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How conservation photography is helping save L.A.’s cougars (the animals)

What do you do at the edge of the Los Angeles Megalopolis when the sixth mass extinction is bearing down on the world and the animal you are trying to save is staring down their impending doom? What L.A. does best – go Hollywood, baby.

L.A.’s mountain lions are one bad highway crossing away from an extinction spiral. Only fifteen lions are left in a population isolated by freeways, development, and ocean. Three male lions were killed at the end of 2015 by accidental poisoning and the lions have started inbreeding. With their genetic diversity at a low point and freeways blocking the flow of genes between animals, the window to save them is running out.

A coalition of conservationists and scientists believe their plan to build the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Bridge over Highway 101 will save them. From Banff to Florida, wildlife bridges are one of America’s slam-dunk conservation successes. Beth Pratt, the Save the L.A. Cougars Campaign organizer with National Wildlife Federation has P-22 tattooed on her arm, she’s all in. “Usually you’re fighting a bad guy for an environmental win,” says Pratt. “There’s no bad guy in this story.” The science shows the bridges work to save lives – both human and animal – and to reconnect physically and genetically isolated populations. Highway departments are on board and the general public supports bridges.

The Save the L.A. Cougars campaign’s use of photography and sensational storytelling of “P-22”, the male mountain lion trapped in urban Griffith Park, has gotten them closer to an actual bridge than any past effort. Starting in 2013 with National Geographic photographer, Steve Winter’s, iconic photos of mountain lion P-22 crossing in front of the Hollywood sign, conservationists have turned the narrative of this campaign from dry scientific explanations into a true L.A. story. “The reason the story has resonated worldwide and we are having the success we are having is because of those photos that Steve let us use.” The result: the people of L.A. are falling in love with their lions and the campaign has gone international.

Photo © Steve Winter, published in National Geographic, December 2013

Lead scientists on the project were at first reluctant to tell a more sensational story, cringing at the thought of anthropomorphizing wildlife. “You can’t say that a lion has a date or is lonely,” Jeff Sikich, National Park Service wildlife biologist, told Pratt when the idea was broached. “They’ve been talking to people about connectivity and the need for wildlife corridors for years, but to do something this big you need widespread public support, not just the usual suspects of the environmental community. If you talk in biological terms, things like wildlife corridors just go over people’s heads,” says Pratt. Once they saw the success of the new narrative, the biologists came around.

Now, the previously reluctant scientists are working together with photographers and conservationists to tell a sensational story about southern California’s mountain lions in order to save them. “They see the power of the storytelling. With P-22, now there’s an animal that we can all relate to. He is trapped by traffic, he is dateless, he might die a lonely bachelor. P-22’s story itself resonates with people. The photos translate the story of an animal in the city, it doesn’t matter what city, people relate to it,” says Pratt.

The world-class photos of P-22 tell the story succinctly, but they took Winter about 15 months to capture through camera traps and special lighting set up on trails. They appeared first in the December 2013 story “Ghost Cats” in National Geographic and then licensed to the campaign for use. “I hope these photos will rally Los Angeles around building a crossing for the mountain lions,” says Winter in Pratt’s book chapter When Mountain Lions are Neighbors: Wildlife in Today’s California. According to Pratt, he is getting his wish. “With these images we’ve gotten to a whole new level. We’re getting more interest from big foundations and increasing donations. A lot of those come in through the website and through stories that have Steve’s accompanying photos. It’s not just an L.A. story anymore, Winter’s photos have taken the international.

The campaign needs to raise $60 million to build a wildlife bridge over 10 lanes of L.A. traffic. Their goal is to be shovel ready by 2018. “There’s a certain urgency to this given the status of the mountain lion population. The researchers are watching things closely, but it doesn’t take much for things to go south quickly,” says Pratt. While the proposed wildlife bridge won’t help P-22 to get out of Griffin Park, it will help other mountain lions migrate and find each other, increasing the genetic flow and ultimately boosting the population.

Will Hollywood-storytelling – drama, charismatic characters, sex, taboos, and iconic images – help this conservation campaign raise the funds needed to save the L.A. cougars? No walking out on this flick, you’ll have to stick around until the very end to find out.

Find out more at Save the L.A. Cougars

Featured photo by Bas Lammers – originally posted to Flickr as Puma, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10745962

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