way out. I tried all sorts of devices and planted them in places where leopards most often roam. I tightened a string to the trigger but it would hardly yield, so a leopard would simply step over the obstacle without setting off the camera shutter. Then I tied a load, so that even a slight touch on the string would set the shutter off but then every leaf interfered… Suddenly I found the solution. I was fastening the sheets of another of my articles with a clip when it dawned upon me what I had to do. I bent out a clip to make an ordinary buckle, tightened the shutter release and secured the shutter-cocking lever in the cocked position with a buckle. Now as soon as a leopard touched a string connected to the buckle, the latter released the shutter.

"I was impatient to take as many shots as possible. While I tried to take photos of a leopard, the animal tried to figure out what I was plotting, as I blocked his paths with a string 1.5 mm thick, which could be used to catch a small fry but certainly not a cat like him! Blinded by the flash, the leopard approached the camera, sniffed it, passed his claws over it, angrily knocked it down with his paw, breaking the stand socket, and tore the plastic rainproof cover to shreds. Once, when he was hungry and angry, he picked the annoying 3-kilogramme flash with his claws and hurled it five metres through the air…"

Yuri Shibnev was the first Russian animal photographer to receive the prestigious London Wildlife Photographer of the Year award in 1991. He took part in shooting five absolutely remarkable documentaries about Far Eastern leopards. In 2004, Japan's NHK television channel made a documentary about Shibnev. Less than two years ago, he gave an interview for our website, in which he spoke about his work as a wildlife photographer.

Yuri Shibnev is famous both for his photographs and his books. His bird research culminated in the books, "Wintering Birds of Prey in the South-West of the Primorye Territory", "The Biology of the Reed Parrotbill" and "The Biology of the Ural Owl", which are regarded as classics. He also wrote two popular science books, "Tracking a Panthera Pardus" and "Far Eastern Leopards".

In recent years, Yuri Shibnev did not walk far through the taiga, instead preferring to, as he said, take photographs of butterflies on wild flowers. He never distanced himself from nature, living within nature, and could not think of a living any other way.

A great master, a remarkable man and a true lover and guardian of the taiga has left us. He was a very modest person, who was very precise in his use of words, very loyal to his friends and very devoted to the work he had chosen to do. He was one of the last of the Mohicans, a man who taught people to love nature with all their hearts. Let his memory be long cherished.


© Igor Kinko

Yuri Shibnev’s house at Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve