Every year around this time the media is full of astonishing pictures of wildlife. The reason is the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, a competition owned and administered by London’s Natural History Museum. This year is the 51st time it has been held and its prestige and scope attracted more than 42,000 entries from around the world. Over one hundred are currently on show at the museum before going on a UK and then international tour where they are expected to be seen by more than two million people.
The standard is very high and 18 category winners are chosen from which two winners are named as Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Don Gutoski, an A&E physician from Canada won the overall award for his image of two foxes on the sub-Arctic wastes, and 14-year-old Ondrej Pelánek from the Czech Republic won the Young Wildlife Photographer prize for his photo of fighting ruffs.
Dr Gutoski explained that his trip to Cape Churchill in the north of Manitoba province was made primarily to capture the polar bears which congregate there. He had heard that the red fox had been travelling further north for food due to warming weather and that there were stories of them fighting with their close relatives, the smaller Arctic fox, but no one had actually witnessed this.
“I had seen the red fox from a distance,” relates Dr Gutoski, “and realised that it was feeding on its prey, an Arctic fox. It did this for several hours then hid the remains under the ice so the polar bears would not find them.
“At the time I didn’t know what I had photographed and it wasn’t until that night when I went through the pictures on my laptop that I saw what a great shot it was. Nobody I knew had actually witnessed that before but it took close to 2,000 images to find that one. The ones before it and right after did not compare.”
The quality of the photos on display is so high that it must be extremely difficult to come to a final decision and we will all have our favourites. I especially liked Fabien Michenet’s It came from the deep which shows a young octopus, just two centimetres across, looking for a meal of zooplankton in the waters off Tahiti, French Polynesia. Transparent for protection in the ocean, its internal organs are nevertheless clearly visible against the dark water.
Another remarkable image was taken by the UK’s Charlie Hamilton James who was on assignment for National Geographic magazine in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to record the decline in vulture numbers there. Charlie had set up a camouflaged camera in the carcasses of zebra and wildebeest and, as with so many wildlife shoots – “this was the only [picture] that worked.” Charlie aimed to capture the feeding frenzy of the birds from within the carcass but, as he explains, “vultures are incredibly wary of anything out of the ordinary” and the image took three weeks of patient work to obtain.
Vultures are declining in the Serengeti due to pesticide which poisons them, loss of habitat, lack of carrion, hunting and persecution by man. This is certainly a highly original image and all part of an exhibition which will keep you enthralled for hours. The effort and ingenuity of the snappers to get their pictures is more than equalled by the range and beauty of the wildlife they have captured through the lens.