The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is hosting an exhibition that highlights the wonder of nature through photographs of extraordinary and often rarely seen animal behaviors. Read more about the “Unforgettable Behavior: Wildlife Photographer of the Year” exhibit here.
Yongqing Bao is one the photographers whose work is featured in the new “Unforgettable Behavior: Wildlife Photographer of the Year” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2019 Contest for his image of a standoff between a Tibetan fox and a marmot “The Moment”.
He is the first Chinese photographer to receive the honor, which is awarded annually by the UK’s Natural History Museum.
Meet PHOTOGRAPHER Yongqing Bao
“The Moment” grabbed the attention of our kids from across the room. They were surprised and enthralled by the drama and intensity. Yongqing Bao frames a standoff between a Tibetan fox and a marmot. The image evoked such humanity that we were awestricken. One of the kids even asked if the animals were real.
Yongqing Bao was born and raised in the Qilian Mountains, the area where he captured the photo. It is often called the “Third Pole” because of the “enormous water reserves held by its ice fields.” The area, he said, is under “threat” because of “dramatic temperature rises” attributed to global climate change.
Yongqing Bao is the Director and Chief Ecological Photographer of the Qilian Mountain Nature Conservation Association of China, member of the Qinghai Photographers Association and Deputy Secretary-General of the Qinghai Wildlife Photographers Association.
His work has been published in many magazines and newspapers and awarded in several international competitions. We appreciate the time Yongqing Bao took to answer our questions.
Interview with Yongqing Bao
Adventure Family (AF):
How long were you waiting before the fox caught the marmot?
Yongqing Bao (YB):
Tibetan fox is an animal that I have been paying attention to for a long time. I spend a lot of time and energy taking pictures of them every year. The Tibetan fox in that award-winning photo has actually become an old friend of mine, because at that time, I had photographed it for two consecutive years. Every year, it feeds its cubs in the same place. In that year, the fox mother raised three cubs.
Every day, it would go out to hunt and feed its children before dawn. What a hard life! Their main food is plateau pika. As the baby foxes grew up, they needed more and more pikas. Although there were many pikas, it was not easy to catch them. The success rate is very, very low.
I didn’t know that Tibetan foxes would catch marmots before. Because marmots are as big as Tibetan foxes, it is dangerous to prey on marmots. On the contrary, I have seen marmots chasing Tibetan foxes many times. Twenty three days before taking this photo, I saw this Tibetan fox catching a marmot at a distance. I was very surprised and realized that it was likely to catch other marmots again. From that time on, I began to quietly track this Tibetan fox every morning and dusk.
It was snowing that day. I came to the Tibetan fox cave again. I saw it go out to hunt, then I followed it for about 1 km. Several marmots saw the Tibetan Fox, stood up quickly and gave a harsh alarm. The Tibetan fox walked to a place 30 meters away from the marmot and lay down in the grass.
I chose a good shooting location and set up a camera. At first, the marmot was very alert and kept watching the Tibetan fox, but the Tibetan fox didn’t move, only two eyes kept watching the marmot. In this way, I waited for more than 2 hours.
Maybe the marmot forgot the danger or maybe it was hungry, It slowly left the cave and began to eat grass. When the marmot left the cave about ten meters away, the Tibetan fox suddenly attacked and bit the marmot’s neck. The marmot fought desperately, they kept fighting.
Marmots are social animals. The other two marmots saw that their companion was in danger, they rushed together trying to drive the Tibetan fox away. The Tibetan fox kept running among the three marmots and kept attacking the injured one. After about 5 or 6 minutes, the injured marmot fell to the ground, and the Tibetan fox picked it up and left quickly. This thrilling scene was completely photographed by me.
How has the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau changed in your lifetime?
I was born in the beautiful Tianjun grassland under the Qilian Mountains of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, with an average altitude of 3,800 meters. There are only two seasons, summer and winter. Tibetans are the main residents here.
My hometown has been famous for its vast and beautiful natural pastures since ancient times, with flowing mountain springs, dense shrubs, various strange stones, groups of wild animals, quiet and elegant environment and charming scenery. Although the climate is bad, I love my hometown very much.
Over the past 50 years, especially since China’s Reform and Opening-up, great changes have taken place in my hometown. People’s lives have been prosperous and the living environment has been greatly improved.
In recent years, the Chinese government has taken ecological protection as a national policy and established national parks of the “Source of Three Rivers” and “Qilian Mountain”. Protecting nature and environment especially the protection of wildlife become the most important consensus for us.
What do you see as the greatest contribution of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau?
Known as the “roof of the world” and the “water tower of Asia”, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau has a large number such as rivers, lakes, glaciers and forests. It is an important source of fresh water for China and Asia.
It is an alpine biological seed resource bank and it has played a great role in biodiversity, freshwater and climate change. It is an important ecological security barrier in China and even the world. It is of great significance to China, Asia and even the world, and has immeasurable ecological and humanistic value.
What do you see as the greatest threat to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau?
Under the influence of natural factors and human activities, the earth began to experience a climate change process characterized by rising temperature. The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau shows a higher heating rate, which is about twice the global average heating rate in the same period, resulting in the melting of snow mountains and frequent extreme weather.
As a sensitive area of global climate change, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau faces a huge threat from climate and ecological environment changes, which has a far-reaching impact on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and even the world.
What do you like most about wildlife photography?
For more than ten years, I was lucky to see many wild animals living on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, including snow leopard, brown bear, wolf, white lipped deer, przewalskii gazelle, golden eagle, etc. I saw their lives which were unknown by others, I saw their pleasure, anger, sorrow and joy and I took them by my camera. That made me try my best to observe them, understand them and record them.
I really like the undisturbed real life of wild animals in front of my camera. Fortunately, I captured their wonderful moments again and again, and each moment was enough to excite me. Wildlife photography is the most important thing in my life, which makes me full of respect and enthusiasm for nature.
What is one thing about wildlife photography you weren’t expecting before you started?
To be honest, before I started shooting wild animals, my idea was very simple. My plan was that：photographed them and published a picture album for local children. Let our children know about the wild animals in our hometown. But when I started, when I saw and heard the legends and stories about them, when I understood their real lives deeply, everything has been changed.
I knew that wild animals had the same feeling as ours. These elves had the same love as ours, in order to continue their lives, they worked hard to prey, raise children, and even sacrifice themselves, showing the shocking beauty of wildlife.
This beauty is pure and tragic. They all follow the rules of “natural selection, survival of the fittest”. I never thought of or didn’t understand before. I think the reason is that we humans overestimate ourselves. It can be said that wild animals deeply shocked me.
What characteristics did you have that make you a good wildlife photographer? Have you learned or improved any characteristics to become a better wildlife photographer?
First of all, I should thank the land where I grew up. I’m lucky I was born here because my hometown is a special and typical place. There are 286 species of wild animals in 63 families of 28 orders, and 69 species of mammals in 17 families of 7 orders.
Most importantly, people in this land have strong sense of animal protection. Thousands of wild animals have lived here for thousands of years. There are snow leopards, wild yaks, kiangs, black necked cranes, wolves, lynxes and other wild animals, of course, marmots, Tibetan foxes, plateau pikas and so on.
My hometown is just my best shooting place. With a heart of awe, I walked into them, felt them, and integrated into their lives as much as possible. I studied hard through books and the internet. My idea was to become a wildlife expert before becoming a wildlife photographer. In this way, I kept learning so that I got a lot of useful experience day after day.
I like the reality of wild animals in front of the camera, so I must understand the living rules and habits of animals. Although I photographed many wild animals, I have to admit that I missed too much, even though I knew that there are many stories in their lives.
What is your favorite lens and why?
I often use DSLR and ultra long focus lenses, such as 400mm or 800mm lenses. I think ultra long focus lenses can reduce the disturbance to animals. Any disturbance to wild animals is unacceptable to me.
The only way to take wonderful photos of wild animals is to have a heart of awe and let wild animals feel that you are not their threat. Of course, reducing the interference to them as much as possible requires the photographer’s strict professional quality. It’s foolish to interfere with wild animals’ life for a good photo.
Your photo captures emotions that humans can relate to, have you witnessed other wildlife interactions that remind you of people?
Shooting wild animals let me know that wild animals have the same emotions as humans. I was lucky to see and photograph the real life of wild animals. Every animal has left me a permanent memory. They taught me to be strong and optimistic. Every time I shot them, my soul was sublimated.
I saw the upland buzzard feeding the young babies with the cleanest pika. I saw pallas’s cat mom became skinny because of working hard to raise her children. I also saw the snow leopard mom’s eyes full of endless sadness because of the loss of her child.
All this reminds me of my mother. My mother has worked hard to raise me and my brothers and sisters. My mother is the same as the mothers of animals. So I think there are many things in common between humans and animals. We can always see the “humanity” of animals, so we should give them more respect and protection, which is our responsibility.
How do humans impact wildlife on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau like the fox and marmot?
Tibetan fox is a very common species. Few people pay attention to it before. No one may know how many Tibetan foxes exist on the earth. Although it lives in high-altitude areas, it is a super internet star in China now. They are safe and be protected well.
As a unique species on the plateau, it plays an important role in preventing and controlling grassland ecological balance. It is a barometer of grassland ecology. Tibetan fox is now a protected animal in China. They are used to living in peace with us.
What do you think your photo adds to the conversation around our human relationships with nature?
When my photo “The Moment” won in the 55th WPY 2019, I was very excited because I was the first Chinese photographer who won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year. I stood on the rostrum of Natural History Museum, I was so proud to introduce the wildlife in my hometown to the world.
Just as Lord Stephen Green, chairman of Natural History Museum, said: “Chinese photographer won the award. This honor belongs not only to him, but also to the Chinese people, reflecting China’s achievements in wildlife protection in recent years.”
Ansel Adams, a famous American photographer in the 20th century, once said: “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art.” Therefore, creation and innovation are the essence of photography.
My experience in shooting wildlife for decades is that wildlife photography should reflect the wild beauty of animals in a natural and harmonious environment. At the same time, good wildlife photography should show the true beauty of nature, the beauty of harmony and the beauty of life.
I hope my photo can make more people understand the real life of wild animals, love them, respect them, protect them and treat them as friends. That will be my greatest achievement as a wildlife photographer and it is the real idea expressed in my photo.
How can people become advocates for the planet? What do you see as tangible changes individuals can make?
I am not only a wildlife photographer, but also a senior member of China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA). Now my main work is using my own photos to explain the protection of nature to the public. I often participate in the rescue of injured wild animals and protection of nature.
I just want to tell people through my photos that all lives have spirituality, all creatures on the earth are equal and wild animals are indispensable friends of human beings. They have the same feelings as us, but they live very hard, they need our love and protection.
There is an old Chinese saying that “Heaven does not speak, four seasons make a circle, earth does not speak, all things start to grow.” Biodiversity is an important foundation for our survival and development. All of us are responsible for human civilization. The only correct way is making an earth where human and animals live peacefully. We should revere nature, conform to nature，just because we are all children of nature.
Thank you very much for your interview and it’s my honor to answer your questions.
Thank you Yongqing Bao for sharing your experience and knowledge. We hope to see the beauty of your home in person one day.
See the “Unforgettable Behavior: wildlife Photographer of the Year” Exhibit yourself
See the wonder, beauty and impact of the “Unforgettable Behavior: Wildlife Photographer of the Year” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The museum is located at 1000 Madison Drive NW Washington, D.C. 20560. Admission is FREE. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday 10 AM to 5:30 PM, except Dec. 25.