Rescued Jaguars, Cancun, Mexico, 2001

This surreal tale began in the 1980s, when police in Mexico began to seize exotic animals, particularly ‘exotic cats’ that were a symbol of status for drug lords, traffickers and other criminals. At the time there were no local zoos that were equipped to care for the beautiful creatures.

The police eventually turned the seized animals over to local restaurateur Juarez ‘Pepe’ Gil who planned on creating a sanctuary for them in Cancun. “Pepe Tiger” (as he was known) offered opportunities for tourists to swim with jaguars off the coast of Cancun and even dine with the tigers at his restaurant. In the following decades, the sanctuary was never built while urban sprawl continued and shopping malls and luxury apartments sprang up around this land on the outskirts of Cancun.

In 2005 the sanctuary was decimated by the destructive winds of Hurricane Wilma. Largely penniless and facing declining conditions, he stubbornly refused to give up his animals, which at the time include a rare Sumatran tiger. After years in court, in 2011 Pepe relented and turned over Federal Agency for Environmental Protection. Each animal was relocated to various Zoos throughout the country that could provide proper and much needed care.

Location: Cancun, Mexico
Photograph Date: 2001
Medium: Chromogenic Print
Edition: 20

Additional Information

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About the Photographer

Steve Winter

Steve Winter was steeped in photography almost from birth. At the age of seven, his father, who was a member of the local camera club in Fort Wayne, Indiana, gave him an Instamatic camera. Soon, father and son were winning prizes in the annual Kodak snapshot contest. But it was seeing the work of the great photojournalists of National Geographic and LIFE magazines that made him dream of being a photographer. Today, Steve is one of the best known wildlife photographers in the world, whose photos, like “Hollywood Cougar,” have become some of the most iconic images of our time.

Q & A

You specialize in wildlife photography. What attracts you to that? And how do you think photography can make a difference?

Photography can be a powerful tool. One of the most important things is to show people the natural world in a completely new way. Tigers are the number one animals in the world. But how do you connect that animal, and the landscapes in which it lives, to our daily lives? The forests are the lungs of the world, providing 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe and 75 percent of all fresh water. If you save jaguars in the Amazon, lions and leopards in Africa, or tigers in South Asia, you’re helping us save ourselves.

You are currently working on a worldwide leopard story for National Geographic. Tell us about the project—and how it can help save leopards.

Like my photo “Hollywood Cougar,” I am trying to find images that people haven’t seen before, which give them a reason to care not only about these animals but also about the ecosystems in which they live—and then transfer it back to their own lives.

There are almost 60 leopards living in Mumbai, the fourth largest city in the world. Instead of the clichéd image of a leopard lying in a tree, if we can show people something jaw-dropping—like a leopard walking at night 50 meters from an apartment block in Mumbai—people will stop and look at leopards in a new way.

National Geographic Image Collection Interview With Steve Winter By Simon Worrall

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