What an orangutan in a tree reveals about the state of Earth
Wednesday, December 7, 2016, 7:54 PM - Twenty years. That’s how long it took Tim Laman, this year’s winner of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, to capture his award-winning shot of a young orangutan in a tree.
And yet there was still more work when the golden moment arrived: Laman had to climb up and down a 30-metre tree by rope; set up multiple GoPro cameras and a remote trigger; and then patiently wait three more days until the orangutan returned for more to eat.
For the world’s most esteemed wildlife photographers, like Laman, these patient, dedicated moments have little do with capturing a beautiful shot and everything to do with telling a crucial story about the status of our planet. It’s this shared mission that fosters the work of many wildlife photographers displayed at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit.
“We’re -- us wildlife and nature photographers – right now, we’re at war with a changing planet,” says Paul Nicklen, marine biologist and world-renowned National Geographic wildlife photographer. Nicklen, a fifteen-time winner of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, calls the contest’s improving caliber and quality of submissions “very inspiring.”
Roughly ten or fifteen years ago, when Nicklen first began entering photo competitions, he recalls a very different experience than the one he feels today.
”[W]e kind of laughed at it, it was kind of a pretty picture photography contest. They had the category of backlit photography, flowers, sunsets, I mean, it was fun to win but it didn’t feed your soul,” Nicklen says.
“When you look at the images that are winning now, like what my good friend Tim Laman did, or Charlie Hamilton James, what they have just won are stories. They’re storytellers, they’re making a connection, they’re connecting ecosystems, they’re fighting for issues that they’re passionate about and that’s what warms my heart.”
Now in its 52nd year running, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) competition honours the world’s best in nature photography. Owned by the Natural History Museum in England, the competition invites both adults and youth to submit the best of their wildlife and nature photography to an international jury of the field’s top experts.
Former WPY jury member Kathy Moran calls it “one of the most dynamic competitions out there.” Moran, senior editor of natural history at National Geographic, applauds the competition’s categories, which she says have adapted over the years to deliver a message of broader significance.
“[T]he evolution of the contest has been really exciting to watch because, as times have changed so has the competition. [T]he categories, I think, have done a really terrific job in keeping up with our changing sensibilities about conservation and the environment,” she tells The Weather Network.
But to Moran, it’s the exhibit that truly gives the competition its relevance.
“When you walk into that gallery at the Natural History Museum in London, you’re initially seduced by this beautiful natural history photography. Then you turn a corner and you see something that has more of a conservation message, and I think that they’ve been really successful in bringing together these two strands of what natural history and conservation photography is all about,” Moran says. “It makes people care. You bring them in and you sort of show the wonder, and the beauty, and the natural history, the behavior, and then you turn around and you say, ‘these are the issues. This is what’s at stake. This is why we should care.’ And I really do think the competition has been masterful in bringing that together and getting that message out to a very broad audience.”
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For the past four years, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) has been one of two Canadian museums to feature the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit.
”Part of the ROM’s mission is protecting and conserving the biodiversity on Earth. And this is an exhibition that brings together extraordinary photography, with a very important conservation message, so that’s critical to what we do here “ says Josh Basseches, director and chief executive officer at the ROM. “My hope is this will inspire people in multiple ways: First, to go out and get involved in taking extraordinary photography of nature. Second of all, to care about the natural world and do everything that they can to protect it.”
The difference between wildlife photography and conservation photography
Is there even a distinguishing line between the two anymore? According to Moran, not quite.
“[I]ncreasingly, most photographers, when they have the opportunity, are actually starting to work more towards doing what we call conservation photography. And, I think in large part because it’s just not enough anymore to tell stories about natural history behavior if you’re not putting that into the larger context of human-wildlife interaction, what’s happening in the environment, then you’re really not telling the whole story and I think that’s a disservice to the species.”
Moran recalls a time early in her career, when natural history photography – now commonly referred to as wildlife or conservation photography – was largely unappealing to her colleagues.
When Moran first joined National Geographic magazine as a photo editor nearly 30 years ago, it didn’t take her long to realize that many of her colleagues weren’t all too fascinated with the natural history stories.
“[B]ack then they were interested in doing the geo-political, or the hardcore science, archaeology, sort of all of the other buckets for which we’re known.”
The crew of editors at the time, Moran says, considered natural history as sort of an “evil necessity” – something that the readers appeared to enjoy and wanted more of, but that the crew wasn’t too interested in.
Moran jumped on the opportunity and so began her career in editing more than 200 of National Geographic’s most profound wildlife and ecology stories. As it turns out, her fondest and most influential memory in conservation photography came with one of her very first assignments in the late 90s.
Working with photographer Michael Nick Nichols and Dr. Michael Faye from Wildlife Conservation Society, Moran worked on a three-part story called Megatransect. The series documented Fay’s walk across the Congo – from its deepest rainforest to the Atlantic Coast in the neighbouring country of Gabon – learning of Africa’s last remaining vast wilderness.
“When we finished with the exhibition, Mike [Fay] met then-president Bongo of Gabon in New York when the UN was opening,” Moran recalls. “[H]e sat in a hotel room and showed President Bongo the photographs that Nick [Nichols] had made. At the end of their meeting, President Bongo turned to Mike and said ‘I had no idea that this was in my country.’ And he then went home and led the creation of thirteen national parks in Gabon. That was on the basis of Nick’s photography. So I think more than any other example I could give, it really does prove that photography has the potential to impact really powerful conservation decisions.”
Storytelling and an important message – but first, knowledge
In Moran’s nearly 30 years of working at National Geographic, she says there’s one key factor that determines an invaluable natural history segment: storytelling. It’s the same importance Nicklen alluded to when talking about the World Wildlife Photographer of the year exhibition – the power of an influential story.
For budding photographers, however, storytelling and delivering an important message don’t necessarily come from photographing a beautiful animal in its natural habitat – it comes from understanding said animal and its natural habitat.
“In order to do the kind of storytelling that they’re doing, [wildlife photographers] have to understand not only the lifecycle of the particular species that they want to cover, but they also have to understand the environment in which they’re working,” Moran says. “They really can’t sort of have one eye closed and go out and do the kind of work they’re doing. They really do have a full understanding of what’s happening around them.”
Nicklen’s conclusion is similar: When it comes to wildlife photography, storytelling goes hand-in-hand with knowledge.
“It has to tell an important story, you have to learn something -- you have to learn something about the species, the ecosystem, the habitat, and most of all, the conservation. You have to care.”
2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Winners
Entwined lives | By: Tim Laman | Winner, Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016
A young male orangutan makes the 30-metre (100-foot) climb up the thickest root of the strangler fig that has entwined itself around a tree emerging high above the canopy. The backdrop is the rich rainforest of the Gunung Palung National Park, in West Kalimantan, one of the few protected orangutan strongholds in Indonesian Borneo. The orangutan has returned to feast on the crop of figs. He has a mental map of the likely fruiting trees in his huge range, and he has already feasted here. Tim knew he would return and, more important, that there was no way to reach the top – no route through the canopy – other than up the tree. But he had to do three days of climbing up and down himself, by rope, to place in position several GoPro cameras that he could trigger remotely to give him a chance of not only a wide‑angle view of the forest below but also a view of the orangutan’s face from above. This shot was the one he had long visualized, looking down on the orangutan within its forest home.
The moon and the crow | By: Gideon Knight | Winner, Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year, 2016
A crow in a tree in a park: a common enough scene. It was one that Gideon had seen many times near his home in London’s Valentines Park, which he visits regularly to take photographs. But as the blue light of dusk crept in and the full moon rose, the scene transformed. The spindly twigs of the sycamore tree silhouetted against the sky ‘made it feel almost supernatural, like something out of a fairy tale,’ says Gideon. Positioning himself on a slope opposite, he tried to capture the perfect composition. But the crow kept moving along the branch and turning its head away, and so getting a silhouette of it with the moon in the frame meant Gideon had to keep moving, too. Then, just as the light was about to fade beyond the point that photography was possible, his wish came true, and an ordinary London scene turned into something magical.
Eviction attempt | By: Ganesh H Shankar | Winner, Birds
These Indian rose-ringed parakeets were not happy. They had returned to their roosting and nesting hole high up in a tree in India’s Keoladeo National Park (also known as Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary) to find that a Bengal monitor lizard had taken up residence. The birds immediately set about trying to evict the squatter. They bit the monitor lizard’s tail, hanging on for a couple of seconds at a time, until it retreated into the hole. They would then harass it when it tried to come out to bask. This went on for two days. But the action only lasted a couple of seconds at a time and was fast-moving. The branch was also high up, and Ganesh had to shoot against the light. Eventually the parakeets gave up and left, presumably to try to find another place to rear their young. These Indian birds are highly adaptable, and escaped captive parakeets have founded populations in many countries. In Europe, where they are known as ring-necked parakeets, they are accused of competing for nest holes with some native species, such as nuthatches, and even bats, but in turn, other birds such as starlings are quite capable of evicting the parakeets from their nest holes.
Wind composition | By: Valter Binotto | Winner, Plants and Fungi
With every gust of wind, showers of pollen were released, lit up by the winter sunshine. The hazel tree was near Valter’s home in northern Italy, and to create the dark background, he positioned himself to backlight the flowers. Hazel has both male and female flowers on the same tree, though the pollen must be transferred between trees for fertilization. Each catkin comprises an average of 240 male flowers, while the female flower is a small bud-like structure with a red-tufted stigma. The pollen-producing catkins open early in the year, before the leaves are out, and release huge amounts of pollen to be carried away by the wind. And now recent research suggests that bees may also play a role. The catkins are an important source of pollen for early bees and have a bee‑friendly structure, while the red colour of the female flowers may entice insects to land on them. ‘The hardest part was capturing the female flowers motionless while the catkins were moving,’ explains Valter. ‘I searched for flowers on a short branch that was more stable.’ Using a long exposure to capture the pollen’s flight and a reflector to highlight the catkins, he took many pictures before the wind finally delivered the composition he had in mind.
The alley cat | By: Nayan Khanolkar | Winner, Urban
At night, in the Aarey Milk Colony in a suburb of Mumbai bordering Sanjay Gandhi National Park, leopards slip ghost-like through the maze of alleys, looking for food (especially stray dogs). The Warli people living in the area respect the big cats. Despite close encounters and occasional attacks (a particular spate coinciding with the relocation of leopards from other areas into the park), the cats are an accepted part of their lives and their culture, seen in the traditional paintings that decorate the walls of their homes. The leopard is not only the most versatile of the world’s big cats but possibly the most persecuted. With growing human-leopard conflicts elsewhere grabbing the headlines, Nayan was determined to use his pictures to show how things can be different with tolerance and planning. Once he had convinced the Warli people of his plan, they supplied him with valuable information, as well as keeping an eye on his equipment. Positioning his flashes to mimic the alley’s usual lighting and his camera so that a passing cat would not dominate the frame, he finally – after four months – got the shot he wanted. With a fleeting look of enquiry in the direction of the camera click, a leopard went about its business alongside people’s homes. Nayan hopes that those living in Mumbai’s new high-rise developments now impinging on the park will learn from the Warli how to co‑exist with the original inhabitants of the land.
Snapper party | By: Tony Wu | Winner, Underwater
For several days each month (in tandem with the full moon), thousands of two‑spot red snappers gather to spawn around Palau in the western Pacific Ocean. The action is intense as the fish fill the water with sperm and eggs, and predators arrive to take advantage of the bounty. Having read about the drama, Tony couldn’t understand why there were so few photos of it – until he hit the water there for the first time, in 2012. The currents were unrelenting – ideal for eggs to be swept swiftly away but a struggle for him to keep up with the fast‑moving fish. Also, the light was low, and the water was clouded with sperm and eggs. That first attempt failed, but he has returned every year to try to capture the event. Noticing that the spawning ran ‘like a chain reaction up and down the mass of fish’, his success finally came when he positioned himself so that the action came to him. Rewarded with a grandstand view, he was intrigued to see that the fish rapidly changed colour during mating from their standard red to a multitude of hues and patterns. Even their characteristic two white spots, close to the dorsal fin on their back, seemed to fade and reappear. On this occasion, with perfect anticipation, he managed to capture a dynamic arc of spawning fish amid clouds of eggs in the oblique morning light. Still obsessed by the dynamics and magnitude of this natural wonder, he will be returning to Palau next April to witness once again the spectacular snapper party.
The sand canvas | By: Rudi Sebastian | Winner, Details
The pristine white sand of Brazil’s Lençóis Maranhenses National Park offers a blank canvas to the rain. In the dry season, sand from the coast is blown by powerful Atlantic winds as far as 50 kilometres (30 miles) inland, sculpting a vast expanse of crescent-shaped dunes up to 40 metres (130 feet) high. With the onset of the rains, the magic begins. An impermeable layer beneath the sand allows water to collect in the dune valleys, forming thousands of transient lagoons, some more than 90 metres (295 feet) long. Bacteria and algae tint the clear water in countless shades of green and blue, while streams carrying sediment from the distant rainforest make their mark with browns and blacks. Patterns appear as the water evaporates, leaving behind organic remains. Rudi learned about the park on a TV programme, and realizing the photographic potential, planned his trip almost two years ahead, to make sure of the season and that he would have time to stay until the water level was right. He waited several days for the perfect light – overhead, to bring out the colours but with clouds obscuring any direct sun ‘to get a shadowless purity’. Shooting almost vertically down from a small aircraft with the door removed, avoiding perspective or scale, he created his striking image. A few weeks later, the scene had evaporated.
Requiem for an owl | By: Mats Andersson | Winner, Black and White
Every day in early spring, Mats walked in the forest near his home in Bashult, southern Sweden, enjoying the company of a pair of Eurasian pygmy owls – until the night he found one of them lying dead on the forest floor. Pygmy owls, with their distinctive rounded heads and lack of ear tufts, are the smallest owls in Europe, barely 19 centimetres (7½ inches) long, though with large feet that enable them to carry prey almost as big as themselves. They also hunt in the day. Nesting in tree cavities, especially in conifer woodland, they form pair bonds in autumn that last through to spring and sometimes for more than one breeding season. ‘The owl’s resting posture reflected my sadness for its lost companion,’ recalls Mats. Preferring to work in black and white – ‘it conveys the feeling better’ – he captured the melancholy of the moment, framing the solitary owl within the bare branches, lit by the first light of dawn. Not long after, he found this owl dead, too, and suspects that it and its mate may have been killed by one of the larger owls in the forest, not for food but because, in the breeding season, it didn’t tolerate other birds of prey in its territory.
The pangolin pit | By: Paul Hilton | Winner, The Wildlife Photojournalist Award: Single Image
Nothing prepared Paul for what he saw: some 4,000 defrosting pangolins (5 tons) from one of the largest seizures of the animals on record. They were destined for China and Vietnam for the exotic‑meat trade or for traditional medicine (their scales are thought, wrongly, to treat a variety of ailments). Pangolins have become the world’s most trafficked animals, with all eight species targeted. This illegal trade, along with habitat loss and local hunting, means that the four Asian species are now endangered or critically endangered, and Africa’s four species are heading that way. These Asian victims, mostly Sunda pangolins, were part of a huge seizure – a joint operation between Indonesia’s police and the World Conservation Society – found hidden in a shipping container behind a façade of frozen fish, ready for export from the major port of Belawan in Sumatra. Also seized were 96 live pangolins (destined to be force-fed to increase their size), along with 100 kilos (220 pounds) of pangolin scales (formed from keratin, the same substance in fingernails and rhino horn) worth some $1.8 million on the black market, and 24 bear paws. All had come from northern Sumatra. The dead pangolins were driven to a specially dug pit and then incinerated. The live ones were taken north and released in the rainforest. "Wildlife crime is big business," says Paul. "It will stop only when the demand stops."
There’s still some time left to vote for the People’s Choice Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Cast your vote online by Jan. 17, 2017.