The fragility of life on Earth has never been more in focus than now. But despite the enormous challenges facing the wild animals that share the planet with us, there are still awe-inspiring moments to witness around the world.
The Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards highlight many of these moments in the astounding images they select every year from photographers of all ages and backgrounds.
The Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum, London, which holds an exhibit every year of the winning entries. This year’s winners were selected from more than 50,000 entries from 95 countries!
Among the 2021 winners is a young boy who photographed a warbler singing among sunflowers. Another image captures the tenderness shared between orphaned chimpanzees and their caregiver. And this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Laurent Ballesta, captured a mysterious, haunting image of groupers creating life (see image below).
Reflection by Majed Ali, Kuwait
Winner, Animal Portraits
Majed trekked for four hours to meet Kibande, an almost-40- year-old mountain gorilla. ‘The more we climbed, the hotter and more humid it got,’ Majed recalls. As cooling rain began to fall, Kibande remained in the open, seeming to enjoy the shower.
Creation by Laurent Ballesta, France
Winner, Underwater and Overall Winner
For five years Laurent and his team returned to this lagoon, diving day and night to see the annual spawning of camouflage groupers. They were joined after dark by reef sharks hunting the fish. Spawning happens around the full moon in July, when up to 20,000 fish gather in Fakarava in a narrow southern channel linking the lagoon with the ocean. Overfishing threatens this species, but here the fish are protected within a biosphere reserve.
High-flying jay by Lasse Kurkela, Finland
Winner, 15-17 Years
Lasse wanted to give a sense of scale in his photograph of the Siberian jay, tiny among the old-growth spruce-dominated forest. He used pieces of cheese to get the jays accustomed to his remotely controlled camera and to encourage them along a particular flight path. Siberian jays use old trees as larders. Their sticky saliva helps them glue food such as seeds, berries, small rodents and insects high up in the holes and crevices of the bark and among hanging lichens.
The intimate touch by Shane Kalyn, Canada
Winner, Behavior: Birds
It was midwinter, the start of the ravens’ breeding season. Shane lay on the frozen ground using the muted light to capture the detail of the ravens’ iridescent plumage against the contrasting snow to reveal this intimate moment when their thick black bills came together.
Ravens probably mate for life. This couple exchanged gifts – moss, twigs and small stones – and preened and serenaded each other with soft warbling sounds to strengthen their relationship or ‘pair bond’.
Head to head by Stefano Unterthiner, Italy
Winner, Behavior: Mammals
Stefano followed these reindeer during the rutting season. Watching the fight, he felt immersed in ‘the smell, the noise, the fatigue and the pain’. The reindeer clashed antlers until the dominant male (left) chased its rival away, securing the opportunity to breed.
Reindeer are widespread around the Arctic, but this subspecies occurs only in Svalbard. Populations are affected by climate change, where increased rainfall can freeze on the ground, preventing access to plants that would otherwise sit under soft snow.
The healing touch, from Community care by Brent Stirton, South Africa
Winner, Photojournalist Story Award
The director of the centre sits with a newly rescued chimp as she slowly introduces it to the others. Young chimps are given one-to-one care to ease their psychological and physical trauma. These chimps are lucky. Less than one in ten are rescued after having seen the adults in their group killed for meat. Most have experienced starvation and suffering.
Many people around the globe rely on meat from wild animals – bush meat – for protein, as well as a source of income. Hunting endangered species such as chimpanzees is illegal but takes place all too frequently. Brent’s photographs document the work of the Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center, which rescues and rehabilitates primates orphaned by poaching. Many staff here are survivors of military conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Working at the centre helps with their own recovery.
Spinning the cradle by Gil Wizen, Israel/Canada
Winner, Behavior: Invertebrates
Gil discovered this fishing spider (Dolomedes scriptus) under a slab of loose bark. Any disturbance might have caused the spider to abandon its project, so he took great care. ‘The action of the spinnerets reminded me of the movement of human fingers when weaving,’ Gil says. ” I like that the photo shows the spider stretching the silk threads, right before incorporating them into the rest of the forming sac.”
These spiders are common in wetlands and temperate forests of eastern North America. More than 750 eggs have been recorded in a single sac. Fishing spiders carry their egg sacs with them until the eggs hatch and the spiderlings disperse.
Nursery meltdown by Jennifer Hayes, USA
Winner, Oceans: The Bigger Picture
Following a storm, it took hours of searching by helicopter to find this fractured sea ice used as a birthing platform by harp seals. ‘It was a pulse of life that took your breath away,’ says Jennifer.
Every autumn, harp seals migrate south from the Arctic to their breeding grounds, delaying births until the sea ice forms. Seals depend on the ice, which means that future population numbers are likely to be affected by climate change.
Where the giant newts breed by João Rodrigues, Portugal
Winner, Behavior: Amphibians and Reptiles
It was João’s first chance in five years to dive in this lake as it only emerges in winters of exceptionally heavy rainfall, when underground rivers overflow. He had a split second to adjust his camera settings before the newts swam away.
Found on the Iberian Peninsula and in northern Morocco, sharp-ribbed newts (or salamanders) are named after their defence strategy. They use their pointed ribs as weapons, piercing through their own skin and picking up poisonous secretions, then jabbing them into an attacker.
Sunflower songbird by Andrés Luis Dominguez Blanco, Spain
Winner, 11-14 Years
As light faded at the end of a warm May afternoon, Andrés’s attention was drawn to a warbler flitting from flower to flower. From his hide in his father’s car, Andrés photographed the singer, ‘the king of its territory’.
Melodious warblers are one of more than 400 species of songbird known as Old World warblers, which each have a distinctive song. The song of a melodious warbler is a pleasant babbling and without the mimicked sounds that other warblers sometimes make.
Grizzly leftovers by Zack Clothier, USA
Winner, Animals in their Environment
Zack decided these bull elk remains were an ideal spot to set a camera trap. Returning to the scene was challenging. Zack bridged gushing meltwater with fallen trees, only to find his setup trashed. This was the last frame captured on the camera.
Grizzlies, a subspecies of brown bears, spend up to seven months in torpor – a light form of hibernation. Emerging in spring, they are hungry and consume a wide variety of food, including mammals.
The spider room by Gil Wizen, Israel/Canada
Winner, Urban Wildlife
After noticing tiny spiders all over his bedroom, Gil looked under his bed. There, guarding its brood of baby spiders, was one of the world’s most venomous spiders, the Brazilian wandering spider (Phoneutria fera). Before safely relocating it outdoors, he photographed the human-hand-sized Brazilian wandering spider using forced perspective to make it appear even larger.
Brazilian wandering spiders roam forest floors at night in search of prey such as frogs and cockroaches. Their toxic venom can be deadly to mammals including humans, but it also has medicinal uses.
Elephant in the room by Adam Oswell, Australia
Although this performance was promoted as educational and as exercise for the elephants, Adam was disturbed by this scene. Organizations concerned with the welfare of captive elephants view performances like these as exploitative because they encourage unnatural behavior.
Elephant tourism has increased across Asia. In Thailand there are now more elephants in captivity than in the wild. The Covid-19 pandemic caused international tourism to collapse, leading to elephant sanctuaries becoming overwhelmed with animals that can no longer be looked after by their owners.
Dome home by Vidyun R Hebbar, India
Winner, 10 Years and Under
Exploring his local theme park, Vidyun found an occupied spider’s web in a gap in a wall. A passing tuk-tuk (motorised rickshaw) provided a backdrop of rainbow colours to set off the spider’s silk creation., Tent spiders are tiny – this one had legs spanning less than 15 millimetres. They weave non-sticky, square-meshed domes, surrounded by tangled networks of threads that make it difficult for prey to escape. Instead of spinning new webs every day, the spiders repair existing ones.
Bedazzled by Alex Mustard, UK
Winner, Natural Artistry
Alex had always wanted to capture this image of a juvenile ghost pipefish but usually only found darker adults on matching feather stars. His image conveys the confusion a predator would likely face when encountering this kaleidoscope of color and pattern. The juvenile’s loud colors signify that it landed on the coral reef in the past 24 hours. In a day or two, its colour pattern will change, enabling it to blend in with the feather star.
Cool time, from Land time for sea bears by Martin Gregus, Canada / Slovakia
Winner, Rising Star Portfolio Award
On a hot summer’s day, two female polar bears took to the shallow intertidal waters in Hudson Bay to cool off and play. Martin used a drone to capture this moment. For him, the heart shape symbolizes the apparent sibling affection between them and ‘the love we as people owe to the natural world’.
Polar bears are mostly solitary and, while living on sea ice, can be dispersed over vast areas. Coming ashore in summer, they live mainly off their fat reserves and, with less pressure to find food, become much more sociable. While not wanting to detract from their plight in the face of climate change, Martin wanted to show polar bears in a different light.
The Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition also spotlighted Highly Commended photographs earlier in the year. You can see those remarkable photos here.
For information on the Natural History Museum’s exhibit and the competition, visit their website, and social media channels @nhm_wpy.