Now in its 55th year, the 2019 competition will see one hundred images across 19 categories displayed at the Natural History Museum, London from 18 October 2019 to 31 May 2020. From luminous underwater scenes to close-up animal portraits, horrifying images of wildlife abuse to stunning, untouched wildernesses, the collection lives up to its usual high standard, covering a dramatic range of landscapes, geographical regions and photographic styles.
Within each category, a top photograph has been chosen by an international panel of judges, with one award reserved for the overall winner. This year’s grand prize, chosen from almost 50,000 entrants, went to Yongqing Bao for his image The Moment, featuring a Tibetan fox and its desired prey: a particularly expressive and terrified marmot (see above). Hailing from the remote Chinese province of Qinghai, Bao is the first winner of the grand prize from China. His photograph is sure to prove a memorable addition to the winner’s gallery, capturing everything people love about this competition – raw animal power, humour and beauty.
Bao captured the shot in early spring on the alpine meadowland of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in China’s Qilian Mountains National Nature Reserve. The marmot was hungry. It was still in its winter coat and not long out of its six-month, winter hibernation, spent deep underground with the rest of its colony of 30 or so. It had spotted the fox an hour earlier, and sounded the alarm to warn its companions to get back underground. But the fox itself hadn’t reacted and was still in the same position. So the marmot had ventured out of its burrow again to search for plants to graze on. The fox continued to lie still. Then suddenly she rushed forward. Bao seized his shot. His fast exposure freezing the attack. The intensity of life and death was written on their faces – the predator mid-move, her long canines revealed, and the terrified prey, forepaw outstretched, with long claws adapted for digging, not fighting.
As has become common for the competition, several images draw attention to the plight of the natural world, with both its power and fragility in full relief. With the uncertain future high on the agenda it’s prescient that many of the photographers on display are at the very start of their careers. This year’s recipient of the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year Grand Title was New Zealander, Cruz Erdmann. At just 14, his photograph of a bigfin reef squid marks the start of a very promising photographic journey.
Erdmann was on an organized night dive in the Lembeh Strait off North Sulawesi, Indonesia and, as an eager photographer and speedy swimmer, had been asked to hold back from the main group to allow slower swimmers a chance of photography. This was how he found himself over an unpromising sand flat, in just three metres of water. It was here that he encountered the pair of bigfin reef squid. They were engaged in courtship, involving a glowing, fast‑changing communication of lines, spots and stripes of varying shades and colours. One immediately jetted away, but the other – probably the male – hovered just long enough for Erdmann to capture one instant of its glowing underwater show.
High on a ledge, on the coast near his home in northern Norway, Audun Rikardsen carefully positioned an old tree branch that he hoped would make a perfect golden eagle lookout. To this he bolted a tripod head with a camera, flashes and motion sensor attached, and built himself a hide a short distance away. From time to time, he left roadkill carrion nearby. Very gradually – over the next three years – a golden eagle got used to the camera and started to use the branch regularly to survey the coast below. Golden eagles need large territories, which most often are in open, mountainous areas inland. But in northern Norway, they can be found by the coast, even in the same area as sea eagles. For their size – the weight of a domestic cat but with wings spanning more than two metres – golden eagles are surprisingly fast and agile, soaring, gliding, diving and performing spectacular, undulating display flights. Audun’s painstaking work captures the eagle’s power as it comes in to land, talons outstretched, poised for a commanding view of its coastal realm.
In a winter whiteout in Yellowstone National Park, a lone American bison stands weathering the silent snow storm. Shooting from his vehicle, Waugh could only just make out its figure on the hillside. Bison survive in Yellowstone’s harsh winter months by feeding on grasses and sedges beneath the snow. Swinging their huge heads from side to side, using powerful neck muscles – visible as their distinctive humps – they sweep aside the snow to get to the forage below. Slowing his shutter speed to blur the snow and ‘paint a curtain of lines across the bison’s silhouette’, Waugh created an abstract image that combines the stillness of the animal with the movement of the snowfall. Slightly overexposing it to enhance the whiteout and converting the photograph to black and white accentuated the simplicity of the scene.
Red-hot lava tongues flow into the Pacific Ocean, producing huge plumes of noxious laze – a mix of acid steam and fine glass particles – as they meet the crashing waves. This was the front line of the biggest eruption for 200 years of one of the world’s most active volcanos – Kîlauea, on Hawaii’s Big Island. Kîlauea started spewing out lava through 24 fissures on its lower East Rift at the start of May 2018. In a matter of days, travelling at speed, the lava had reached the Pacific on the island’s southeast coast and begun the creation of a huge delta of new land. It would continue flowing for three months. By the time Vilariño Lopez could hire a helicopter with permission to fly over the area, the new land extended more than a mile from shore. Vilariño Lopez had limited time to work, with the helicopter forbidden to descend more than 1,000m and with the noxious clouds of acid vapour filling the sky. He had chosen to fly in late afternoon, so the side light would reveal the relief and cloud texture. Thick clouds of laze covered the coast, but as dusk fell, there was a sudden change in wind direction and the acidic clouds moved aside to reveal a glimpse of the lava lagoons and rivers. Framing his shot through the helicopter’s open door, he captured the collision boundary between molten rock and water and the emergence of new land.
The colony of garden eels was one of the largest Doubilet had ever seen, at least two thirds the size of a football field, stretching down a steep sandy slope off Dauin, in the Philippines – a cornerstone of the famous Coral Triangle. He rolled off the boat in the shallows and descended along the colony edge, deciding where to set up his kit. He had long awaited this chance, sketching out an ideal portrait of the colony back in his studio and designing an underwater remote system to realise his ambition. These warm-water relatives of conger eels are extremely shy, vanishing into their sandy burrows the moment they sense anything unfamiliar. Doubilet placed his camera housing just within the colony and hid behind the remnants of a shipwreck. From there he could trigger the system remotely. It was several hours before the eels dared to rise again to feed on the plankton that drifted by in the current. He gradually perfected the set-up, each time leaving an object where the camera had been so as not to surprise the eels when it reappeared. Several days later – now familiar with the eels’ rhythms and the path of the light – he began to get images he liked. When a small wrasse led a slender cornetfish through the gently swaying forms, he had his shot.
For the past 17 years Riku, a Japanese macaque legally captured from the wild, has performed comedy skits three times a day in front of large audiences at the Nikkō Saru Gundan theatre north of Tokyo. These highly popular shows, which attract both locals and tourists, derive from Sarumawashi (translated as ‘monkey dancing’) – a traditional Japanese performance art that has been around for more than 1,000 years. The appeal of these contemporary performances lies in the anthropomorphic appearance of the trained macaques – invariably dressed in costumes – that move around the stage on two legs performing tricks and engaging in ridiculous role-plays with their human trainers. Photography is banned at shows, and so it took a long time for Doest to gain permission to take pictures. Recording Riku’s performance on stage – here with one of the trainers dressed in a Scottish kilt – he was appalled that such intelligent animals, once considered sacred, are now exploited for laughs. Riku was finally retired in 2018.
On Pearl Street, in New York’s Lower Manhattan, brown rats scamper between their home under a tree grille and a pile of garbage bags full of food waste. Their ancestors hailed from the Asian steppes, travelling with traders to Europe and later crossing the Atlantic. Today, urban rat populations are rising fast. The rodents are well suited for city living – powerful swimmers, burrowers and jumpers, with great balance, aided by their maligned long tails. They are smart – capable of navigating complex networks such as sewers. They are also social and may even show empathy towards one another. But it’s their propensity to spread disease that inspires fear and disgust. Attempts to control them, though, are largely ineffective. Routine poisoning has led to the rise of resistant rats. Burrows have been injected with dry ice (to avoid poisoning the raptors that prey on them), and dogs have been trained as rat killers. The survivors simply breed (prolifically) to refill the burrows and gorge nightly on any edible trash left around. Lighting his shot to blend with the glow of the street lights and operating his kit remotely, James realised this intimate street-level view.
Festooned with bulging orange velvet, trimmed with grey lace, the arms of a Monterey cypress tree weave an otherworldly canopy over Pinnacle Point, in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, California, USA. Though the Monterey cypress is widely planted, it is native only on the Californian coast in just two groves. Its spongy orange cladding is in fact a mass of green algae spectacularly coloured by carotenoid pigments, which depend on the tree for physical support but photosynthesise their own food. The vibrant orange is set off by the tangles of grey lace lichen (a combination of alga and fungus), also harmless to the trees. After several days experimenting, Kovacevic decided on a close-up abstract of one particular tree. With reserve visitors to this popular spot confined to marked trails, she was lucky to get overcast weather (avoiding harsh light) at a quiet moment. She had just enough time to focusstack 22 images (merging the sharp parts of all the photos) to reveal the colourful maze in depth.
At dusk, Kronauer tracked the colony of nomadic army ants as it moved, travelling up to a quarter of a mile through the rainforest near La Selva Biological Station, northeastern Costa Rica. While it was still dark, the ants would use their bodies to build a new daytime nest to house the queen and larvae. They would form a scaffold of vertical chains by interlocking claws on their feet and then create a network of chambers and tunnels into which the larvae and queen would be moved. After 17 days on the move, the colony would then find shelter – a hollow tree trunk, for example – and stay put while the queen laid more eggs, resuming wandering after three weeks. One night, the colony assembled in the open, against a fallen branch and two large leaves that were evenly spaced and of similar height, prompting a structure spanning 50cm and resembling ‘a living cathedral with three naves’. Kronauer very gently positioned his camera on the forest floor within centimetres of the nest, using a wide angle to take in its environment, but wary of upsetting a few hundred thousand army ants. ‘You mustn’t breathe in their direction or touch anything connected to them,’ he says. The result was a perfect illustration of the concept of an insect society as a superorganism.
Every spring, for more than a decade, Plaickner had followed the mass migration of common frogs in South Tyrol, Italy. Rising spring temperatures stir the frogs to emerge from the sheltered spots where they spent the winter. They need to breed and head straight for water, usually to where they themselves were spawned. Mating involves a male grasping his partner, piggyback, until she lays eggs – up to 2,000, each in a clear jelly capsule – which he then fertilises. Plaickner needed to find the perfect pond in the right light at just the right time. In South Tyrol there are relatively few ponds where massive numbers of frogs still congregate for spawning, and activity peaks after just a few days. Plaickner immersed himself in one of the larger ponds, at the edge of woodland, where several hundred frogs had gathered in clear water. He watched the spawn build up until the moment arrived for the picture he had in mind – soft natural light, lingering frogs, harmonious colours and dreamy reflections. Within a few days the frogs had gone, and the maturing eggs had risen to the surface.
A small herd of male chiru leaves a trail of footprints on a snow-veiled slope in the Kumukuli Desert of China’s Altun Shan National Nature Reserve. A million chiru once ranged across this vast plateau, but commercial hunting in the 1980s and 1990s left only about 70,000 individuals. Rigorous protection has seen a small increase, but demand – mainly from the West – for chiru shawls still exists. It takes three to five hides to make a single shawl (the wool cannot be collected from wild animals, so they have to be killed). In winter, many chiru migrate to the relative warmth of the remote Kumukuli Desert. For years, Fan has made the arduous, high-altitude journey to record them. On this day the air was fresh and clear after heavy snow. Shadows flowed from the undulating slopes around a warm island of sand that the chiru were heading for, leaving braided footprints in their wake. From his vantage point more than half a mile away, Fan drew the contrasting elements together before they vanished into the warmth of sun and sand.
Marchgiani could not believe his luck when, at first light, this female gelada, with a week-old infant clinging to her belly, climbed over the cliff edge close to where he was perched. He was with his father and a friend on the high plateau in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains National Park, there to watch geladas – a grasseating primate found only on the Ethiopian Plateau. At night, the geladas would take refuge on the steep cliff faces, huddling together on sleeping ledges, emerging at dawn to graze on the alpine grassland. On this day, a couple of hours before sunrise, Marchgiani’s guide again led them to a cliff edge where the geladas were likely to emerge, giving him time to get into position before the geladas woke up. He was in luck. After an hour’s wait, just before dawn, a group started to emerge not too far along the cliff. Moving position while keeping a respectful distance – and away from the edge – he was rewarded by this female, who climbed up almost in front of him. Shooting with a low flash to highlight her rich brown fur against the still-dark mountain range, he caught not only her sideways glance but also the eyes of her inquisitive infant.
On holiday with his family in France, Easterbrook was eating supper in the garden on a warm summer’s evening when he heard the humming. The sound was coming from the fast-beating wings of a hummingbird hawkmoth, hovering in front of an autumn sage, siphoning up nectar with its long proboscis. Its wings are reputed to beat faster than the hummingbirds that pollinate the plant in its native home of Mexico and Texas. With the moth moving quickly from flower to flower it was a challenge to frame a picture. But Easterbrook managed it, while capturing the stillness of the moth’s head against the blur of its wings.
Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum, London and opens to the public on 18 October. Tickets are free for members and £13.95 for adults, £8.25 for children, £10.95 for concessions and £29-£39.50 for families. Book online to guarantee entry.
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