A shocking photo of an endangered rhino that was shot and brutally butchered by poachers has won one of the world's most prestigious photography competitions. Photojournalist Brent Stirton has been named Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017 for his compelling image Memorial to a species, which focuses on a black rhino that had been shot and de-horned in South Africa's Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve.
Once the world's most numerous rhino species, black rhinos are now critically endangered due to poaching and the illegal international trade in rhino horn, one of the world's most corrupt illegal wildlife networks. The killers were probably from a local community but working to order. Entering the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve at night, they shot the black rhino bull using a silencer. Working fast, they hacked off the two horns and escaped before being discovered by the reserve's patrol. The horns would have been sold to a middleman and smuggled out of South Africa, probably via Mozambique, to China or Vietnam. For the reserve, it was grim news, not least because this is where conservationists bred back from near extinction the subspecies that is now the pre-eminent target for poachers, the southern white rhino. For the photographer, the crime scene was one of more than 30 he visited in the course of covering this tragic story.
Canon EOS-1DX + 28mm f2.8 lens; 1/250 sec at f9; ISO 200; flash.
Competition judge Roz Kidman Cox says 'To make such a tragic scene almost majestic in its sculptural power deserves the highest award. There is rawness, but there is also great poignancy and therefore dignity in the fallen giant. It's also symbolic of one of the most wasteful, cruel and unnecessary environmental crimes, one that needs to provoke the greatest public outcry.'
The winners of the 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition were named on Tuesday 17 October 2017 during a ceremony at the Natural History Museum (NHM), London, which runs the annual competition. NHM Director Sir Michael Dixon said: "The black rhino offers a sombre and challenging counterpart to the story of 'Hope' our blue whale. Like the critically endangered black rhinoceros, blue whales were once hunted to the brink of extinction, but humanity acted on a global scale to protect them. This shocking picture of an animal butchered for its horns is a call to action for us all."
Daniël Nelson took the award for Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017 with his portrait of a young western lowland gorilla, which captures the inextricable similarity between wild apes and humans, and the importance of the forest on which they depend.
Daniël met Caco in the forest of Odzala National Park in the Republic of Congo. A three‑hour trek through dense vegetation with skilled trackers led him to where the 16‑strong Neptuno family was feeding and to a close encounter with one of the few habituated groups of western lowland gorillas. In the wet season they favour the plentiful supply of sweet fruit, and here Caco is feasting on a fleshy breadfruit. Caco is about nine years old and preparing to leave his family. He is putting on muscle, becoming a little too bold and is often found at the fringe of the group. He will soon become a solitary silverback, perhaps teaming up with other males to explore and, with luck, starting his own family in eight to ten years' time. Western lowland gorillas are critically endangered, threatened by illegal hunting for bushmeat (facilitated by logging and mining roads), disease (notably the Ebola virus), habitat loss (to mines and oil‑palm plantations) and the impact of climate change. In his compelling portrait of Caco – relaxed in his surroundings – Daniël captured the inextricable similarity between these wild apes and humans and the importance of the forest on which they depend.
Canon 6D + Sigma 50–500mm f4.5–6.3 lens at 500mm; 1/30 sec at f6.3; ISO 800.
An international panel of judges also named 16 category winners, depicting the incredible diversity of life on our planet, from displays of rarely seen animal behaviour to hidden underwater worlds. IBTimes UK presents the winning photograph in each category and the story behind each image.
Winner 2017, Earth's Environments: The ice monster by Laurent Ballesta, France
Laurent and his expedition team were based at the French Dumont d'Urville scientific base in east Antarctica, recording the impact of global warming. They were awed by the magnitude of icebergs, and the fact that only 10 per cent of their volume is ever visible above the surface. When Laurent spotted this relatively small iceberg, he saw the chance to realise a long-held ambition – to show the underwater part. It took three days, in virtually freezing water, to check out the location, install a grid of lines from the seabed to buoys (so that Laurent could maintain a definite distance from it) and then take the series of pictures – a substantial number, with a very wide‑angle lens – to capture the entire scene. "None of us could see the whole thing under water. Close-up, it was overflowing from our view. From a distance, it disappeared into the fog." Back at the station, they had a tense wait at the computer, while the result of 147 stitched images came together on screen. The front of the vast foot of the frozen monster, polished by the current over probably many years, shone turquoise and blue in the light penetrating the ice ceiling, dwarfing Laurent's companions as they lit its sides.
Nikon D4S + 13mm f2.8 lens; 1/30 to 1/60 sec at f6.3 – 147 stitched images; ISO 3200; Seacam housing; flashlights.
Winner, Animals in Their Environment: The night raider by Marcio Cabral, Brazil
For three seasons, Marcio had camped out in Brazil's cerrado region, on the vast treeless savannah of Emas National Park, waiting for the right conditions to capture a special light display. It happens when winged termites take to the sky to mate. Click beetle larvae living in the outer layers of the termite mounds poke out and flash their bioluminescent 'headlights' to lure in prey – the flying termites. After days of rain, Marcio was finally able to capture the phenomenon, but he also got a surprise bonus. Out of the darkness ambled a giant anteater, oblivious of Marcio in his hide, and began to attack the tall mound with its powerful claws, after the termites living deep inside. Protected from bites by its long hair and rubbery skin, the anteater extracted the termites with its exceptionally long, sticky tongue. It has limited vision but a keen sense of smell to help locate insects. Luckily, the wind was in Marcio's favour, and the anteater stayed long enough for him to make his picture, using a wide-angle lens to include the landscape, a low flash and a long exposure to capture both the stars and the light show.
Canon EOS 5DS R + Nikon 14–24mm f3.5 lens + Fotodiox adapter + ND filter; 30 sec; ISO 5000; two Metz 32 flashes + diffuser; Manfrotto tripod.cc
Winner, Black and white: Polar pas de deux by Eilo Elvinger, Luxembourg
From her ship, anchored in the icy waters off Svalbard, in Arctic Norway, Eilo spotted a polar bear and her two-year-old cub in the distance, slowly drawing closer. Polar bears are known as hunters, mainly of seals – they can smell prey from nearly a kilometre (more than half a mile) away – but they are also opportunists. Nearing the ship, they were diverted to a patch of snow soaked in leakage from the vessel's kitchen and began to lick it. "I was ashamed of our contribution to the immaculate landscape," says Eilo, "and of how this influenced the bears' behaviour." Mirroring each other, with back legs pressed together (cub on the right), they tasted the stained snow in synchrony. Such broad paws make fine swimming paddles and help the bears to tread on thin ice, and their impressive non‑retractable claws – more than five centimetres (two inches) long – act like ice picks for a better grip. Mindful of the species' shrinking habitat – climate change is reducing the Arctic sea ice on which the bears depend – Eilo framed her shot tightly, choosing black and white to "reflect the pollution as a shadow cast on the pristine environment".
Canon EOS-1DX + 200–400mm f4 lens at 200mm; 1/640 sec at f9 (+0.7 e/v); ISO 6400.
Winner, Animal Portraits: Contemplation by Peter Delaney, Ireland/South Africa
Totti couldn't have tried harder. For more than an hour, he posed, gestured and called to entice one particular female down from the canopy, but nothing worked. The object of his desire ignored him. Peter, too, was frustrated. He had spent a long, difficult morning tracking the chimpanzees – part of a troop of some 250 – through Uganda's Kibale National Park. It was humid, the ground was wet and the dense undergrowth meant that, whenever he did catch up with the chimpanzees, all he got was tantalising glimpses as they swung from tree to tree. "Photographing in a rainforest with dim light and splashes of sunlight means your exposure settings are forever changing. Keeping my camera at its optimum ISO setting meant low shutter speeds, and as the park authorities don't allow tripods and monopods, getting a sharp image with a hand‑held camera was a challenge," he says. Totti was on the ground at least, but he was busy with vigorous courtship, pacing and gesticulating. It was only when he finally flopped down, worn out with unrequited love, that Peter had his chance. "He lay back, hands behind his head, and rested for a moment, as if dreaming of what could have been."
Fujifilm X-T1 + 50–140mm lens at 140mm; 1/75 sec at f2.8 (–1.3 e/v); ISO 3200.
Winner, Behaviour, Invertebrates: Crab surprise by Justin Gilligan, Australia
Out of the blue, an aggregation of giant spider crabs the size of a football field wandered past. Known to converge in their thousands elsewhere in Australian waters – probably seeking safety in numbers before moulting – such gatherings were unknown in Mercury Passage off the east coast of Tasmania. Justin was busy documenting a University of Tasmania kelp transplant experiment and was taken completely by surprise. A single giant spider crab can be hard to spot – algae and sponges often attach to its shell, providing excellent camouflage – but there was no missing this mass march-past, scavenging whatever food lay in their path on the sandy sea floor. "About 15 minutes later, I noticed an odd shape in the distance, moving among the writhing crabs," says Justin. It was a Maori octopus that seemed equally delighted with the unexpected bounty. Though large – the biggest octopus in the southern hemisphere, with muscular arms spanning up to three metres (10 feet) and knobbly, white-spotted skin – it was having trouble choosing and catching a crab. Luckily for Justin, the stage was set with clear water and sunlight reflecting off the sand. He quickly adjusted his camera and framed the octopus finally making its catch.
Nikon D810 + 15mm f2.8 lens; 1/100 sec at f14; ISO 400; Nauticam housing; two Ikelite DS161 strobes.
Winner, Behaviour – Birds: The incubator bird by Gerry Pearce, UK/Australia
Most birds incubate their eggs with their bodies. Not so the Australian brush turkey, one of a handful of birds – the megapodes – that do it with an oven. Only the males oversee incubation. In this case, a male had chosen to create his nest‑mound near Gerry's home in Sydney, bordering Garigal National Park. It took a month to build, out of leaves, soil and other debris, at which point it was more than a metre high – mounds used year after year can be more than 4 metres (13 feet) wide and 2 metres (6 feet 7 inches) high. The brush turkey then invited a succession of females to mate with him. If he and his mound were to their liking, they would lay a clutch of eggs in the mound. Always there was a chance that the eggs had been fertilised by a male she had visited previously, and that in a kind of nest‑relay, some of his own babies would hatch in another male's mound. As the organic matter in the mound decayed, heat was generated, and to check that the incubation temperature was the necessary 33°C (92°F), the brush turkey regularly stuck his head in and, using heat sensors in his upper bill, checked a mouthful. In this picture, he is piling on more insulation to raise the temperature. If it gets too hot, he will rake it off. Gerry spent four months watching the male and his mound, every day from dawn. After seven weeks, and despite egg raids by a large lace monitor (lizard), at least a quarter of the 20 or so eggs hatched. The big chicks were strong enough to kick (not peck) their way out of their shells and up through the compost heap. Fully independent, they left home straight away to start life on their own in the bush.
Canon 7D Mark II + 18–200mm f3.5 lens; 1/1000 sec at f9; ISO 1600; two Yongnuo Speedlite flashes + wireless trigger.
Winner 2017, Behaviour – Amphibians and Reptiles: The ancient ritual by Brian Skerry, USA
Like generations before her, the leatherback turtle shifts her considerable weight with her outsized, strong front flippers and moves steadily back to the ocean. Leatherbacks are the largest, deepest-diving and widest-ranging sea turtles, the only survivors of an evolutionary lineage that diverged from other sea turtles 100–150 million years ago. Much of their lives are spent at sea, shrouded in mystery. When mature, their leathery shells now averaging 1.6 metres (5 feet 3 inches) long, females return to the shores where they themselves hatched to lay their own eggs. Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge on St Croix, in the US Virgin Islands, provides critical nesting habitat, successfully managed for decades. Elsewhere, leatherbacks are not so lucky, threatened primarily by fisheries bycatch as well as factors including human consumption, coastal development and climate change. The females each lay about 100 eggs in nests dug deep in the sand. Some 60 days later, the hatchlings emerge, their sex influenced by incubation temperatures (hotter nests produce more females). Nesting turtles are not seen every night at Sandy Point, and were often too far away for Brian to reach. When after two weeks he got the encounter he wanted – under clear skies, with no distant city lights – he hand-held a long exposure under the full moon, artfully evoking a primordial atmosphere in this timeless scene.
Nikon D5 + 17–35mm f2.8 lens at 24mm; 10 sec at f8; ISO 1600; Nikon flash at 1/64th power + tungsten gel; Nikon remote release.
Winner, Behaviour – Mammals: Giant gathering by Tony Wu, USA
Dozens of sperm whales mingled noisily off Sri Lanka's northeast coast, stacked as far down as Tony could see. This was part of something special – a congregation of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of social units, like a kind of gathering of the clans. Sperm whales are intelligent, long-lived and gregarious, and groups play, forage, interact and communicate in different ways and have distinctive cultures. Aggregations like this could be a critical part of their rich, social lives but are rarely reported. Some two thirds of the sperm whale population was wiped out during the peak of industrialised whaling in the twentieth century. But commercial whaling was banned in 1986, and this kind of major gathering could be 'a sign that populations are recovering', says Tony, who has spent 17 years studying and photographing sperm whales. Tactile contact is an important part of sperm whale social life, but rubbing against each other also helps slough off dead skin. So the water was filled with a blizzard of skin flakes. More photographically challenging was the smearing of the camera‑housing dome with oily secretions from the whales and thick clouds of dung released as they emerged from the gigantic cluster. But through continually swimming to reposition himself and the tolerance of the whales themselves, Tony got a unique photograph of the mysterious Indian Ocean gathering.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III + 15mm f2.8 lens; 1/250 sec at f6.3; ISO 800; Zillion housing + Pro-One optical dome port.
Winner, Plants and fungi: Tapestry of life by Dorin Bofan, Romania
It was a quiet morning with flat light as Dorin stood alone on the shore of the fjord. He was contemplating the immense landscape bounding Hamnøy in the Lofoten Islands, Norway, when here and there, the clouds parted, allowing shafts of sunlight to fall on to the great walls of metamorphic rock, lighting up the swathes of vegetation coating the canyon and its slopes. The mountains here rise steeply from the sea – a sheer drop of 200 metres (660 feet) in some places – yet mountain birches manage to gain a foothold, some clinging to existence in the most precipitous spots. This mountain variety of downy birch is relatively small, and here in its autumn colours, is glowing gold. Dwarf willow species carpet much of the ground below. Drawn to the gentle curve at the base of the rock‑face – like the "moss-covered trunk of a veteran tree in a damp ancient wood" – Dorin composed his picture, waiting until a break in the clouds yielded this brief moment in a timeless landscape, cloaked in a tapestry of Arctic-alpine vegetation.
EOS 650D + 70–200mm f4 lens at 100mm; 1/100 sec at f5.6 (-1 e/v); ISO 200; Manfrotto tripod.
In open ocean far off Tahiti, French Polynesia, Anthony regularly dives at night in water more than 2 kilometres (1¼ miles) deep. His aim is to photograph deep-sea creatures – tiny ones, that migrate to the surface under cover of darkness to feed on plankton. This lobster larva (on top), just 1.2 centimetres (half an inch) across, with spiny legs, a flattened, transparent body and eyes on stalks, was at a stage when its form is called a phyllosoma. Its spindly legs were gripping the dome of a small mauve stinger jellyfish. The pair were drifting in the current, the phyllosoma saving energy and possibly gaining protection from predators deterred by the jelly's stings, its own hard shell probably protecting it from stings. The phyllosoma also seemed able to steer the jelly, turning it around at speed as it moved away from Anthony. The odd thing about the jelly was that it had few tentacles left, suggesting that the little hitchhiker was using it as a convenient source of snacks. In fact, a phyllosoma has a special digestion to deal with jellyfish stinging cells, coating them with a membrane that stops the stings penetrating its gut. In several hundred night dives, Anthony met only a few lobster larvae, and it took many shots of the jellyfish jockey to get a composition he was happy with – a portrait of a creature rarely observed alive in its natural surroundings.
Nikon D810 + 60mm f2.8 lens; 1/250 sec at f22 (−0.3 e/v); ISO 64; Nauticam housing + Nauticam SMC-1 super-macro converter; Inon Z-240 strobes.
Winner, Wildlife Photojournalist – Single image: Palm-oil survivors by Aaron 'Bertie' Gekoski, UK/USA
In eastern Sabah, on the island of Borneo, three generations of Bornean elephants edge their way across the terraces of an oil-palm plantation being cleared for replanting. Palm oil is a lucrative global export, and in the Malaysian state of Sabah, where the majority of rainforest has already been logged (only 8 per cent of protected intact forest remains), the palm-oil industry is still a major driver of deforestation, squeezing elephants into smaller and smaller pockets of forest. Increasingly they wander into oil-palm plantations to feed, where they come into conflict with humans, with elephants being shot or poisoned. (In 2013, poison used in a plantation killed a herd of 14 elephants – the sole survivor, a calf, was found caressing its dead mother's tusks.) Reports of elephant attacks on humans are also on the rise. Today, the fragmented population of Bornean elephants – regarded as a subspecies of the Asian elephant that may have been isolated on the island of Borneo for more than 300,000 years – is estimated to number no more than 1,000–2,000. Elephants form strong social bonds, and females often stay together for their entire lives. Here, the group probably comprises a matriarch, two of her daughters and her grand-calf. With the light fading fast, Bertie acted quickly to frame an image that symbolises the impact that our insatiable demand for palm oil (used in half of the products on supermarket shelves) has on wildlife. "They huddled together, dwarfed by a desolate and desecrated landscape. A haunting image," he says.
Nikon D700 + 80–200mm f2.8 lens at 120mm; 1/500 sec at f3.2; ISO 400.
Winner, 10 years and under: The grip of the gulls, Ekaterina Bee, Italy
Like all her family, five-and-a-half-year-old Ekaterina is fascinated by nature, and she has also been using a camera since she was four years old. But on the boat trip off the coast of central Norway, her focus was not on the white‑tailed sea eagles that the others were photographing but on the cloud of herring gulls that followed the small boat as it left the harbour. They were after food, and as soon as Ekaterina threw them some bread, they surrounded her. At first she was slightly scared by their boldness and beaks but soon became totally absorbed in watching and photographing them, lost in the noise, wingbeats and colours of feet and beaks in the whirl of white. Of all the many pictures she took that day, this was the one she liked best because of the way the birds filled the white sky and the expression on the face of the bird furthest away: "It looked very curious, as if it was trying to understand what was happening on the boat."
Nikon D90 + 18–70mm f3.5–4.5 lens at 18mm; 1/320 sec at f11 (+0.7 e/v); ISO 400.
Winner, 11-14 years old: Stuck in by Ashleigh Scully, USA
Deep snow had blanketed the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park, and the day was cold and overcast. This female American red fox was hunting beside the road, stepping quietly across the crusty surface of the snow. Every so often she would stop, stare, tilt her head from side to side and listen intently for the movement of prey – most likely a vole – beneath the snow. Ashleigh was also poised, her camera lens resting on a beanbag out of the back window of the car. Just as the fox came parallel with the car, she stopped, listened, crouched and then leapt high in the air, punching down through the snow, forefeet and nose first and legs upended. She remained bottom-up for about 10 seconds, waving her tail slightly back and forth before using her back legs to pull out of the hole. Ashleigh, who has been photographing foxes for many years, though mostly near her home, captured the whole sequence. "It was funny to see but also humbling to observe how hard the fox had to work to find a meal. I really wanted her to be successful." Unfortunately, she wasn't. But then the image, says Ashleigh, "illustrates the harsh reality of winter life in Yellowstone".
Canon EOS 7D Mark II + 500mm f4 Mark II lens; 1/640 sec at f5.6 (+1.7 e/v); ISO 1000.
This year's competition attracted almost 50,000 entries from 92 countries. One hundred selected images will go on show at the 53rd Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum from 20 October 2017 to 28 May 2018. Book your tickets here.
The next Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition opens for entries on Monday 23 October. Find out more here.