Winners of the 2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition

Over 49,000 images were submitted to the 56th annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, put on by the Natural History Museum in London. The Duchess of Cambridge and Patron of the museum, Kate Middleton, announced the Grand Title Winner during the live-streamed ceremony which aired on October 13th.

Sergey Gorshkov spent over 11 months on his overall winning image, ‘The Embrace,’ depicting the rare sighting of an Amur tigress hugging a Manchurian fir. ‘Hunted to the verge of extinction in the past century, the Amur population is still threatened by poaching and logging today. The remarkable sight of the tigress immersed in her natural environment offers us hope, as recent reports suggest numbers are growing from dedicated conservation efforts,’ says Dr. Tim Littlewood – Natural History Museum’s Executive Director of Science.

All winning images will be showcased in an exhibition at the Natural History Museum, starting October 16th. Entries for the next Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition are open on Tuesday, October 19th.

GRAND TITLE WINNER: ‘The Embrace’ by Sergey Gorshkov (Russia)

Sergey Gorshkov/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Artist Statement: With an expression of sheer ecstasy, a tigress hugs an ancient Manchurian fir, rubbing her cheek against bark to leave secretions from her scent glands. She is an Amur, or Siberian, tiger, here in the Land of the Leopard National Park, in the Russian Far East. The race – now regarded as the same subspecies as the Bengal tiger – is found only in this region, with a small number surviving over the border in China and possibly a few in North Korea.

Hunted almost to extinction in the past century, the population is still threatened by poaching and logging, which also impacts their prey – mostly deer and wild boar, which are also hunted. But recent (unpublished) camera‑trap surveys indicate that greater protection may have resulted in a population of possibly 500–600 – an increase that it is hoped a future formal census may confirm. Low prey densities mean that tiger territories are huge.

Sergey knew his chances were slim but was determined to take a picture of the totem animal of his Siberian homeland. Scouring the forest for signs, focusing on trees along regular routes where tigers might have left messages–scent, hairs, urine or scratch marks–he installed his first proper camera trap in January 2019, opposite this grand fir. But it was not until November that he achieved the picture he had planned for, of a magnificent tigress in her Siberian forest environment.

Gear and Settings: Nikon Z-7 + 50mm f1.8 lens; 1/200 sec at f6.3; ISO 250; Cognisys camera-trap system.

Winner, Animal Portraits: ‘The Pose’ by Mogens Trolle (Denmark)

Mogens Trolle/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Artist Statement: A young male proboscis monkey cocks his head slightly and closes his eyes. Unexpected pale blue eyelids now complement his immaculately groomed auburn hair. He poses for a few seconds as if in meditation. He is a wild visitor to the feeding station at Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary in Sabah, Borneo–‘the most laid-back character,’ says Mogens, who has been photographing primates worldwide for the past five years.

In some primate species, contrasting eyelids play a role in social communication, but their function in proboscis monkeys is uncertain. The most distinctive aspect of this young male –sitting apart from his bachelor group –is, of course, his nose. As he matures, it will signal his status and mood (female noses are much smaller) and be used as a resonator when calling. Indeed, it will grow so big that it will hang down over his mouth –he may even need to push it aside to eat.

Found only on the island of Borneo and nearby islands, proboscis monkeys are endangered. Eating mainly leaves (along with flowers, seeds and unripe fruit), they depend on threatened forests close to waterways or the coast and –being relatively lethargic –are easily hunted for food and bezoar stones (an intestinal secretion used in traditional Chinese medicine). Mogens’ unforgettable portrait, with the young male’s characteristic peaceful expression–‘quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen on another monkey’–connects us, he hopes, with a fellow primate.

Gear and Settings: Canon EOS-1D X + 500mm f4 lens; 1/1000 sec at f7.1; ISO1250; Manfrotto tripod + Benrogimbal head.

Winner, Behavior, Amphibians and Reptiles: ‘Life in Balance’ by Jaime Culebras (Spain)

Jaime Culebras/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Artist Statement: A Manduriacu glass frog snacks on a spider in the foothills of the Andes, northwestern Ecuador. As big consumers of invertebrates, glass frogs play a key part in maintaining balanced ecosystems. That night, Jaime’s determination to share his passion for them had driven him to walk for four hours, in heavy rain, through the forest to reach the frogs’ streams in Manduriacu Reserve. But the frogs were elusive and the downpour was growing heavier and heavier. Ashe turned back, he was thrilled to spot one small frog clinging to a branch, its eyes like shimmering mosaics.

Not only was it eating – he had photographed glass frogs eating only once before –but it was also a newly discovered species. Distinguished by the yellow spots on its back and lack of webbing between its fingers, the Manduriacu frog is found only in this small area. The reserve is private but seriously threatened by mining activities permitted by the government (open-pit mining for gold and copper), as well as illegal logging, and the new frog is considered critically endangered.

Serenaded by a frog chorus in torrential rain – he held his umbrella and flash in one hand and the camera in the other – Jaime captured the first ever picture of this species feeding.

Camera + Settings: Sony ILCE-7M3 + 90mm f2.8 lens; 1/100 sec at f16; ISO 320; Yongnuo flash + trigger; softbox.

Winner, Behavior, Birds: ‘Great Crested Sunrise’ by Jose Luis Ruiz Jiménez (Spain)

Jose Luis Ruiz Jiménez/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Artist Statement: After several hours up to his chest in water in a lagoon near Brozas, in the west of Spain, Jose Luis captured this intimate moment of a great crested grebe family. His camera floated on a U-shaped platform beneath the small camouflaged tent that also hid his head. The grebes are at their most elegant in the breeding season–ornate plumage, crests on their heads, neck feathers that they can fan into ruffs, striking red eyes and pink-tinged bills. They build a nest of aquatic plant material, often among reeds at the edge of shallow water.

To avoid predators, their chicks leave the nest within a few hours of hatching, hitching a snug ride on a parent’s back. Here the backlings will live for the next two to three weeks, being fed as fast as their parents can manage. Even when a youngster has grown enough to be able to swim properly, it will still be fed, for many more weeks, until it fledges.

This morning, the parent on breakfast duty – after chasing fish and invertebrates under water–emerged with damp feathers and a tasty meal, just when not a breath of wind rippled the water and the stripy-headed chick stretched out of its sanctuary, open‑beaked, to claim the fish. In soft light and muted reflections, Jose Luis was able to reveal the fine detail of these graceful birds and their attentive parental care.

Camera + Settings: Nikon D4S + 600mm f4 lens + 1.4x teleconverter; 1/800 sec at f6.3; ISO 500; floating hide.

Winner, Behavior, Invertebrates: ‘A Tale of Two Wasps’ by Frank Deschandol (France)

Frank Deschandol/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Artist Statement: This remarkable simultaneous framing of a red-banded sand wasp (left) and a cuckoo wasp, about to enter next-door nest holes, is the result of painstaking preparation. The female Hedychrum cuckoo wasp –just 6 millimetres long (less than 1/4inch) – parasitizes the nests of certain solitary digger wasps, laying her eggs in her hosts’ burrows so that her larvae can feast on their eggs or larvae and then the food stores.

The much larger red-banded sand wasp lays her eggs in her own burrow, which she provisions with caterpillars, one for each of her young to eat when they emerge. Frank’s original aim was to photograph the vibrant cuckoo wasp, its colors created by the refraction of light from its cuticle (tough enough to withstand the attack of the wasps it parasitizes). In a sandy bank on a brownfield site near his home in Normandy, northern France, he located tiny digger wasp burrows suitable for a cuckoo wasp to use and out of full sun, which would have let too much light into the camera.

He then set up an infrared beam that, when broken by a wasp, would trigger the super fast shutter system he had built using an old hard drive and positioned in front of the lens (the camera’s own shutter would have been too slow). Despite the extremely narrow depth of field and tiny subjects, he captured not only the cuckoo wasp but also the sand wasp. Though these two species don’t regularly interact, Frank was gifted a perfectly balanced composition by the insects’ fortuitous flight paths to their nest holes.

Camera + Settings: Canon EOS 5D Mark II + 100mm f2.8 lens + close-up 250D lens + reverse-mounted lens; 5 sec at f13; ISO 160; customized high-speed shutter system; six wireless flashes + Fresnel lenses; Yongnuo wireless flash trigger; Keyence infrared sensor + Meder Reed relay +amplifier; Novoflex MagicBalance + home-made tripod.

Winner, Under Water: ‘The Golden Moment’ by Songda Cai (China)

Songda Cai/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Artist Statement: A tiny diamondback squid paralarva flits below in the blackness, stops hunting for an instant when caught in the light beam, gilds itself in shimmering gold and then moves gracefully out of the light. The beam was Songda’s, on a night‑dive over deep water, far off the coast of Anilao, in the Philippines. He never knows what he might encounter in this dark, silent world.

All sorts of larvae and other tiny animals –zooplankton–migrate up from the depths under cover of night to feed on surface-dwelling phytoplankton, and after them come other predators. Diamondback squid are widespread in tropical and subtropical oceans, preying on fish, other squid and crustaceans near the surface. In November, hundreds gather off Anilao to spawn.

A paralarva is the stage between hatchling and subadult, already recognizable as a squid, here 6–7 centimetres long (21/2inches). Transparent in all stages, a diamondback squid swims slowly, propelled by undulations of its triangular fins (the origin of their name), but by contracting its powerful mantles, it can spurt away from danger.

Chromatophores (organs just below the skin) contain elastic sacs of pigment that stretch rapidly into discs of color when the muscles around them contract; recent research suggests that they may also reflect light. Deeper in the skin, iridophores reflect and scatter light, adding an iridescent sheen. From above, Songda captured the fleeting moment when, hovering in perfect symmetry, the diamondback paralarva turned to gold.

Camera + Settings: Nikon D850 + 60mm f2.8 lens; 1/200 sec at f20; ISO 500; Seacam housing; Seaflash 150D strobes; Scubalamp lights.

Winner, Earth’s Environments: ‘Etna’s River of Fire’ by Luciano Gaudenzio (Italy)

Luciano Gaudenzio/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Artist Statement: From a great gash on the southern flank of Mount Etna, lava flows within a huge lava tunnel, re-emerging further down the slope as an incandescent red river, veiled in volcanic gases. To witness the scene, Luciano and his colleagues had trekked for several hours up the north side of the volcano, through stinking steam and over ash-covered chaotic rocky masses –the residues of past eruptions. A wall of heat marked the limit of their approach.

Luciano describes the show that lay before him as hypnotic, the vent resembling ‘an open wound on the rough and wrinkled skin of a huge dinosaur’. It was 2017, and he had been on the nearby island of Stromboli to photograph eruptions there when he heard news of the new vent on what is Europe’s largest volcano. He took the very next ferry, hoping he would arrive in time to see the peak of the latest show.

Mount Etna, which lies on the boundary between the African and Eurasian continental plates, has been erupting continuously for almost 30 years, with shows that include lava flows and lava fountains – just the most recent phase in 15,000 years of volcanic activity, but a warning of its power.

What Luciano most wanted to capture was the drama of the lava river flowing into the horizon. The only way to do that was to wait until just after sunset–‘the blue hour’–when contrasting shadows would cover the side of the volcano and, with a long exposure, he could set the incandescent flow against the blue gaseous mist to capture ‘the perfect moment.’

Camera + Settings: Canon EOS 5D Mark III + 24mm f3.5 lens; 1 sec at f16; ISO 320; Leofoto tripod + ball head.

Winner, Wildlife Photojournalism, Single Image: ‘Show Business’ by Kirsten Luce (United States)

Kirsten Luce/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Artist Statement: One hand raised signaling the bear to stand, the other holding a rod, the trainer directs the ice-rink show. A wire muzzle stops the polar bear biting back, and blue safety netting surrounds the circus ring. It’s a shocking sight–not because of the massive predator towering over the petite woman in her ice-skating outfit but because of the uneven power dynamic expressed by the posture of the bear and the knowledge that it is not performing by choice.

But for the visitors to the traveling Russian circus –here in the city of Kazan, Tatarstan – it is entertainment. They are ignorant of how the polar bear has been trained and what it might endure behind the scenes – including the fact that, when not performing, it probably spends most of its time in a transportation cage. The polar bear is one of four females, reportedly captured in Russia’s Franz Josef Land when two years old (‘abandoned’, according to the trainer) and still performing 18 years later – valuable property for the Circus on Ice, the only circus known to own polar bears.

For the photographer, who has spent a couple of years reporting on animal exploitation and abuse, this was the most symbolically shocking of all the scenes of exploitation she has shot, featuring as it does such an Arctic icon of wildness.

Camera + Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV + 70–200mm f2.8 lens; 1/500 sec at f4; ISO 2000.

Winner, Wildlife Photojournalist Story Award: ‘Backroom Business’ by Paul Hilton (United Kingdom/Australia)

Paul Hilton/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Artist Statement: A young pig-tailed macaque is put on show chained to a wooden cage in Bali’s bird market, Indonesia. Its mother and the mothers of the other youngsters on show, would have been killed. Pig‑tailed macaques are energetic, social primates living in large troops in forests throughout Southeast Asia. As the forests are destroyed, they increasingly raid agricultural crops and are shot as pests. The babies are then sold into a life of solitary confinement as a pet, to a zoo or for biomedical research.

Having convinced the trader that he was interested in buying the monkey, Paul photographed it in the dark backroom using a slow exposure. Much of the illegal wildlife in the open‑air bird market is traded in the backroom areas. Macaques can be legally sold; banned species such as baby orangutans are kept boxed out of sight. Such animal markets facilitate the international illegal trade, supplying on demand what isn’t in stock. So many animals stacked so close together also facilitates the spread of disease.

Camera + Gear: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II + 16–35mm lens at 16mm; 1/10sec at f3.2; ISO 1600.

Winner, Rising Star Portfolio: ‘Eleonora’s Gift’ by Alberto Fantoni (Italy)

Alberto Fantoni/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Artist Statement: On the steep cliffs of a Sardinian island, a male Eleonora’s falcon brings his mate food – a small migrant, probably a lark, snatched from the sky as it flew over the Mediterranean. These falcons – medium-sized hawks – choose to breed on cliffs and small islands along the Mediterranean coast in late summer, specifically to coincide with the mass autumn migration of small birds as they cross the sea on their way to Africa.

The males hunt at high altitudes, often far offshore, and take a wide range of small migrants on the wing, including various warblers, shrikes, nightingales and swifts. Outside the breeding season, and on windless days when passing migrants are scarce, they feed on large insects. When the chicks are fledged, they all head south to overwinter in Africa, mainly on Madagascar.

Alberto was watching from a hide on San Pietro Island, from where he could photograph the adults on their cliff-top perch. He couldn’t see the nest, which was a little way down the cliff in a crevice in the rocks, but he could watch the male (much smaller and with yellow around his nostrils) pass on his prey, observing that he always seemed reluctant to give up his catch without a struggle.

Camera + Gear: Canon EOS 7D Mark II + 500mm f4.5 lens; 1/2000 sec at f7.1 (+1 e/v); ISO 800; hide.

Winner, Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio Award: ‘The Last Bite’ by Ripan Biswas (India)

Ripan Biswas/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Artist Statement: These two ferocious predators don’t often meet. The giant riverine tiger beetle pursues prey on the ground, while weaver ants stay mostly in the trees–but if they do meet, both need to be wary. When an ant colony went hunting small insects on a dry riverbed in Buxa Tiger Reserve, West Bengal, India, a tiger beetle began to pick off some of the ants. In the heat of the midday sun, Ripan lay on the sand and edged closer.

The beetle’s bulging eyes excel at spotting invertebrate prey, which it sprints towards so fast that it has to hold its antennae out in front to avoid obstacles. Its bright orange spots – structural color produced by multiple transparent reflecting layers–may be a warning to predators that it uses poison (cyanide) for protection. At more than 12 millimetres long (half an inch), it dwarfed the weaver ants. In defence, one bit into the beetle’s slender hind leg. The beetle swiftly turned and, with its large, curved mandibles, snipped the ant in two, but the ant’s head and upper body remained firmly attached.

‘The beetle kept pulling at the ant’s leg,’ says Ripan, ‘trying to rid itself of the ant’s grip, but it couldn’t quite reach its head.’ He used flash to illuminate the lower part of the beetle, balancing this against the harsh sunlight, as he got his dramatic, eye-level shot.

Camera + Gear: Nikon D5200 + Tamron 90mm f2.8 lens; 1/160 sec at f8; ISO 160; Viltrox ring flash.

Winner, 10 Years and Under: ‘Perfect Balance’ by Andrés Luis Dominguez Blanco (Spain)

Andrés Luis Dominguez Blanco/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Artist Statement: In Spring, the meadows near Andrés’ home in Ubrique, in Andalucia, Spain, are bright with flowers, such as these sweet-scented sulla vetches. Andrés had walked there a few days earlier and seen European stonechats hunting for insects, but they were on the far side of the meadow. He regularly sees and hears stonechats, their calls like two stones tapping together.

They are widespread throughout central and southern Europe, some – such as those around Andrés’ home–resident year round, others overwintering in northern Africa. Andrés asked his dad to drive to the meadow and park so he could use the car as a hide, kneel on the back seat and, with his lens on the window sill, shoot through the open windows. He was delighted to see stonechats flying close by, alighting on any stem or stalk as a vantage point to look for worms, spiders and insects.

It was already late in the day, and the sun had gone down, but it seemed that the low light intensified the birds’ colors. He watched this male closely. It often landed on branches or the top of small bushes, but this time it perched on a flower stem, which began to bend under its delicate weight. The stonechat kept perfect balance and Andrés framed his perfect composition.

Camera + Gear: Fujifilm X-H1 + XF 100–400mm f4.5–5.6 lens; 1/50 sec at f5.6; ISO 800.

Winner, 11 – 14 Years Old: ‘A Mean Mouthful’ by Sam Sloss (Italy/United States)

Sam Sloss/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Artist Statement: On a diving holiday in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, Sam stopped to watch the behavior of a group of clownfishes as they swam with hectic and repeated patterns in and out and around their home, a magnificent anemone. He was intrigued by the expression of one individual, the result of its mouth being constantly open, holding something.

Clownfish are highly territorial, living in small groups within an anemone. The anemone’s stinging tentacles protect the clownfish and their eggs from predators – a clownfish itself develops a special layer of mucus to avoid being stung. In return, the tenants feed on debris and parasites within the tentacles and aerate the water around them and may also deter anemone‑eating fish.

Rather than following the moving fish in his viewfinder, Sam positioned himself where he knew it would come back into the frame. It was only when he downloaded the photos that he saw tiny eyes peeping out of its mouth. It was a ‘tongue-eating louse’, a parasitic isopod that swims in through the gills as a male, changes sex, grows legs and attaches itself to the base of the tongue, sucking blood. When the tongue withers and drops off, the isopod takes its place. Its presence may weaken its host, but the clownfish can continue to feed.

Sam’s image, the reward for his curiosity, captures the three very different life forms, their lives intertwined.

Camera + Gear: Nikon D300 + 105mm f2.8 lens; 1/250 sec at f18; ISO 200; Nauticam Housing + two INON Z-240 strobes.

Winner, 15 – 17 Years Old: ‘The Fox that Got the Goose’ by Liina Heikkinen (Finland)

Liina Heikkinen/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Artist Statement: It was on a summer holiday in Helsinki that Liina, then aged 13, heard about a large fox family living in the city suburbs on the island of Lehtisaari. The island has both wooded areas and fox-friendly citizens, and the foxes are relatively unafraid of humans. So Liina and her father spent one long July day, without a hide, watching the two adults and their six large cubs, which were almost the size of their parents, though slimmer and lankier.

In another month, the cubs would be able to fend for themselves, but in July they were only catching insects and earthworms and a few rodents, and the parents were still bringing food for them –larger prey than the more normal voles and mice. It was 7pm when the excitement began, with the vixen’s arrival with a barnacle goose.

Feathers flew as the cubs began fighting over it. One finally gained ownership–urinating on it in its excitement. Dragging the goose into a crevice, the cub attempted to eat its prize while blocking access to the others. Lying just metres away, Liina was able to frame the scene and capture the expression of the youngster as it attempted to keep its hungry siblings at bay.

Camera + Gear: Nikon D4 + 28–300mm f3.5–5.6 lens; 1/125 sec at f5.6 (-0.3 e/v); ISO 1600.

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