Conservation news

Stalking snow leopards: Q&A with the director of “Ghost of the Mountains”

Snow leopards (Panthera uncial) in the Sanjiangyuan region of China, a still from “Ghost of the Mountains.” Photo courtesy of Disneynature.

Snow leopards (Panthera uncial) in the Sanjiangyuan region of China, a still from “Ghost of the Mountains.” Photo courtesy of Disneynature.

  • In spring 2014 a crew of filmmakers ventured to the remote mountains of Sanjiangyuan in China’s western province of Qinghai to film the notoriously elusive snow leopard in the wild.
  • A new film, “Ghost of the Mountains,” documents that expedition.
  • The film is a finalist for Best People and Nature Film in the 2017 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival taking place next week in Jackson, Wyoming.

Snow leopards (Panthera uncia) are known for their elusive ways. Even people who share the mountains with the silvery felines seldom spot them.

In spring 2014 a crew of filmmakers with Bristol, U.K.-based Brian Leith Productions undertook what the company’s website describes as a “mission impossible.” They ventured to the remote mountains of Sanjiangyuan in China’s western province of Qinghai to film wild snow leopards for Disneynature’s 2016 movie “Born in China.”

“We were successful in capturing the best footage of snow leopards ever, and a wildlife first, to film snow leopard cubs in their natural environmental [sic],” the website boasts.

“Ghost of the Mountains,” a new film by the same company documenting the excursion, is a finalist for Best People and Nature Film in the 2017 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival taking place next week in Jackson, Wyoming. Almost 1,000 entries are competing for 25 awards. The winners will be announced next Thursday, September 28.

Mongabay caught up with Ben Wallis, writer and director of “Ghost of the Mountains,” by email.

Trailer for “Ghost of the Mountains” via Youtube.com.

 

Mongabay: What drew you to make this film?

Wallis: This film documents the behind the scenes adventures that took place as we attempted to film snow leopards for “Born In China,” a Disneynature movie. As soon as we knew we were making the film and had decided to film snow leopards, it was clear that a behind the scenes film would be very compelling.

Mongabay: Snow leopards are often called ghosts — or in Sanjiangyuan “snow mountain hermits,” as we’ve reported — because they are so elusive. How did you go about finding snow leopards and how long did it take you to catch sight of your first one? What was it like? 

Wallis: China now has the largest population of snow leopards in the world and our location is a particular hotspot BUT these creatures are still incredibly hard to find. Even if they are there, they have the most amazing camouflage. They are more likely to spot you than for you to spot them. So it was a daunting task.

With the backing of Disney, we filmed for over 250 days and spent a lot of time hiking, finding camera positions and using scopes. It was many weeks until our first proper sighting. I worked at the location on our last filming trip. By that time we were very familiar with the location and the potential places where the cats would hang out. I saw one on my very first day on location – the highlight of my nearly 20 year filming career.

Mongabay: It’s hard to imagine a more adventurous assignment than tracking down snow leopards in the stunning mountains of Sanjiangyuan — at least for a wildlife filmmaker. Was the experience as spectacular as it would seem? Can you tell us about some less glamorous moments during filming? 

Wallis: This was an extremely tough location not only to reach but also to spend time in. We lived in a very basic building, dug our own toilet, anything required was a two-day return trip away and we only had satphone comms. It was an amazing thing to experience. Of course the altitude was extremely tough also to live with, but the biggest challenge for me was the silence. Difficult to explain once back home but getting used to the silence was a big battle.

Shane Moore (in white), the main director of photography for “Ghost of the Mountains,” and another member of the film team on location in China. Photo courtesy of Disneynature.

Mongabay: What was a highlight in making Ghost of the Mountains?  

Wallis: To have the chance to tell our adventures. It was such a unique opportunity to have the time in the field to film snow leopards. We all realized this was a big chance and are glad we got the platform to tell that story.

Mongabay: What do you hope audiences take away from the movie? 

Wallis: An even larger respect for this most impressive of cats and the habitats in which they survive.

Mongabay: Despite their controversial recent downgrading on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species from “Endangered” to “Vulnerable,” snow leopards still face threats from climate change, poaching, and killing in retaliation for livestock predation. How does the film address these issues? 

Wallis: We did address their vulnerability in the film by telling the audience that whilst our location does offer them some protection, across their Asian range they are threatened by climate change, habitat loss, and conflict with humans.

In our experience the human population of our area had a healthy respect for the cats. We also highlighted the potential benefits that sharing their territories with monasteries could have on their safety. Monks protect all living things up there and so the cats do to a degree have some very special human guardians. But, of course, snow leopards not just in China but all over their vast Asian range do face many problems.

Mongabay: What can people do to help protect snow leopards?  

Wallis: I think by understanding the importance of habitats we will be in a better position to save a species. Where man and nature overlap, we have to think how best to serve both their needs.

Mongabay: What’s next for you? Are you working on other film projects at the moment? 

Wallis: Brian Leith Productions are just finishing a second behind the scenes film about our adventures filming “Born In China.” The next installment documents the expeditions we undertook to film the other main characters in the film – cranes, monkeys, chiru antelope and panda. We are also just starting a new wildlife series on China for National Geographic Wild.

Editor’s note: this interview has been edited lightly for style and space.

Caption for banner image: Snow leopards (Panthera uncia) in the Sanjiangyuan region of China, a still from “Ghost of the Mountains.” Photo courtesy of Disneynature.

A snow leopard (Panthera uncia) in the Sanjiangyuan region of China, a still from “Ghost of the Mountains.” Photo courtesy of Disneynature.