Nature photographer captures big cats in the wild, and heartbreak of their disappearance

(CBS News) NEW YORK Here's something you don't see very often: a photograph of a cougar, in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, beneath the Hollywood sign -- an image that will appear in next month's National Geographic. Cougars are nocturnal and seldom seen. So how did they get that picture?

National Geographic photographer Steve Winter has spent most of his adult life, shooting just about every kind of wild cat on the planet.

Yet he maintains a childlike enthusiasm, even at New York's Central Park Zoo, watching the baby snow leopards.

"They like playing on these rocks," he said. "They're learning how to hunt."

Snow leopards were Winter's ticket to fame. Plenty of photographers used remotely triggered cameras. But in 2008, Winter went further, adding elaborate & creative lighting designs, even in the brutal 1,500-foot cold of the Himalayas.

He captured the very first intimate portraits of the world's most elusive cat. In a way, he creates his own photo studio out in the middle of nowhere.

"I set up the lighting for a stage and I just wait for the actor to walk on. And there he is!" Winter said.

Describing one particular image showing a tiger, Winter said: "He's going to mark on this rock with his glands to tell other males, 'This is my territory, not yours.' Or females, 'This is my territory, why don't you come over some time?'"

The cougar shot- - talk about your wild Hollywood nightlife -- took 14 months to get, and along the way snared a menagerie of urban wildlife.

Winter uses every trick in the book, and occasionally invents new ones.

"You want to get this intimate view, so you are part of their world," he said. "I need something that people haven't seen before. I need something where they go, 'Wow.'"

With just 3,200 tigers left in the wild, Winter's become an advocate. His new book will help explain why they're disappearing.

"But it goes back to the viewer," he said. "'Do you value a tiger walking the face of this earth? And if you do, let's get involved.'"

Of all Winter's hundreds of thousands of images, an image of a mother and cub brought him to tears, almost asking that very question: What is the value of tigers walking the face of the earth?

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.

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