Jackson Filmmaker Gains Trust of Elusive Snow Leopards

Sep 29, 2017

The young cat up close to the lens with another behind it is also from Ghost of the Mountains.
Credit Ghost of the Mountains, Brian Leith Productions with Disneynature Productions and Chuan Films

The Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival attracted an international audience this week for what many call the Oscars of nature film. Finalists included Wyoming filmmaker Shane Moore. Moore started making films when he was just 12 and growing up in Granite Creek, 30 miles southeast of Jackson. He met pioneers of nature shows, including the Wild Kingdom and Walt Disney, on his family ranch where they came to film. Moore was a finalist for two films, Born in China and Ghost of the Mountains. Both feature the rarely seen and rarely filmed snow leopard. Rebecca Huntington sat down with him.



RH: When film company, Brian Leith Productions, set out to film snow leopards in China, they dubbed it Mission Impossible. No one had ever filmed snow leopard cubs in their natural environment. For this assignment, they turned to Jackson filmmaker Shane Moore. And Moore, he likes a good challenge.


SM: So we were on the Tibetan Plateau and we started into the field with a team and no one on the team had actually ever seen a snow leopard. And I have to admit I was really deeply worried about complete failure.


RH: I read that the snow leopards started to recognize or maybe get more comfortable with you as you were there so long, is that true?


SM: Yes they did. The snow leopards after a while became much less concerned about us and I was really thrilled about that and tried to impress upon on everyone on the team that we needed to be respectful of their space the entire time. You know it was so tempting to maybe have a situation where we might want to try and sneak up but I really avoided that temptation cause we knew we’d be there for the long haul and if they learned to trust us it would pay off in the end, and I think it really did. By the end, we would have these cats sleeping within 100 yards of us and know we’re there and not be concerned. That’s when things start to get good when they start doing completely normal behavior.


RH: Can you share one example with us?


SM: It was thought that they’re highly territorial. That a male you know would have a large territory with maybe several females that would be in his territory but they really didn’t tolerate one another very well. And we started to see things that just didn’t fit that picture at all. We saw them sharing kills. We saw four different snow leopards come in on a kill and they would rotate through. Seemed to get along very well. So it’s a little more complex social structure than I would have ever guessed.


RH: Did you see similarities to say mountain lions in Wyoming?


SM: The snow leopards I think are very similar to mountain lions in Wyoming. They have the same strategies for hunting. They use the cliffs in the same way. A lot of parallels. They both have that really long tail that’s so great for balance when they’re chasing animals in a difficult environment. But I have to say I really felt bad for the snow leopards in the end because we saw them hunting on a lot of occasions. I think I saw over 30 hunts. I only saw them on a couple of times when they caught newborn lambs, but I never saw them succeed, you know chase down an adult blue sheep, which is really pretty extraordinary. It’s hard to make a living up there. The prey is incredibly wary.


SM: One of the things that really amazed me about the Tibetans that we worked with is their tolerance for predators. Like Wyoming, they live in an area, there’s brown bears up there, there’s wolves and snow leopards and they all predate their livestock. I think when the snow leopards get desperate and maybe near starvation is when they’ll come in and take an animal and that’s kind of similar to what might happen in Wyoming.


RH: You got the sense that they were truly tolerant or actually wanted that animal to have its place in their system? And they weren’t just being tolerant because they didn’t have a choice otherwise?


SM: No, I think they are in fact truly tolerant. They have a respect for all life. And in one case we were working with some herdsmen who were suffering some pretty severe predation. And it was really a loss, a real blow to this family. And they invited a nearby monk and the monk came to their house and stayed with them for four or five days. And I don’t know if pray is the right word, mediated. They tried to figure out a way to deal with this predation respectfully. And in the end, I was absolutely blown away that the family went out and was carving prayers in stone with small chisels and this went on for weeks. It was really surprising and in a few cases I filmed snow leopards walking by these prayers that had been carved into stone in the mountain and it was just shocking to me at what a different approach we have in Wyoming. You know I grew up on a ranch when people are dealing with predators the discussion is usually around what caliber of weapon people use to take them out. So it was really humbling to see a different approach.


RH: That’s Shane Moore, who captured the first-ever footage of snow leopard cubs in the wild for two films, Born in China and Ghost of the Mountains.


RH: Thanks Shane


SM: Thank-you.