Rare black leopard caught on camera in Kenya. So, who deserves the credit?

Who was the first person to reach the summit of Mt. Everest? History records that it was Sir Edmund Hillary, on May 29, 1953, but purists have always wondered if his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, was the first to actually set foot on the summit. Hillary addressed this issue directly in an interview with National Geographic Adventurer contributing editor David Roberts in April, 2003, in a story titled “50 Years on Everest.”

“When we came out toward Kathmandu, there was a very strong political feeling, particularly among the Indian and Nepalese press, who very much wanted to be assured that Tenzing was first,” Sir Edmund recalled. “That would indicate that Nepalese and Indian climbers were at least as good as foreign climbers. We felt quite uncomfortable with this at the time. John Hunt, Tenzing, and I had a little meeting. We agreed not to tell who stepped on the summit first.

“To a mountaineer, it’s of no great consequence who actually sets foot first. Often the one who puts more into the climb steps back and lets his partner stand on top first.”

You may be wondering what the story of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on Mt. Everest has to do with a series of stunning photos published in the past 10 days of a rare black leopard on Kenya’s central Laikipia Plateau, but there is a connection.

It has to do with shared credit, and what the protocol is when a hard-earned wildlife photograph goes viral on social media and becomes front-page news for major news organizations around the world.

Who deserves credit? The person who took the photograph of a rare animal, or the person who found that rare animal in the first place.

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

It’s how that news was reported — on the BBC World News’ main website, for one— that the controversy started. 

Veteran UK nature photographer Will Burrard-Lucas, who leads photo expeditions of his own in Africa for avid shutterbugs and animal lovers, captured the startling image of a black panther — actually a regular leopard with a rare melanistic gene that causes the fur to appear black, though not a pure black exactly but grey, which is why the leopard’s spots, or rosettes, are clearly visible against the background fur when — using a remote-controlled trap camera. It was a local Samburu tracker and research assistant with the San Diego Zoo Global outreach NGO, Ambrose Letoluai, however, who knew where to find the leopard and told Burrard-Lucas where best to set the camera. LetoluaLetoluaii has lived his entire life in Koija, a small  village which borders Loisaba Conservancy, and was hired as a leopard researcher after recalling tales elders in his community had told him about black leopards being common on the Laikipia Plateau.

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

San Diego Zoo Global researchers, working with biologist Dr. Nicholas Pilfold, Ph.D deployed remote cameras as part of a larger-scale study aimed at understanding the population dynamics of leopards on conservation land that, like much of northern Kenya, is shared by both wildlife and pastoral cattle herders. Human-wildlife conflict is inevitable where goats and calves encounter an apex predator like a leopard, and researchers believe more needs to be known about wild animals’ habits if they are to have a chance to survive. Leopards are not critically endangered, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists them as “vulnerable” on its official Red List of threatened species.

Black panthers have always held a special place in the human imagination, in part because they’re seen so rarely and in part because they’re such a familiar symbol in popular culture.

Burrard-Lucas got wind of the Laikipia program and its trap cameras, and decided to try to fulfil a lifelong dream to capture a black panther, if not on film exactly, on-camera. Letoluai was his assigned minder — his Sherpa, if you will — and the subsequent images, part luck, part good timing and part insider knowledge, exceeded their expectations.

So far, so good.

The mainstream media like nothing better than a good story, though, and while “Night-time Photos of a Rare Black Leopard” might sound like a good story to some people, “First Black Leopard Spotted in 100 Years” sounds much better.

©Twitter / Will Burrard-Lucas

©Twitter / Will Burrard-Lucas

In a media climate desperate for some good news about the environment for a change, rare photos of an animal that hasn’t been seen for a century is a headline grabber.

There’s just one problem. It wasn’t true. Local media in Kenya, among them photojournalist and staff photographer Phoebe Okall of the Nairobi Daily Nation newspaper, had captured images of a black leopard in the wild just a few years ago.

Many Kenyans, politically sensitive toward any perceived slight by westerners in the post-colonial era of independence, saw this as a double insult: Ambrose Letoluai was being given enough credit for finding the black leopard on BBC World’s main news site, and local, Kenyan photojournalists were not being given any credit for having captured images of black leopards on not one but several occasions prior to “the first capture in 100 years.”

Burrard-Lucas, for his part, found himself caught in the middle. What should have been the crowning achievement of his photographic career — and still might — is suddenly at the centre of an increasingly noisy and fractious controversy.

He posted an immediate clarification on his website: He never said it was the first photo of a black leopard in 100 years. That was something the media added, for effect. He was also more than willing to credit Letoluai  for his work in setting up the camera trap — it’s quite common, and perfectly acceptable, for nature photographers to credit the guides who take them to the rare animals in the first place.

©Ambrose Letoluai 2019

©Ambrose Letoluai 2019

Earlier this week, a reasoned, thoughtful, well-researched — and properly sourced — article in the Washington Post, by general assignment reporters Alex Horton and Reis Thebault, sought to put an end to the controversy by outlining exactly what happened, who did what, where, how, why and, importantly, when.

The damage is done, though, and the outrage on social media sites like Twitter, mostly from Kenyans proud of their heritage and the wild animals they know as their own, continues unabated, even today.

Perhaps, if and when Burrard-Lucas’ images are recognized at some of the big wildlife photo awards, such as the UK Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards in October — which I suspect they just may — Burrard-Lucas and Letoluai can accept together, in person, much like Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay before them.

Enough about that, for now. Here, then, are some key links to the controversy, as it unfolded.




Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2018: The experts have spoken. Now it’s the people’s turn.

It’s a known fact: People trust customer reviews more than they do critics. As one influencer posted recently on Review Trackers — not exactly an unbiased source, as any objective, professional journalist worth their salt, would point out — “So it’s between the New York Times and Yelp.”

The academia website academia.edu recently asked — somewhat rhetorically — if consumer critics write differently from professional critics, while the self-explanatory site “Coaching for Leaders” (coachingforleaders.com) named “3 Differences Between Feedback and Criticism” (the Dale Carnegie principle: ‘Don’t criticize, condemn or complain’).

All of which is a roundabout way of taking a second look at the 54th annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards, announced just last week.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

I was fairly critical — and I stand by my criticism — of the judging committee’s choice for the top image this year, which favoured the safe and comfortable over last year’s daring and, some would say, controversial and inappropriate choice of a poached rhino, slaughtered for its horn, worth an estimated USD $120,000 on today’s black market. (Why ground powder from rhino horn, made of the same material — keratin — as our fingernails, should be so valuable to a primarily Asian market, and it is strictly an Asian market we’re talking about here, is a topic for a whole other debate.) One idea holds that wildlife photography awards should celebrate the beauty of nature; the other holds that, in the environmental catastrophe facing humankind and planet Earth today, the top award is better suited as a deliberate provocation, urging us to wake up and shake us out of our complacency.

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

Any award calling itself “the People’s Choice” wears its intention clearly and on its sleeve, though. Every year, following the WPOTY’s black-tie awards dinner at London’s Natural History Museum, the “Oscars of wildlife photography awards,” as they’ve been called, the judging committee announces 24 images shortlisted for the People’s Choice Award, which is announced the following February (voting for this year’s edition closes Dec. 13). Each visitor to the Natural History Museum’s website is allowed one vote, and one vote only. (This isn’t America’s Got Talent, where you can vote early and often, in almost as many different ways as you can think of.)

Anything open to the general public is driven by emotion, not reason.

That’s positive emotion, though. One of this year’s shortlisted finalists, of a starving polar bear, went viral around the world earlier this year. It sparked a lively and at times bitter debate about humankind’s effect on climate change in the polar regions. (Climate deniers refused to accept that the melting polar caps could have anything to do with a starving polar bear, et alone that humans might be responsible.) The image, by SeaLegacy conservation photographer Justin Hofman, is undeniably powerful, and has already proved influential, but I suspect it won’t win the people’s vote. (In his caption, titled “A Polar Bear’s Struggle,” Hofman admits his entire body was pained as he witnessed the starving bear scavenge for food at an abandoned hunter’s in the Canada’s high Arctic; the bear could barely stand under its own power, Hofman recalled.)

©Justin Hofman / SeaLegacy

©Justin Hofman / SeaLegacy

There’s nothing wrong, in this case, with favouring beauty over fragility. Inspiration works in wondrous, often mysterious ways. In a world beset by grim, increasingly bleak news — everything from climate change and dwindling food resources to a new mass extinction — one can’t fault people for looking for a ray of light in the darkness, wherever that light may be found.

As the Natural History Museum’s own guidelines for the Lumix People’s Choice award points out, they’re looking for a winning image that “puts nature in the frame,” something that reflects the beauty and fragility of the natural world — with the emphasis, I’m guessing, on “beauty.”

A conservation-photographer acquaintance and occasional travel companion tells me he’s doubtful of people’s choice awards as a rule, since a public vote tends to favour those finalists who have a sizeable social media following, and he has a point.

Still, as someone who pays attention to customer reviews — I’ve personally known a number of professional critics, in different fields, who are so screwed up I’m not sure I’d trust their judgment of anything, let alone something I care about — I’m always curious to see where popular tastes lie.

I’ve yet to decide which image I’ll be voting for myself, but I have narrowed my choice down to three or four candidates. I have until next month to make my final decision — and you to, too, if you choose to participate.

As with any vote, though, remember: If you don’t vote, when you had the chance, you can’t complain afterwards, if the vote didn’t go the way you want.


Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the world's most prestigious nature photography competition (WildlifePhotographerOfTheYear.com). This year’s finalists and winners, some 100 images in all, are on display at  London’s Natural History Museum from now until June 30, 2019. See  nhm.ac.uk/wpy for tickets.

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

When “Earth becomes Mars” — a global warning from inaugural Wildlife Photographer of the Year lifetime achievement recipient Frans Lanting.

“I think a photograph, of whatever it might be — a landscape, a person — requires personal involvement. That means knowing your subject, not just snapping what’s in front of you.”

That’s Frans Lanting, recipient of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards’ first Lifetime Achievement Award, earlier this week at London’s Natural History Museum. The ceremony just celebrated  its 54th year of existence, so while “lifetime achievement awards” are a dime a dozen these days — there’s even one for shoe salesmen — being the first in an organization that has existed for more than half a century is saying something.

Lanting, 67, a Dutch nature photographer based in Santa Cruz, Calif., has been at this game almost as long — so much so that, in addition to numerous published books, including several by the Cologne-based German art-house publisher Taschen and his personal website (lanting.com)

1. Screen Shot 2018-10-18 at 6.45.19 AM.png

he rates his very own page at BrainyQuote.com

. “I want to interpret the natural world and our links to it,” he says. “It’s driven by the belief of many world-class scientists that we’re in the midst of an extinction crisis. . . This time (of our own making.)”

Life is both wonderful and mysterious, he says.

“Life is a force in its own right. It is a new element. And it has altered the Earth. It covers Earth like a skin.”

And this, “Life needs a membrane to contain itself, so it can replicate and mutate.”

3. Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 8.51.00 PM.png

“I became interested in photography during my first visit to the United States. I was a student at a university in Holland. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the American West. That was when I learned about the tradition of nature in American photography.”

“Tourism is important,” Lanting adds, “because it can create sustainable local economies. I’d much rather have 1,000 tourists going up the Tambopata than 1,000 gold miners.”

©Frans Lanting

©Frans Lanting

And then there’s this:

“Water is the key to life, but in frozen form, it is a latent force. And when it vanishes, Earth becomes Mars.”

His wife, he says, “says that I become different once I start to work with animals. My movements become different, my mood is different. It involves letting everything fall behind you, becoming intuitive in your dealings with wild creatures in a way that bypasses reason. Sometimes it’s more like a dance than anything else.”

As with many nature photographers of his generation, Lanting’s work over the years has evolved from portrait and landscape photography to activism and conservation. He was appointed special ambassador for the World Wide Fund for Nature in 2012, and counts a World Press Photo award, the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography, an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society, the Lennart Nilsson Award and the Royal Geographical Society’s Cherry Kearton Medal among his list of honours.

“Nature is my muse,” Lanting has said, “and it’s been my passion.”

Some truths were meant to be self-evident.

5. 6308736-Frans-Lanting-Quote-Life-is-a-force-in-its-own-right-It-is-a-new.jpg
6. 1579163-Frans-Lanting-Quote-Water-is-the-key-to-life-but-in-frozen-form-it.jpg
7. 1579153-Frans-Lanting-Quote-What-my-eyes-seek-in-these-encounters-is-not.jpg

“Nice” is in, controversy is out at Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2018 awards.

The first thing to know about this year’s winners of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards is that this time, the jury shied away from controversy with its picks. “Nice” is the operative word in the 2018 edition, unlike last year, when South African photojournalist Brent Stirton’s image of a slaughtered rhino forced people to confront serious issues facing wildlife conservation today.

The inevitable result is that, as likeable as many of the 2018 winners are, collectively they’re unlikely to stir the kind of difficult debate about species extinction and the wanton slaughter of rare animals for their body parts many conservationists — and wildlife photographers — say is even more imperative today, in a Trump world of climate denial and environmental deregulation.

That means fewer angry emails to contest organizers from parents upset that their younger, more  impressionable children might be dissuaded from a career in conservation, because the winning image didn’t reflect the beauty and wonder of nature.

This year’s overall winning image — “The Golden Couple,” Dutch photographer Marsel van Oosten’s tender portrait of a pair of rare golden snub-nosed monkeys (Rhinopithecus roxellana) taken in central China’s Qinling Mountains, certainly evokes wonder. The image was chosen over 45,000 entries, from 95 countries. It will be one of 100 other images to go on display at London’s Natural History Museum, the 54th such exhibition in the world’s most prestigious, high-profile wildlife photography contest. The exhibition opens this weekend, Oct. 19th, and closes July 1st, next year.

In her statement to the world’s media this week, long-serving jury chair Roz Kidman Cox admitted the winning image is traditional — it’s a portrait, pure and simple — but then added, “But what a striking one, and what magical animals. It is a symbolic reminder of the beauty of nature and how impoverished we are becoming as nature is diminished. It is an artwork worthy of hanging in any gallery in the world.”

©Marsel van Oosten

©Marsel van Oosten

Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 8.35.37 PM.png

On one level, this is true. It’s hard to imagine Stirton’s dead rhino, blood still congealing from the stump where poachers hacked off its horn with a chain saw, being unveiled at the Louvre or the National Portrait Gallery.

For all Cox’s brave words, though, “The Golden Couple” is unlikely to make people stop and ask themselves, what happened here, who did this, why did they do it, and what can we do to prevent it from happening again.

Admittedly, it’s also hard to imagine Cox’s email in-box filling up with angry comments along the lines of last year’s, “How dare you? I’ll never follow your rotten contest again” viral outrage. As many upset patrons were only too happy to remind Cox then, nature photography is supposed to be about awe and  appreciation, about inspiration and inculcating our collective sense of wonder, and not something that’s shocking and awful.

©Natural History Museum

©Natural History Museum

I also know at least one prominent wildlife photographer and former WPOTY winner, a high-profile veteran who gives frequent lectures as part of National Geographic’s National Geographic Live! speaker series, who argues that the time for debate has passed, that it’s more important to shake people out of their complacency than to show them another pretty picture of a wonderful animal doing something wonderful. (Interesting fact: The award committee’s decision to opt for such a violent, off-putting image in last year’s edition sparked some of the most intense debate the jury committee can remember in awards history, but in the end the choice was unanimous. Yes, unanimous. Not only that, but that was reportedly the first time in the awards’ 54-year history that, in the end, the entire jury agreed on the final choice, without a single dissenting vote.)

Here, then, without further ado, is a selection of this year’s picks, along with a link to the Natural History Museum’s awards page, and a link to an investigative article about the precarious situation facing China’s dwindling population of golden snub nosed monkeys.

In a few days, I’ll be posting a profile of renowned wildlife photographer Frans Lanting, winner of this year’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award, but first this.



©Skye Maeker

©Skye Maeker

Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 8.36.40 PM.png
Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 8.44.59 PM.png
Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 8.45.14 PM.png
Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 8.46.30 PM.png
Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 8.46.59 PM.png
Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 8.47.52 PM.png
Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 8.48.06 PM.png
Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 8.57.53 PM.png
Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 8.58.16 PM.png
Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 8.56.25 PM.png
Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 8.56.53 PM.png

There are no good years or bad years anymore at Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards.

There are no longer good years or bad years at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards. The prestigious contest — half a century in the making — sponsored by London’s Natural History Museum, has never seemed more important.

This past weekend, some 14 commended images in this year’s edition — the 54th overall — were announced to the public. 

One of those images, South African nature photographer Isak Pretorius’ stirring image of a lion drinking from a reed-covered riverbank, has already been selected as the cover shot for Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio 28. The overall competition winners will be announced on Oct. 16, and a full exhibition of winners and finalists will go on display at the Natural History Museum three days later, on Oct. 19.




Submissions for next year’s 2019 WPOTY Awards open Oct. 22 and close on Dec. 13. The window is short, in other words — just eight weeks.

The past year has seen its fair share of controversy, from photojournalist Brent Stirton’s competition-winning 2017 image of a slaughtered rhino, its horn hacked off with a chainsaw by poachers — many viewers found the image to be disturbing and inappropriate for a competition supposedly designed to celebrate nature in all its beauty — to the disqualification of Brazilian photographer Marcio Cabral’s award-winning night image of an anteater moving towards termite mound that was later found to be staged. (The anteater turned out to be stuffed, arguably making it the most famous stuffed animal in the history of taxidermy.)

It will be instructive to see what image wins this year’s competition, because by focusing on a hard-hitting “message” picture last year, award judges were signalling that the most urgent issue facing wildlife today is environmental ruin, everything from habitat destruction to poaching and looming species extinction. It’s no longer enough, in other words, to celebrate natural beauty just for nature and beauty’s sake.

With no further ado, then, here’s a look at a few of this year’s commended images.

Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 9.56.07 AM.png
Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 9.57.20 AM.png
Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 9.57.35 AM.png
Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 9.58.44 AM.png
Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 9.59.03 AM.png
Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 9.59.26 AM.png
Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 9.59.42 AM.png
Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 10.00.03 AM.png
Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 10.00.27 AM.png

Another photo contest, another scandal: Welcome to the world of temptation-by-social-media and instant gratification.

Here we go again. Another photo contest, another scandal. Consider it a scourge of the digital age. Digital technology, the very thing that made wildlife photography easier — less time trying to match ISO with available light; less time worrying about whether you’re running out of film at that exact moment your subject is about to do something, anything, let alone the very thing you’ve been waiting all this time for; less time fretting about whether the subject is even in focus to begin with — has also made it easier to fake that seeming once-in-a-lifetime capture.

Digital manipulation leaves a trace, but that still means a wildlife image can be staged, using a captive animal or — as in this most recent accusation — a possibly stuffed animal. Digital technology can make tiny, telling details that would otherwise send up a warning flag almost seamless. 

Prize-winning nature photographer Marcio Cabral has been accused of using a stuffed anteater in his Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest image — now removed by contest sponsors from the London Natural History Museum exhibit of last year’s winning and nominated images — of an anteater eying a termite mound glowing with bioluminescence, beneath a starlit sky in Brazil’s grasslands. The image was named best-in-show in the prestigious contest’s “Animals in Their Environment” category.

©Marcio Cabral/Natural History Museum WPOTY 2017 via The Guardfian

©Marcio Cabral/Natural History Museum WPOTY 2017 via The Guardfian

Questions were raised after an “anonymous third party” flagged the eerie similarities between the anteater in the Cabral photograph and a taxidermy anteater displayed at one of the entrances to Brazil’s Emas National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the same park Cabral said he had scoured for three years at night, trying to get the distinctive image. 

©Natural History Museum (UK)

©Natural History Museum (UK)

In what seems a shame for the other shortlisted candidates in the category, contest organizers say they are vacating Cabral’s win and will not replace his image with another winner. The names of the other finalists were announced last October, the Natural History Museum explained, which means the judges “can no longer render an objective decision.”

I’m not sure I follow that logic — surely the judges can get together in a conference call and decide which of the runners-up they like best in retrospect, but then I’m not privy to the details of the case behind the scenes. The only thing that does seem clear is that the entire situation is a mess. (Photographers who submit images to the WPOTY competition must sign a waiver saying their image has not been staged or manipulated in any way, standard practice in virtually all nature-photo competitions nowadays. It’s largely based on an honour system, though; detection, where it exists at all, is usually after-the-fact and difficult to enforce.)

Cabral denies the accusation, and that’s important to note. The thing with photography, especially wildlife photography, is that much of it has to be taken on faith. Nature photographers, by definition, spend long hours under stressful conditions in the middle of nowhere, often unseen by other human eyes. It’s the nature of the beast, if you will. Nature photography is based on the honour system; there often aren’t witnesses to corroborate or refute the conditions under which an image was captured. The reputable nature photographers who’ve made a name for themselves, often but not always with well-established media organizations like National Geographic and Getty Images, form a close, tight-knit community, in part because it’s a tough job, tougher than it looks, and in part because it’s a hard way to make a living, let alone establish a reputation as one of the world’s best. 

The advent of social media has created a field of intense competition, where clicks and “likes” count for everything. That wasn’t the case just 10 years ago, at least not to the extent it is today. Established conservation photographers like Steve Winter, Michael “Nick” Nichols, Beverly Joubert, Paul Nicklen, Brent Stirton (below), Ami Vitale, Cristina Mittermeier — even a young up-and-comer like New Jersey teen Ashleigh Scully — don’t need to prove themselves.

©Brent Stirton.com

©Brent Stirton.com

For relative unknowns looking to break in, though, the temptation to game the system must be great indeed, especially in a present-day social milieu that seems to be driven more and more by instant gratification. We live in a wired, connected world after all, where even some bozo on YouTube can become a millionaire overnight, based on little more than clickbait and trending views.

Reaction to the Cabral controversy has ranged from mild surprise to shock — “I find it disheartening that a photographer would go to such lengths to deceive the competition and its worldwide following,” WPOTY 2017 judge Roz Kidman Cox said Friday in a statement — but perhaps the real surprise is that it doesn’t happen more often. By its nature, nature photographer can be about getting that one image of a lifetime, though it’s also true that the most respected, admired photographers are those who have a proven track record over time. 

Cox is no dilettante; she was editor of Wildlife Magazine (now BBC Wildlife) for more than two decades, and has been a judge of Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition since 1981.

Brent Stirton, a South Africa-born, New York-based war correspondent for Getty Images who won the 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for his haunting, hard-to-look-at image of a rhino slaughtered for its horn, was quoted at length in The Guardian as saying he couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to fake an image and then try to pass it off in such a high-profile competition, knowing it would be scrutinized not just by other photographers but also by behavioural scientists — actual field biologists who study animals for a living and can spot questionable behaviour and situations in a heartbeat. Stirton knows a thing or two about the danger genuine nature photographers find themselves in; after surreptitiously taking an award-winning photo of a poached mountain gorilla in Congo’s Virunga National Park in July, 2007, he was told in no uncertain terms to get out of there fast because, “People were looking for him.” People with guns. And a proven track record of using them.

©Brent Stirton/Natural History Museum WPOTY 2017 via The Guardfian

©Brent Stirton/Natural History Museum WPOTY 2017 via The Guardfian

The London Natural History Museum is not some monkey exhibit at the local library; submitting a faked photo to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards is a little like trying to pass off a plagiarized novel in front of the Pulitzer Prize award committee.

Behavioural science is one thing, where animals are concerned. Who, though, can figure out what gets into human beings’ minds at times?

Whether the Cabral photo was faked or not, only Cabral can know for certain. The contest judges — and the independent scientists they canvassed — seemed to think so. In retrospect, if not at the time.seemed






Winter is coming for the polar bear — and not in a good way.

“Polar bears require more food to survive than thought,” read Friday’s heading in Scientific American. CNN International’s take: “Polar bears face extinction faster than thought, study says.”

The New York Times’ told a similar story: “What Cameras on Polar Bears Show Us: It’s Tough out There.”

There’s more.

“Polar bear videos reveal impact of melting Arctic sea ice,” CBS News reported.

“Polar Bears Are Fighting For Survival as Melting Arctic Ice Cuts Off Their Only Food Source,” Newsweek’s heading warned.

“Polar Bears Really Are Starving Because of Global Warming, Study Shows,” was National Geographic’s take.

BBC News took a simpler route: “Polar bears ‘running out of food,’ study says."

Results of a study on a group of polar bears off Alaska’s Arctic coast were published late last week in the journal Science, and they make for grim reading, even aside from the technical jargon and sheer weight of detail, as scientific reports tend to be. ”Regional declines in polar bear (Ursus maritimus) populations have been attributed to changing sea ice conditions, but with limited information on the causative mechanisms. By simultaneously measuring field metabolic rates, daily activity patterns, body condition, and foraging success of polar bears moving on the spring sea ice, we found that high metabolic rates (1.6 times greater than previously assumed) coupled with low intake of fat-rich marine mammal prey resulted in an energy deficit for more than half of the bears examined.”

(Link to the original here: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6375/568.full)

In more simple terms that anyone can understand, the 2,600-word final report can be summarized in a few basic highlight notes:

©CC0 Creative Commons/Pixabay

©CC0 Creative Commons/Pixabay

Arctic sea ice is melting faster than expected. Faster even than the most dire predictions.

Temperatures are wamwarminging more quickly in the Arctic than anywhere else on the planet, for whatever reason.

Polar bears need seals for food, in order to survive.

The less sea ice there is, the harder it is for the bears to get at the seals.

The harder it is for bears to find seals, the more energy they expend looking for those seals. This is not rocket science.

The more energy they expend, the more food they need to survive.

The less food bears find, the less energy they have to hunt.

And so on.

Over time, the process speeds up rather than slows down. If bears are in trouble today — and they are — then by tomorrow they be gone entirely.

©CC0 Creative Commons/Pixabay

©CC0 Creative Commons/Pixabay

This isn’t hyperbole or alarmist claptrap designed to gin up donations to conservation organizations — it’s basic fact.

Charles Darwin’s landmark studies in species survival are often mistranslated as  “Survival of the Fittest,” when in fact Darwin’s theory of evolution focused in the main on natural selection — a species' ability to adapt to a changing environment, rather than which individual species is best positioned to win a physical fight.

Polar bears could adapt to a life without sea ice and seals, given time. But they don’t have that time.

And eating out of garbage dumps in Churchill, Manitoba one month of the year isn’t going to cut it.

Polar bears are terrific swimmers — adaptability at work — but they’re not sea mammals. They’re not whales. In open water — i.e. the open ocean — they will drown.

They stay close to land in most cases, and need ice floes to climb onto and rest. If there are no ice floes — and in recent summers, Arctic sea ice has disappeared entirely and the Northwest Passage has opened up to regular sea traffic — they will drown as quickly as any grizzly or black bear that suddenly finds itself out at sea, with nowhere to swim to.

©CC0 Creative Commons/Pixabay

©CC0 Creative Commons/Pixabay

The study tracked nine female polar bears fitted with high-tech tracking collars and GPS cameras, as they foraged for food in the Beaufort Sea, off the coast of Alaska. The study was sponsored by the United States Geological Survey and conducted by researchers from the University of California Santa Cruz (UC-Santa Cruz) over the course of three consecutive springs, in 2014, 2015 and 2016 (https://news.ucsc.edu/2018/02/polar-bears.html).

The study follows on the heels of dramatic — and heartbreaking — video footage that went viral in early December, of a disoriented, starving polar bear in Canada’s far north. That video, taken by one-time biologist-turned-photographer and environmental activist Paul NIcklen, together with National Geographic lecturer and photojournalist Cristina Mittermeier, founders of the non-profit group Sea Legacy, shook ordinary, everyday  people to the core, because it showed a tragedy-in-the-making in simple, stark, emotional terms that no peer-reviewed scientific study can. (Nicklen and Mittermeier’s work is easy to find; Nicklen, a former Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Mittermeier, an environmental photographer who specializes in indigenous cultures throughout the Americas and Pacific Region, have had their work exhibited in galleries around the world.)

©CC0 Creative Commons/Pixabay

©CC0 Creative Commons/Pixabay

The original video — warning: it’s not easy to watch — can be found by following the links from National Geographic’s main website (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/02/polar-bears-starve-melting-sea-ice-global-warming-study-beaufort-sea-environment/) reignited the debate about what’s happening to the world’s polar bears.

Since the polar bear is one of the most easily recognized and readily identifiable living beings on the planet, it highlights a basic, simple question anyone and everyone needs to be asking themselves:

If we can’t save an iconic species like the polar bear, what can we save? Food for thought, if not exactly food for the bears.


A note on the video links below: The first is a generic news item from earlier in the week from CNN International, about the USGS UC-Santa Cruz survey. The second is an 18-minute TED Talk Paul Nicklen gave in 2011. Yes, that’s years ago now but, if anything, it’s even more relevant today than then. It has everything you might expect from a TED Talk: a compelling story, a charismatic storyteller, and a real emotional punch at the end. Well worth seeing, and seeing all the way through.

The images that force you to look away are often the most effective: National Geographic photographer Steve Winter.

It’s the images you don’t want to see — the ones that make you want to turn the page — that are most important to Steve Winter.

The career National Geographic photographer, a past recipient of the UK Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year top honour — and a nominee again this past year, in the environmental awareness category — doesn’t see his role so much as inspiring a love for nature as galvanizing people to action. And as much as his photos of tiger moms playing with their cubs have moved a generation of National Geographic readers over his 35-year-plus career as a cameraman specializing in big cats in the wild, he sees his role now as warning the world that planet Earth’s remaining wild cats — all of them — are in serious trouble.

Winter’s pioneering work with jaguars in the jungles and riverine rainforests of Brazil — he was the first staff photographer in National Geographic history to do a photo essay for the magazine on the world’s third-largest and arguably most elusive big cat — is on full display in NatGeo’s December, 2017 issue, in an article headed “Kingdom of the Jaguar.” 

Winter didn’t want the article to be another photo essay on the natural history of South America’s most elusive jungle predator but rather a carefully researched treatise on the threats faced by jaguars in the wild, from development projects to poaching, and the effect the jaguar’s population crash is having on local indigenous culture and heritage.

©Steve Winter/National Geographic

©Steve Winter/National Geographic

In a wide-ranging, exclusive sit-down conversation this past summer in Los Angeles, Winter — fresh off a plane from Peru — explained that while he appreciates Sir David Attenborough’s assessment during a 60 Minutes interview that nobody wants to be told the world is going to hell and it’s all their fault, it’s time for all of us realize what’s happening behind the camera on all those pretty pictures.

“I believe you have to find a way to show the reality that these animals are living,” Winter said. “Because that narrow view of a mouse jumping around on a blade of grass that I just saw on Planet Earth II yesterday is just that — a narrow view of that animal’s world. But beyond that, the world could be different.”

As an example, Winter cited his photography of tigers in the wild, a lifelong project that has seen him visit most of India and Nepal’s major wildlife parks over a 30-year period.

“I’m doing tigers,” he recalled, “and I keep hearing about Tadoba, Tadoba, Tadoba. Taboba Tiger Reserve. So, I see pictures of Tadoba. And they’re regular old tiger pictures, nothing unusual. 

“Then, one day, I’m driving up to the park gate and I’m surrounded by the biggest coal mine I’ve ever seen in my life. Open pit. And at the edge of that coal mine is the beginning of this tiger reserve. Now that tiger reserve is under direct threat because of the coal mine — but I’ve never, ever seen a photograph of it.

©Dhiraj Singh/Greenpeace

©Dhiraj Singh/Greenpeace

“So I go in, take pictures, then we do a video for Nat Geo, and I go in again. No one questions me because I’m a westerner. I stand on top of a rise, wait for these giant trucks to come by with tires as big as this ceiling. 

“I feel that that’s important, because you have to understand that all the protected areas in India lie on top of these coal reserves and they have a new prime minister, Manmohan Singh Narendra Modi, who would like to go in and take that.

“Now if you don’t realize the extent of that, that if you walk back not that far from the border of the park you’d fall into one of the biggest mine pits I’ve ever seen — if you don’t know that exists — then you can’t put those two things together. This reserve is under threat, and that’s important because this is the stronghold, the foundation for all the other wild tigers on the face of the earth.

“By telling people about that, you’re not beating anybody over the head. You’re just showing people the reality of the situation. We have problems. We also have solutions. I’m one of the most positive guys on the face of the earth. But I do not believe that if I just showed you these pristine tiger families and their cubs, without telling you about the other issues, I’m not doing my job. The story that needs to be told about tigers is completely different than any story we’ve heard. That was a long answer, but, you know, it’s important that people know this. “

S.Winter Tigers-Forever book cover.jpg

Winter began his career as a traditional photojournalist, covering the world’s hot spots and recording the remains of vanishing cultures. He came to nature photography late in life; he estimates he didn’t see his first big cat in the wild until he was in his early 30s. Interestingly enough, given the subject matter of his photo essay for this month’s National Geographic, that cat turned out to be a jaguar. And a black jaguar at that, that scratched at his screen door late one night while he was overnighting in the rainforests of Guatemala.

It was a very different animal, though, in a very different part of the world, that made him realize the power of those disturbing photos that make you want to turn the page.

“The pictures you don’t want to look at are very important,” Winter said. “Those are the images that have done more in my career than any other. Because I saw how they propelled people to action.

“The best example I can think of, from early in my career, was when I did a story on the Kamchatka bears. We were invited by this outfitter to come to this hunting camp in Alaska. They were losing all these 14-, 15-foot bears. The guy knew why; I just don’t think he wanted to admit it. It was because they had a guaranteed hunt, which means nobody would leave without a dead bear. A bear trophy. Obviously, they were killing everything, including young females.

“I had a picture of all these skinned bears, the heads sitting in the snow, with bare teeth, skinned heads. It couldn’t have been more gross. The heads were getting ready to go into the hot springs, which would get all the dead meat off, leaving a perfectly clean skull, courtesy of mother nature. 

©Steve Winter

©Steve Winter

“Well, right off the bat, that project got a hundred grand. It turns out each hunting outfit was counting each bear three times. So they thought they had three times more bears than they actually had.

“I saw then that the pictures that make people want to turn the page actually brought about more change for that specific species than any of the pretty pictures that I could have gotten.”

Winter’s most famous image — by far — was of a wild mountain lion living literally in the Hollywood Hills, surrounded by a metropolitan area of some 10 million residents. Winter used a camera trap, a technique he pioneered decades earlier while doing a story on the elusive snow leopard in the mountains of Nepal. 

©Steve Winter/National Geographic

©Steve Winter/National Geographic

“The photo of the Hollywood cougar galvanized the people of LA,” Winter recalled. “The image on the front page of the LA Times excited people. It made them realize they live in such a huge metropolitan area, and yet there is actually a mountain lion in an eight-square-mile park.

“There were maybe only five people who’d truly ever seen that cat with their own eyes, and yet there are 10 million visitors a year to that park. That really woke people up.”

In a post later this week, Winter expounds on what makes a great photograph; on how camera traps changed the game, both for him personally and for conservation photography in general; on when he felt most awkward while on the job; on what it feels like to return to civilization after weeks and even months in the wilderness; on what National Geographic meant to him growing up as a small boy in rural Indiana, and what the society has brought to the world today; on the special challenges posed by jaguars; and why he now considers the lecture circuit to be his greatest calling.

©Steve Winter/Finalist, NHM Wildlife Photographer of the Year, 2017.

©Steve Winter/Finalist, NHM Wildlife Photographer of the Year, 2017.

“Pictures that you don’t want to look at sometimes have more power,“ Winters said in a 2014 promo reel for National Geographic. “I mean, beauty’s one thing. Heartbreak is another. Pictures that you just can’t stand looking at are the ones that maybe have the most power.”

Winter’s latest nature film, Jaguar vs. Croc, anchors National Geographic Channel’s “Big Cat Week,” premiering Dec. 10 at 9/8c.

Not just a pretty picture: Wildlife Photographer of Year Awards strive to save the planet.

A saved but caged Sumatran tiger. A tiny seahorse clinging to a discarded Q-tip cotton swab to swim downstream. Anemone fish showing off parasitic isopods that live inside their mouths (banner, above). An Arctic fox carrying a stolen egg. An elephant matriarch caught in repose after she’s led her herd to water during a dry spell.

These are the finalists in the 53rd annual running of the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards, to be presented Tuesday night at La black-tie ceremony at London’s Natural History Museum.

©2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

©2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The awards feature categories ranging from animal portrait to emerging young photographers, aged 11-14. One of the distinguishing features of this year’s competition is that two of the 13 finalists for Wildlife Photograph of the year — the WPOTY equivalent of best-in-show — come from the young age group: Laura Albiac Vilas’ blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of a rare Iberian lynx in Spain’s Sierra de Andújar Natural Park, and Ashleigh Scully’s serendipitous capture of a bear cub hugging its mother in Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park.

©Ashleigh Scully/2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

©Ashleigh Scully/2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

As in past years, though, it’s the environmental awareness images — the photos that trigger an emotional and intellectual debate about habitat destruction, climate change and the sixth mass extinction — that are causing the biggest stir. Veteran National Geographic big-cat specialist Steve Winter’s image of an adolescent Sumatran tiger snarling in a cage, shortly after having a badly damaged leg amputated, and California photographer Justin Hofman’s image of a seahorse swimming against a sea of muck, are standouts.

©Justin Hofman/2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

©Justin Hofman/2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Hofman’s seahorse, in particular, has gone viral, in part because it’s an artistically striking image — brilliant colour rendition and near-perfect compositional balance — and primarily because it tells such a vital story.

“It’s a photo I wish didn’t exist but now that it does, I want everyone to see it,” Hofman posted on his Instagram account (https://www.instagram.com/justinhofman/). “What started as a cute opportunity to photograph a cute little seahorse turned into one of frustration and sadness as the incoming tide brought with it countless pieces of trash and sewage.”

Hofman captured the image off the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, where he happened to be diving at the time. As striking to the eye as the image is, it tells a disturbing story about the daily travails of marine life living in seas and oceans choked by human and industrial pollution.

“This seahorse drifts along with the trash day in and day out as it rides the currents that flow along the Indonesian archipelago,” Hofman continued on Instagram. “This (image) serves as an allegory for the current and future state of our oceans. What sort of future are we creating? How can your actions shape our planet?”

Indonesia is increasingly in the environmental crosshairs. Winter’s injured tiger was captured in Indonesia; last year’s winning WPOTY image, captured by Tokyo-born National Geographic wildlife photojournalist Tim Laman, was of an Indonesian orangutan — critically endangered, owing to the wholesale destruction of its forest habitat. In a 2015 Environmental Health Perspectives study, Indonesia ranked second only to China among the world’s largest producers of marine pollution on the planet, thanks to more than 3 million metric tons of plastic waste dumped into the ocean every year.

©Tim Laman/2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

©Tim Laman/2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Hofman hopes his photo will shake people’s complacency and help galvanize change.

This year’s 13 finalists were chosen from a shortlist of 100 images, themselves culled from more than 50,000 entries from 92 countries around the world.

London’s Natural History Museum will present a full exhibition of images from Oct. 20 through the spring, in the hopes that, to paraphrase the late jazz great Louis Armstrong, humanity may once again see skies of blue and clouds of white, the bright blessed day and dark sacred night, so we may collectively once again be able to think to ourselves, what a wonderful world.

©2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year   

©2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year


©Sergey Gorshkov/2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year   

©Sergey Gorshkov/2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year


A bolshie speaks! Save the planet first, then save the elephants.

Yes, yes, environment writer Lucy Siegle wrote this past weekend in the Sunday Observer: It’s all very chic to save the elephant — or the rhino or cheetah, for that matter — but what about the world?

In a heartfelt essay, Siegle singled out the likes of UK environment minister Michael Gove and Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge — the créme de la créme of the chattering classes — as being little more than dilettantes, figurehead conservationists drawn to high-profile campaigns to save icon species like so many moths to the flame. 

©Adnan Abidi/AP

©Adnan Abidi/AP

Siegle admitted her stance will get her disinvited to any number of black-tie environmental soirées — no canapés at the Natural History Museum for you! — but the real world of conservation, she argued, is gritty, grimy and decidedly unglamourous.

It didn’t help the optics that last week’s announcement that Britain’s Conservative government is widening its ivory ban to include ivory carvings made prior to 1947 — dropped from the Tories’ recent election manifesto — kicked off a weekend of elephant celebrations that included “a copcktail and canapé send-off for a fleet of 50 Gujarati Chagda bikes under the Travels to My Elephant initiative, attended by the Duchess of Cambridge, and the Warrior Games promising (retired) Maasai spears and Maasai photographs taken by Jack Brockway (Richard Branson’s nephew) in the company of HRH Eugenie.”

Bolshie! Satisfying as it may be, though, to see the upper classes brought down a peg or two, there’s a sober point here. Framing the ecological debate through a single species can seem myopic when the future of the entire planet is at stake. Scientists warnthat we have already triggered the sixth great mass extinction. This one is different, too, because it’s the first mass extinction of our own making. There’s not much point in saving the elephant if there are no savannahs left in Africa or Asia for them to roam.

©Biplab Hazra-Nature InFocus

©Biplab Hazra-Nature InFocus

There’s more to saving the orangutan, in other words, than throwing a black-tie soirée or sponsoring a 10K run through the smog-choked streets of London. Environmental activism is messy, grubby and often nasty. 

“If your gateway to environmentalism is saving a big beast, great,” Siegle argued in the Sunday Observer. “But (your) next move needs to be switching your bank account so that your money is no longer funding the destroyers of Sumatran forests for palm oil.”

Whenever a nob, a royal or another standing member of posh society lectures the unwashed on the merits of saving elephants, or whatever the icon species-of-the-moment happens to be, Siegle says that, to her, the great unspoken question — the elephant in the room, if you will — is: “When did your family stop hunting big game and decide to save it?’

Bolshie! Sometimes, though, even bolshies have a point.



©Hilary O'Leary/Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year

©Hilary O'Leary/Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year

When the ‘wild’ in wildlife photography isn’t all that.

Two photos. One, immaculately composed, brightly lit, showing a mountain lion, bright-eyed and well-fed in the foreground against a pristine backdrop of fresh snow. Its furry coat is glossy, every hair in place; the photo itself is in carefully measured, brilliantly sharp focus.
The second photo, in focus but otherwise unprepossessing from a technical standpoint, shows a mountain lion, skinny and weather-beaten, huddling under a rocky overhang. The semi-cave is open to the elements; the mountain lion, in dimly lit shadow is in the background. If you had not been told there was a mountain lion there, you might easily miss it. As a photo, you wouldn’t give it a second glance.
One photo becomes a lightning rod for public attention; the other is quickly forgotten.
It should be no surprise which photo was submitted to a number of prestigious wildlife photography contests.
There’s just one problem — a minor problem or a major problem, depending on your personal sense of ethics and what, if anything, constitutes a legitimate wildlife photo.
The first photo was taken in a game farm, the kind that has been proliferating of late in rural states in the continental U.S. and Canada, where visiting photographers are charged a fee — substantial, in some cases — for access to the animals.

©Phil Ryan/Triple D Game Farm

©Phil Ryan/Triple D Game Farm

Photographers pay a set fee for each, individual species. Bears fetch more than raccoons, and Siberian tigers are at the top of the pay scale. The animals are kept in enclosures and released into a wild-looking compound, with a handler directing their every move, when a paying photographer visits.
The second photo, taken by a field biologist fed up with seeing photos of well-fed, “happy” mountain lions supposedly living in the wild, wanted to take a “real” photo, to show ordinary, everyday animal lovers just how hard life in the wild can be for an apex predator living rough. There is no such things as a well-fed wild mountain lion in winter. Big cats don’t die of comfortable old age; they either starve, being too old to fend for themselves, or are killed by a younger, fitter, more aggressive cat moving in on its territory.

©Phil Ryan/Triple D Game Farm

©Phil Ryan/Triple D Game Farm

It may seem like semantics, but the issue of whether wildlife photos depict genuinely wild animals behaving naturally, without the use of bait or the promise of easy food, or whether they’re taken of captive animals under controlled circumstances has taken on added significance now that environmental and conservation photography is as prestigious as commercial art photography and photojournalism. The London Natural History Museum’s annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and the U.S.-based Nature’s Best Awards, which culminates in an annual gallery display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC are serious, well-attended events.

©Scott Joshua Dere/Nature's Best Photography

©Scott Joshua Dere/Nature's Best Photography

Natural history photography is now a regular component of the World Press Photo awards and the annual Magnum Photography Awards, open to submissions right now, until the end of the month.
National Geographicwhich encourages amateur photographers to submit images to their daily “Your Shot” competition, as well as semi-annual nature and travel photographer-of-the-year competitions, features a disclaimer in its award contests requiring photographers to sign an affidavit confirming that any images of wildlife were taken in the wild unless noted otherwise.
Most people judge a photograph on its merits — either it’s a compelling photo or it isn’t — but the issue of breeding captive animals for photographic purposes has also become an animal-rights issue.  Many game-farm animals are abused or are penned up in small, uncomfortable enclosures when no one is looking, as the following links to news sites show.





As with so many divisive issues, there is no easy answer, no clear-cut set-of-rules.
Swiss-born, Vancouver-based nature photographer Daisy Gilardini, whose near-miraculous sequence of photos of a mother polar bear with two virtually newborn cubs has won several prestigious awards in the past year, captured her polar bear images last March northern Canada’s Wapusk National Park, in Manitoba, in temperatures reaching 50 below zero.

©Daisy Gilardini/Nature's Best

©Daisy Gilardini/Nature's Best

It was so cold, she says, she felt shaken to the core of her being. Even for someone born and raised in the Italian-Swiss Alps, huddling in minus-50-degree temperatures for a picture of a polar bear seemed extreme — but the sacrifice was worth it in the end.
Gilardini is an avowed believer in the idea that “wild is wild,” and that images of captive or baited animals have no place in wildlife photography competitions.
Her image “Hitching a Ride” was shortlisted forthe 2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year’s “People’s Choice Awards,” subject to a popular vote.

©Daisy Gilardini/WPOTY People’s Choice Award

©Daisy Gilardini/WPOTY People’s Choice Award

Another image in the same category, a visually striking close-up of a crocodile chomping down on a ball of loose meat, was taken in a private game reserve in South Africa; the crocodile was lured to a hide by bait from the carcass of an animal that had been killed on a nearby reed island.

©Bence Mate/WPOTY People's Choice Award

©Bence Mate/WPOTY People's Choice Award

Another, even more evocative image in the category, showed a Japanese macaque’s hand gently cradling her sleeping baby. The image was taken at Japan’s world-famous Jigokudani Monkey Park, outside Nagano, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics.

©Alain Mafart Renodier/WPOTY People's Choice Award

©Alain Mafart Renodier/WPOTY People's Choice Award

Jigokudani Monkey Park is a wilderness area, famous for its snow monkeys. The monkeys are fed by park attendants — so they can be seen by tourists year-round and not just during the four months of the year it snows — the monkeys are not considered genuinely wild.
Does it really matter?
Possibly not. Except that — quite aside from the moral question of ethical treatment of animals — a competition that promotes itself as a wildlife photography contest, or even a nature photography contest, should be a true reflection of nature and the wilderness at its most wild, with no interference from outside agents, either it’s the photographer or actual, trained animal handlers.
It’s called wildlife photography, after all. The clue is in the name.





The familiar, seen in new, unfamiliar ways

Memories are short, attention spans even shorter. 

With competition about to close in the 2016 Natural History Museum Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards, it’s worth taking another look at last year’s winner, announced this past October. (Yes, unlike some outfits, the NHM judges take their time before picking the winner from thousands of entries.)

Contest rules state that the judges are looking for an image that is not only technically proficient and emotionally moving but that reflects our changing environment in some way. It must be a picture with a message, in other words.

That’s why American ornithologist Tim Laman’s point-of-view image of an orangutan climbing a tree in Borneo to find figs struck such a chord with the judges. Orangutans are critically endangered throughout their once extensive range across Indonesia and Southeast Asia, for reasons both short-term (jungle clearing for palm-oil plantations) and long-term (deforestation and habitat loss due to climate change).

©Tim Laman WPOTY

©Tim Laman WPOTY

Laman first came to public prominence in 2007 when, as Harvard-trained ornithologist, he published an article in National Geographic about birds of paradise; he’s believed to be the first known photographer to have captured images of each and every species of birds of paradise in their natural habitat.

©Tim Laman

©Tim Laman

Laman is not just a wildlife photographer; he’s a doctoral research associate with Harvard Univeristy’s ornithology department, and has published numerous scientific papers in peer-reviewed periodicals.

Laman specializes in offbeat and hard-to-get subjects, including critically endangered — and so by definition hard-to-find — birds such as the Visayan hornbill and Nuku Hiva pigeon, as well as finding unusual ways to capture the image of oft-photographed primates like the orangutan.

©Tim Laman

©Tim Laman

For his WPOTY winning image, titled ‘Entwined Lives,’ Laman rugged a camera set-up more than 30 metres off the ground — this, after thinking for weeks at a time how he might get a unqiue vantage point from which to photograph people have seen countless times in other images.

As an occasional guide and advisor for tour groups of amateur photographers, he tries to get shutterbugs to get beyond the basics of how to use a camera to looking at the world in new, different ways.



Photography: People's Choice Award finalists

In the beginning, some 50 years ago, the inaugural Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards featured just three categories and 500 entries. BBC Wildlife Magazine was known simply as Animals, and a young David Attenborough was on hand to present the first award, to C.V.R. Dowdeswell, for a portrait of an owl.

C.V.R. Dowdeswell (right) accepts inaugural Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award from David Attenborough in 1965.

C.V.R. Dowdeswell (right) accepts inaugural Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award from David Attenborough in 1965.

London’s Natural History Museum signed on in 1984, and that’s where the competition stands today — just 10 days before the entry deadline expires for the 2017 edition.

The winning photographers — plural — are awarded pride of place in a museum exhibition. Perhaps more important, the museum sponsors a travelling exhibition that tours the world throughout the year, providing the kind of exposure most nature photographers can only dream about.

Today, there are tens of thousands of entries in numerous categories, submitted from some 95 countries worldwide.

Judging is subjective, of course, which is why one of the most high-profile, sought-after categories is the self-explanatory People’s Choice Award, in which everyday shutterbugs and nature buffs — you, for example — have a say.

The London Natural History Museum recently shortlisted 25 finalists from some 50,000 entries.  The winning image will appear on BBC’s web site, and in an upcoming issue of BBC Wildlife.

Here are a handful that jumped out at me — my personal Top 10, if you will.

Your choices may be quite different, of course — that’s why they call it the People’s Choice Award — but these are the ones that touched me personally. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of these takes the top award  when voting closes in January.

A Mother’s Hand

Alain Mafart Renodier, France

©Alain Mafart Renodier

Mafart Renodier was on a winter visit to Japan's Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park when he took this photograph of a sleeping baby Japanese macaque, its mother's hand covering its head protectively. (BBC)


Hitching a Ride

Daisy Gilardini, Canada-Switzerland

©Daisy Gillardini

Gilardini took this image of a polar bear cub escaping deep snow by hitching a ride on its mother’s back in Manitboa’s Wapusk National Park, last March, during the early spring thaw — if minus 50 can be called a thaw.


Opportunistic Croc

Bence Mate, Hungary

©Bence Mate

Though this image was taken from the relative safety of a hide, Mate told BBC it was chilling to see the deadly focused eyes of this four metre (13 foot) Nile crocodile. This croc image was captured in the Zimanga Private Game Reserve, South Africa.


The Stare of Death

Johan Kloppers, South Africa

©Johan Kloppers

Kloppers spotted a wildebeest calf shortly after it was born in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa. He did not known it then but he would witness its death later that same day, after the wildebeest herd walked past a pride of lions and was taken unawares.


Monkey Ball

Thomas Kokta, Germany

©Thomas Kokta

Cold temperatures on Shodoshima Island, Japan, can prompt snow monkeys to gather together in balls, for warmth. Kokta snapped this image from a tree.



Bernd Wasiolka, Germany

©Bernd Wasiolka

Wasiolka encountered a large lion pride at a waterhole in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa. One of the two males spray-marked the branches of a nearby tree. Later, Wasiolka told BBC, two females sniffed the markings and for a brief moment adopted a near identical posture.


Colorado Red

Annie Katz, United States

©Annie Katz

Katz spotted this Colorado red fox in her neighbour's field on a clear January day in Aspen, Colorado. The light was perfect, she recalled. She took the photo as the fox approached her, seemingly looking right into her camera.



Rudi Hulshof, South Africa

©Rudi Hulshof

Hulshof wanted a way capture the uncertain future of the southern white rhino, due to poaching. He anticipated this moment, he told BBC, when two rhinos would walk past each other in Welgevonden Game Reserve, South Africa. Their passing close together in opposite directions created this silhouette effect and the illusion of a two-headed rhino.


Breakfast Time

Cari Hill, New Zealand

©Cari Hill

Shortly after purchasing the Giraffe Manor in Nairobi, Kenya, the owners learned the only remaining Rothschild's giraffes in the country were at risk, as their sole habitat was being subdivided into smallholdings. Thery established a breeding programme to reintroduce the Rothschild's giraffe back into the wild. Today, guests can enjoy visits from resident giraffes in search of a breakfast treat.


Rainbow Wings

Victor Tyakht, Russia

©Victor Tyakht

From the museum notes: The bird's wing acts as a diffraction grating — a surface structure with a repeating pattern of ridges or slits. The structure causes the incoming light rays to spread out, bend and split into spectral colours, producing this shimmering rainbow effect.


The Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards are co-sponsored and produced by the Natural History Museum, in London. 

Voting for the People's Choice Award closes Jan. 10. You can cast your own vote here, by following this link:


An exhibition of this year’s winners will be on display at London's Natural History Museum until Sept. 10.