Filmmaker Adrian Steirn

Adrian-Steirn-1216Filmmaker, photographer and wildlife activist Adrian Steirn speaks to TV Real about The World’s Most Wanted Leopard, an ambitious new film spotlighting the search for the rarely documented Caucasian leopard, Europe’s last remaining indigenous leopard.

Shot in the stunning yet volatile mountains of Azerbaijan, The World’s Most Wanted Leopard was produced by Steirn’s South Africa-based company Ginkgo Agency. The hour-long doc is slated for broadcast at 8 p.m. on Nat Geo WILD in the U.K. tomorrow and in the U.S. on December 18. It will air as part of the channel’s Mission Critical strand, which focuses on endangered animals around the world.

TV REAL: What inspired you to make The World’s Most Wanted Leopard?
STEIRN: I love wildlife and live in South Africa, where we have some of the most incredible wildlife right on our doorstep. I’m also passionate about conservation and the power of photography and filmmaking as a means to generate meaningful change. So when I read a report that declared there was only a small population of Caucasian leopard left in the mountains in Azerbaijan, I had to find out more. The Caucasian leopard is not like our African leopards; it is not only one of the largest leopards in the world but also one of the most rare. It is on the Red List of critically endangered species and there was literally no documentary evidence of the population in Azerbaijan. But stories locally suggested a small number survived in the region, and this would make it Europe’s last leopard. I knew that if we could capture footage of this leopard, we might just have the chance to help save this amazing creature and prevent it from heading to extinction within our lifetime.

TV REAL: How did you go about capturing footage of the elusive Caucasian leopard, and what was it like filming in Azerbaijan?
STEIRN: We got in touch with IDEA, one of Azerbaijan’s leading conservation organizations, and met its founder Leyla Aliyeva. Leyla was fantastic; she shared our passion and introduced us to the Minister of Ecology. Together with the support of WWF and IDEA, we managed to get the approval of the government to explore the extremely remote mountains of Hirkan National Park, where the leopard was thought to be living. We were the first camera crew ever to have done so—and I soon found out why when we got there. A massive help came through our local guide, an incredible man called Babakhan Rakhmanov, who is known locally as the Leopard Man. Babakhan knows the land like the back of his hand and was instrumental in helping us find our way around the area and securing the best locations to place our camera traps.

[Filming] was a lot harder than anything I was expecting! The mountains were so remote and so vast, which played havoc with some of our tracking equipment and was much more physically demanding than I had anticipated it to be. It is a stunning country though, one of the most beautiful, ecologically diverse areas in the world. The climate also presented its own challenges: in the two years of filming we trekked through sub-tropical, semi-desert heat during the summer and freezing, snow-covered mountains in the winter.

TV REAL: What do you think makes this doc internationally appealing?
STEIRN: On a conservation level, the fact that we managed to capture the first known footage and clear still images of Azerbaijan’s critically endangered leopard is of huge international environmental significance. But on another level, I think the film is a demonstration of the power of perseverance and the importance of collaboration. We could not have achieved what we did without the guidance and local knowledge of Babakhan and support of IDEA and WWF to help open the right doors for our small film crew from Cape Town. What this has also proved, through the improved conservation efforts in the region, is that filmmaking can help make a difference and achieve change.

TV REAL: What was it like to work with Nat Geo WILD on the film?
STEIRN: Ben Noot, who commissioned it, and all of Nat Geo WILD have been hugely supportive of The World’s Most Wanted Leopard. They were intrigued by the story from the outset and were thrilled that we managed to find and document the leopard. The film is part of their Mission Critical strand and will help to propel the critically endangered Caucasian leopard into the conservation spotlight, which is so rewarding for us and for the people who have supported us.

The film and wider conservation efforts around the Caucasian leopard led to IDEA hosting a Caucasus Cat Summit in Azerbaijan, where leading international big cat and conservation experts gathered in Baku to discuss its long-term protection. The government of Azerbaijan, IDEA and WWF are committed to continuing to collaborate on Caucasian leopard conservation and have recently released new images taken on camera traps that have identified a female leopard and cubs, suggesting natural reintroduction is starting to happen in the region. This is huge news and shows that there could really be a positive future for the species.

TV REAL: What other projects are you currently working on?
STEIRN: I’ve recently launched a digital news platform called Beautiful News in South Africa, which delivers an inspiring story, told through film or images, each day that reflects the goodness of the South African people. Stories are released daily at 4:14 p.m., the exact time that Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and distributed on News24 across the country. I’m also working on a number of conservation projects around rhino poaching in Africa and recently released a collection of photographs and film about the pangolin, the world’s most traded mammal.