This South African team found leopard in the most unexpected place

 

Leopard in Europe? That’s a myth, right? Not if an intrepid team of South Africans have anything to do with it. Over the course of months of backbreaking endeavour, the group was on an impossible mission to find proof of life of the critically endangered Caucasian leopard.

The team, led by photographer and filmmaker Adrian Steirn, spent the better part of two years travelling to Azerbaijan, in the heart of the Caucasus ecoregion. They went to extreme lengths to find evidence of the critically endangered big cat, hiking off trail up remote mountains in conditions ranging from extreme heat to deep snow to set up a network of camera traps. Accompanied by Babakhan, an Azeri tracker who shares a unique, intimate bond with the big cats, their quest was to find firm evidence of leopard in Azerbaijan, where many believed the species to be on the brink of extinction.

In the face of inaccessible, isolating surroundings and enormous logistical challenges, the team’s efforts to capture clear evidence of leopard in Azerbaijan paid off in a massive way. Not only did they succeed in documenting leopard in Hirkan National Park, the impetus they created led to meaningful change. On 1 December 2016, WWF Azerbiajan released a camera trap photograph showing a female Caucasian leopard with two young cubs – evidence of natural reproduction in the country. The challenges and the outcome have taken shape in The World’s Most Wanted Leopard, a documentary currently airing on Nat Geo WILD.