Inspiring and humbling: reflections upon ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017’

Having not managed to get to the NHM’s ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ exhibition for the past couple of years, I had forgotten just how impactful it can be. For those of you who haven’t come across it before, London’s Natural History Museum has run this competition since 1984 and describes it as “a reflection of the Museum’s desire to understand and conserve the diversity of the natural world”.

The competition has become something of an international phenomenon; this year, a staggering 49,865 entries were received, which were somehow whittled down to the 100 finalists currently on display. And each of these photos is sublime; each has its own story to tell. With 95 different countries represented, you can only marvel at the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the shortlisted photographers; some of these photos took hours and even days to bring about, and only came to fruition thanks to ordinate amounts of persistence, technique and patience. In each of photos I found something at which to marvel – and, judging by the rapt expressions on the faces of the people around me, I wasn’t alone.

Joyous though the Exhibition is in many ways, it is also a sobering experience. Each photo is accompanied by a snapshot of information about its subject – and, all too often, the subject is a member of a species which is threatened with extinction. Not just that, but many of the species are also endangered by the everyday activities of the humans around them – just look at this photo of a black-headed gull with a coat hanger attached to one of its legs. These gulls feed on earthworms, insects and fish, but also scavenge on rubbish heaps, from where it is likely to have become entangled with the coat hanger.

Black-headed gull

Seabirds, so I learned today, are particularly vulnerable to plastic pollution – and this photo should act as a wake-up call to us all.

Thankfully, there is some positive news, too. One of my favourite photos in the Exhibition is of a group of bison, which was taken in The Netherlands. Bison – Europe’s last land mammal – had been hunted to extinction in the continent by 1927, but huge efforts by conservationists over the past few years have seen this majestic creature reintroduced via breeding and re-wilding projects. Europe’s bison population now stands at over 5,000, with more than half living in wild herds.

I couldn’t possibly pick a favourite out of all the photos on display, so instead I will be guided by the wisdom of the judging panel. The 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year is Tim Lamon, with ‘Entwined Lives’ – a shot of a young orang-utan returning to feast upon a crop of figs. A more heart-warming, not to mention educational, image it is hard to imagine.

Orang-utan

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