The wildlife photographer who believes in saving big cats

Written by Staff Writer at CNN

What can be found online comes at a price.

Whether through advertising campaigns or souvenir websites, companies often attach misleading images to avoid the cost of sourcing the real thing.

This can be damaging to animals — particularly where visual techniques like arm scissor grabs can be particularly harmful. And it can be damaging to people too. We live in a distorted view of the world as a result of this.

The owner of the world’s largest breeding centre for endangered big cats doesn’t bear any debt for the false impression of these cats — he’s simply passionate about what he’s doing for conservation. “It’s all about my kids,” says Mike Barras. “My son has come from an interest in the fauna of Australia and I want to perpetuate that interest.”

So what exactly does this investment in big cats involve?

“The first single-species breeding program in captivity, outside of a zoo, was developed at the Australian Zoo in the 1970s. It has become somewhat of a national heritage site,” Barras explains. “Before then, all the big cats and big predator species were kept in captivity in many different zoos around the world.”

There had been arguments among conservationists, and even among governments, about whether these animals should be captured and transported from the wild to zoos. “That alone was enough to make a line in the sand. We decided to build this huge facility that we own and that’s what it is, a breeding program for big cats,” he says.

In the early 1990s, as British photographer Mike Barras set out to see what he could find in the wild, he came across another big cat — the leopard — as he traveled around Africa. In 1996, after spending time with an estimated 30 cats, Barras began to understand their ‘myth’ — that the animal was feared and feared for its sharp tusks, sharp teeth and angular body.

“So I asked: ‘Do these animals still have the tusks?’” He realized that the camels grazing on the land were regularly thrown out by the leopards. The camels reared their heads and would then kill the leopards, often reaching the high branches with their tails so that they could come down on the prides of the cats.

“(The camels) would actually take two or three seconds to get down, and that was probably the most important action of the day,” he says. “This was easy prey for these predators.”

Barras moved on to other animal species, including gorillas, lions and elephant, but he noticed the same behavior among leopards. Many of the creatures were shown to have scars on their backs — which actually turns out to be a trait used by the cats to identify each other by looking at the passage that runs from the back to the front of the shoulders. The cut allows the leopards to identify each other by seeking them out and marking their fates.

“The study of other types of fauna is a huge challenge in conservation because now, many species are over-represented in people’s imaginations,” he says. “Think tigers, for example. Tiger image is so strong and strong that a lot of questions are being asked about whether those individuals are any different from any other cat species.”

These tough, elusive and dangerous creatures come under threat across the world, from human populations and poaching to habitat loss and drought.

There’s also the issue of the economics. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, tigers are worth just £1.27 million ($1.68 million).

Barras wants to help change this by reducing the preconceptions around these animals. His aim is that people will understand them in a different way and open their minds to the reality of their role in conservation.

“They were quite honest and said that they’ve really enjoyed every day that they’ve had with these cats,” Barras says. “I knew it would be difficult, I knew there would be things that would go wrong, but there would be rewards too.”

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