Chasing Wildcats

Documenting the secretive lives of the world’s most elusive cat species

The University of California Santa Cruz sits nestled amongst towering redwood trees, flanked by maritime chaparral, oak savannas and coastal wetlands teeming with life. It was here, while falling in love with the rich biodiversity of this place, that I began my career in conservation photography. In the classroom, I studied how animal behavior is shaped by ecology and evolution. Outside the classroom, I spent my days searching for salamanders and photographing habituated deer browsing the manicured bushes of the dorms.

Image of a bobcat at UC Santa Cruz.

An almost fully grown bobcat kitten I named Henry scents the air for his mother, who was hunting gophers just on the other side of the hill in Santa Cruz, California.

The meadows surrounding the school are prime habitat for bobcats, and what began as mere interest quickly became an obsession. Tracking became my college sport. Sunrise would find me searching for signs of Lynx rufus throughout the Great Meadow, determined to outsmart camouflage with observation.

After a few brief glimpses of that elegant, long-legged combination of confidence and nonchalance wandering into the woodland’s edge, I finally met a pair of cats that would give me a generous window into their lives. One day on the way home from school, I spied a female bobcat in a meadow hunting for gophers among the short, green grass. By this time, I had started learning how to read cat behavior. As she hunted, ears perked, eyes focused on a single spot, I was able to approach within 30 yards and saw she was joined by her almost fully grown kitten, who I named Henry.

Henry watched quietly, learning how to listen for gophers, how to leap for the catch and, finally, how to dispatch the prey. My 100-400mm lens shook in my hands as adrenaline free-flowed through my body—a reaction I’ve learned to control with time and experience but which rendered most of my shots of that day unusable. Nevertheless, I returned to the spot every day for the next two weeks.

What a surreal feeling it was, sitting day after day amidst this golden California grassland studded with ancient oaks and bordered by redwood forests, with these two exquisite wildcats napping just 20 feet away. Over two weeks’ time, we became increasingly comfortable with each other; it was the ultimate privilege to be in the presence of something so wild yet to feel like friends. I experienced a connection to an animal in a way I hadn’t before as a silent conversation seemed to unfold in the exchange of looks, signals and body language. I was hooked. Henry was the catalyst that led me to pursue photographing wildcats all around the world.

The Plight Of Small Wildcats

Of the 40 species of wildcat on this planet, 33 of these, including Henry, are considered small cats, and they roam more than three quarters of the world’s terrestrial land mass. Though not nearly as famous as their larger cousins, these small cats have extraordinary stories to tell.

Image of an Iberian lynx.

A male Iberian lynx is backlit by the rising sun as it crosses a pasture in the search of a female during the winter mating season in the Sierra Morena of southern Spain. Iberian lynx are the world’s most endangered species of wildcat.

Fishing cats, for example, are uniquely adapted for a life aquatic, catching slippery fish and frogs with their partially webbed feet and sporting a dense layer of fur that acts as a kind of wetsuit for cold-water pursuits. The critically endangered Iberian lynx, which currently clings to life in the Mediterranean woodlands of southern Spain, is an extremely picky eater, almost exclusively preying on flighty rabbits. Margays walk through the treetops with the greatest of ease, with a baffling adaptation that enables them to vertically descend from trees by rotating their hind feet 180 degrees. The Andean mountain cat survives at extreme high altitudes across the Andes and has almost completely eluded the reach of researchers and photographers for decades. The adorably petite African black-footed cat is one of the deadliest hunters in the world, second only to African wild dogs and boasting an astonishing 60 percent success rate. The enigmatic Borneo Bay Cat, endemic to the tropical forests of Borneo, remains a mystery to us altogether.

Sadly, of these 33 wildcat species, well over half are decreasing in population. Habitat loss and degradation, illegal hunting, the pet trade and decreased availability of prey are all major threats to these felines. To make matters worse, small cats receive just 1 percent of the funding for cat conservation worldwide. And it is precisely the elusive nature of these animals that makes them so difficult to protect. Capturing footage of secretive, highly territorial animals in dense habitats and extreme environments can be next to impossible. Without the photographs of these unknown wildcats, however, it is impossible to generate the necessary awareness and empathy that lead to conservation action.

Challenge accepted.

Wildcat Tracking & Field Ethics

Despite my constant ambition to get the best possible shot, it is important to do so with ethical field tactics in mind, a practice that means always prioritizing the welfare of the animal over anything else. This approach requires patience, following the clues and paying attention to the signs. Scoop up the beauty created by an encounter without disturbing the animal or its environment. It’s commensalism at its finest.

Photographing wildcats: image of a Scottish wildcat.

The Scottish wildcat is one of the closest relatives of our domestic pet cats, so much so that they often hybridize. This individual exemplifies that with its small head (trait of a domestic cat) and the thick tail (wildcat trait). Taken in eastern Scotland.

Putting the animal first means I am never willing to bait or lure animals to get the shot I want, a practice that can easily cause harm when multiple carnivores are attracted to a single food source. Game farms, which raise “captive wildlife” for photography, are definitely out of the question as they exploit predators for pure profits, often providing miserable living conditions.

Fifteen years after that first bobcat experience, I am still honing my approach and methodology through continued observation, practice, study and teaching. I regularly partner with researchers to expand my knowledge of biology, ecology and tracking, and to understand the broader environment in which my subjects thrive. I learn the language of my subjects as best I can and respect the limits they set when out in the field.

Observation is key to photographing any wildlife successfully. Is the animal relaxed? Is it hunting? Is it moving in a continuous direction as it scent-marks its territory, and how will that influence my positioning? If a cat’s ears are pointed toward me, I know it is aware of my presence, even if the rest of its body is facing away from me. If the cat’s ears are down, it is downright angry. I pay close attention for signs of discomfort. Bobcats, for example, will raise their stubby tails when uncomfortable. I’ll stay equally as attuned to the signals I am sending as I am to that of the animals, avoiding any behavior that might indicate I’m a predator. When I take the time to observe an animal, I often find myself in a position where the opportunity to approach will arise. It increases my chances of photographing behavior and often leads to the intimate, close-range shots I was hoping for in the first place.

Of course, shooting rare and elusive subjects like wildcats is not without frustration, failure and disappointment. I have made and continue to make mistakes. A good example of one such mistake happened with a small spotted cat that lives in Argentina.

Image of a Geoffroy's cat.

An old female Geoffroy’s Cat looks at me as I photograph her on the lawn of the ranger station of Argentina’s Iberá Wetlands. She was by far the easiest cat I ever photographed, as she was so used to people growing up around the park offices.

While searching for Geoffroy’s cat in the capybara-ridden Iberá Wetlands, I came across a melanistic sub-adult female. This is a very difficult cat to see, and one with this particular coloration is exceptionally rare. Despite years of experience photographing in the field at this point, I found my composure gave way to overwhelming excitement in the moment, and before I knew it, the cat was gone. My clumsiness and hurried approach were responsible for just a single blurry frame of a black cat running away.

Try long and hard enough, however, and the reward for patience and mindfulness can be profound. It took two very long and hard attempts to capture the Canada lynx. I had traveled to central Manitoba, where bitter temperatures left bones aching and skin raw. My territory: a single, snow-covered 6-mile stretch of backcountry road. My mission: photograph the Canada lynx in its winter habitat.

Six-foot deep snowdrifts made tracking on foot impossible, so my search had to be done from the vehicle. The car was misty with my breath; turning on the heater risked heat waves, distorting any images I might get. For a week, I drove back and forth, back and forth, spending every hour of daylight looking for any sign of the cat: the delicate skulk of movement through the trees; the oversized, snowshoe-like impressions left in the crystal-white snow. After 120 hours of subzero scouting, I was rewarded with a single sighting of a mother and her two kittens sprinting across the road, too fleeting an encounter to capture even a single frame.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Fourteen months later, I found myself back along that cold, snowy drag, driving back and forth, back and forth. As tracks would appear, I would draw an “x” to mark the spot, looking for repeat visits, directional indications and patterns that could lead me to the prize. One early, moody morning, there was a cool, blue cast across the boreal forest. I spotted a young cub close to the road, sitting just a few feet from its mom and siblings. Straight away, he took an interest in me. I couldn’t repeat the mistakes of Argentina. It was time to be patient, stay locked into my position and observe the kitten’s behavior. It soon relaxed, with its gaze concentrated on faint sounds it would pick up with its tassel-covered ears. It was curious, like all cats, but seemed too lazy to make any actual hunting attempt. For 45 minutes, we sat there together, in a majestic encounter that still raises the hair on my arm. The fleeting glimpse of the family a year earlier was more fortunate than most will ever get, so the opportunity to share so much time with this highly elusive species was immeasurably special.

Image of a Canada lynx wildcat.

At 11 months old, this Canada lynx kitten was bold enough to check me out for a prolonged encounter in Manitoba. In a month’s time, it would disperse and look for its own territory to call home.

Getting The Shot

Though it can be impossible to control or even anticipate how a wild encounter will unfold, planning and intention-setting is a critical part of getting the shots that will have the most impact. In my work, I’m always looking to craft and compose images in a way that drives emotional connection and resonance. I want to give my audience something to hold onto, a way to engage with the animal.

Image of a pampas cat.

This fully grown and adorable pampas cat was photographed in the altiplano of western Bolivia at over 13,000 feet via camera trap.

For example, in my work documenting the Pampas cat, a small cat found throughout South America and typically portrayed as a kind of stocky cat with a broad, unusual face, I wanted to bring to life more of its playfulness and vulnerability. I sought to bring out aspects that felt more reminiscent of a housecat to make this small, mysterious animal more relatable. Cute, as expected, goes a long way in capturing the heart of a narrative.

When considering composition, I generally prefer to focus my story on the individual rather than the species. I find portraiture, head-on composition and eye contact to be excellent ways to capture and portray the personality of an individual cat. Neuroscience research has shown that eye contact between humans activates social areas of the brain, and in my experience, it’s no different between human and creature. It’s the key to connection, empathy, emotion and, ultimately, persuasive storytelling.

My gear when looking for the cats in person is rather straightforward. My 600mm ƒ/4 lens allows me to get portrait photos from a greater distance, while the fast aperture means speedier autofocusing capabilities, especially when in low light. My favorite lens, a 100-400mm ƒ/4-5.6, gives me the flexibility to compose photos of the cats in their environment, telling a more contextual story.

The reality for some of the small wildcats is that they are so elusive, even the biologists who dedicate their lives to studying them often never have a single direct observation of their research subjects. Similarly, as you can imagine, the chances of photographing them can be rather slim. Camera traps are a fantastic solution to this problem. This kind of photography also requires a tremendous amount of planning and thought. First, I have to select the right place, which requires understanding where and how the cat will move through its habitat. Which way will it walk down the trail, for example? There is nothing more frustrating than checking your traps only to find frame after frame of a feline rear-end. Once you get the microhabitat right, you have to set your exposure and lighting for the right time of day.

Image of an ocelot.

An ocelot slinks through the lush and wet rainforest of Panama. Though they are agile climbers, ocelots will often travel on the ground to cover an area faster.

In 2013, I set out to photograph the mysterious Borneo bay cat, of which almost nothing is known. The only photographs that existed of this cat in the wild were low-res research shots. I worked alongside Borneo wildcat researcher Andrew Hearn, who, in four years of studying these animals with over 40 trail cameras continuously deployed across the island, had only captured 22 shots of this species. That equates to getting one bay cat photo every 2,654 days. This cat knows how to be elusive.

Borneo’s jungles are a harsh place. By the end of the trip, I had more than 150 leech bites, a worm that had tunneled through my foot and a graveyard of camera gear destroyed by the humidity. It is so wet there that I found literal, fully formed mushrooms growing out of my clothing.

It took two trips, 10 weeks and 10 different camera traps, but finally we emerged with the first high-resolution image of a Borneo bay cat in the wild. This single photo led to an article that ended up on the front page of Yahoo!, which was seen by millions and caused people to donate tens of thousands of dollars to research and conservation efforts. Photography has the power to showcase these lesser-known cats and to create positive change for these incredible felines.

The Future Of Small Wildcats

Much still remains to be uncovered about these small wildcats, and the opportunity to play even a small role in bringing them to more people’s attention is what drives me each and every day. As I endeavor to show through my work, these cats are nothing short of remarkable, both as individuals and as a highly evolved species, and are integral to the well-being and survival of habitats worldwide.

Image of an Arabian caracal wildcat.

Arabian caracal in the cloud forest of the war-torn country of Yemen. This photo was taken during my first international assignment, taking me to the mostly desert-filled country for three months.

Moreover, there is real conservation potential for these wildcats through ecotourism and photography tourism. In a response to increased demand from amateur and professional photographers alike to get their own images of bobcats, caracals, Iberian lynx, and more, I have launched Cat Expeditions, which offers ethical photography tours around the world to find these lesser-known cats. These trips provide an influx of money into local economies, providing an incentive to locals to protect these species and invest in tourism opportunities rather than shooting or eliminating them. Additionally, a higher volume of images of these cats across social media and other forms of storytelling all contribute to deeper awareness, increased conservation funding and, ultimately, meaningful action.

Thanks to researchers, photographers and conservationists globally, we have made tremendous strides in conservation for larger cat species. But we have much more work to do if we want to ensure the survival of the broader felidae family. As we embark on telling the stories of our wild planet, let us not forget these small but mighty cats.


See more of Sebastian Kennerknecht’s work at pumapix.com.