Amidst the magical surroundings of a forest in the Russian far east, an extremely rare Amul tigress ecstatically embraces a Manchurian fir tree, marking it with her scent to communicate with others of her kind. It took photographer Sergey Gershkov 10 months of waiting to catch a glimpse of this solitary creature, but his dedication was rewarded with a once-in-a-lifetime shot. This year’s winner of the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, “The Embrace” is a remarkable portrait of a rare and beautiful animal in her natural environment. “It’s a scene like no other,” says Rosamund Kidman Cox, chair of the judging panel that selected Gershkov’s photo out of more than 49,000 entries from around the world:
A unique glimpse of an intimate moment deep in a magical forest. Shafts of low winter sun highlight the ancient fir tree and the coat of the huge tigress as she grips the trunk in obvious ecstasy and inhales the scent of tiger on resin, leaving her own mark as her message. It’s also a story told in glorious colour and texture of the comeback of the Amur tiger, a symbol of the Russian wilderness.
Winners in other categories of the competition demonstrate why Wildlife Photographer of the Year is considered one of the world’s most prestigious photography awards. As the following selection demonstrates, each portrait is a striking insight into the fascinating creatures we share our planet with.
‘Eleonora’s Gift’ by Alberto Fantoni, Italy
Winner, Rising Star Portfolio
On the steep cliffs of a Sardinian island, a male Eleonora’s falcon brings his mate food — a small migrant, probably a lark, snatched from the sky as it flew over the Mediterranean. Alberto was watching from a hide on San Pietro Island, from where he could photograph the adults on their cliff-top perch. He couldn’t see the nest, but he could watch the male pass on his prey, observing that he always seemed reluctant to give up his catch without a struggle.
‘Watching You Watching Them’ by Alex Badyaev, Russia/USA
Winner, Urban Wildlife
The Cordilleran flycatcher is declining across western North America as the changing climate shrinks habitat along its migratory route. In Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, it typically nests in crevices and on canyon shelves. But one pair picked this remote research cabin instead, perhaps to avoid predation. The nest was built on the head of a window frame by the female. She made it out of moss, grass and other plant material and lined it with finer fibres, hair and feathers. Both parents were feeding the nestlings, flying out to snatch insects in mid-air or hovering to pick them off leaves. Alex captured his shot as the female paused to check on her four nestlings. Behind her — the cabin serving as a conveniently spacious hide — the biologist recorded his observations.
‘Perfect Balance’ by Andrés Luis Dominguez Blanco, Spain
Winner, 10 Years and Under
In spring, the meadows near Andrés’ home in Ubrique, in Andalucia, Spain, are bright with flowers, such as these sweet-scented sulla vetches. Andrés had walked there a few days earlier and seen European stonechats hunting for insects, but they were on the far side of the meadow. Andrés asked his dad to drive to the meadow and park so he could use the car as a hide, kneel on the back seat and, with his lens on the window sill, shoot through the open windows. He was delighted to see stonechats flying close by, alighting on any stem or stalk as a vantage point to look for worms, spiders and insects.
‘A Tale of Two Wasps’ by Frank Deschandol, France
Winner, Behaviour: Invertebrates
This remarkable simultaneous framing of a red-banded sand wasp (left) and a cuckoo wasp, about to enter next-door nest holes, is the result of painstaking preparation. The female cuckoo wasp parasitizes the nests of certain solitary digger wasps, laying her eggs in her hosts’ burrows so that her larvae can feast on their eggs or larvae and then the food stores. The much larger red-banded sand wasp lays her eggs in her own burrow, which she provisions with caterpillars, one for each of her young to eat when they emerge. Frank’s original aim was to photograph the vibrant cuckoo wasp, but despite the extremely narrow depth of field and tiny subjects, he captured not only the cuckoo wasp but also the sand wasp. Though these two species don’t regularly interact, Frank was gifted a perfectly balanced composition by the insects’ fortuitous flight paths to their nest holes.
‘Life in the Balance’ by Jaime Culebras, Spain
Winner, Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles
A Manduriacu glass frog snacks on a spider in the foothills of the Andes, northwestern Ecuador. That night, Jaime’s determination to share his passion for them had driven him to walk for four hours, in heavy rain, through the forest to reach the frogs’ streams in Manduriacu Reserve. But the frogs were elusive and the downpour was growing heavier and heavier. As he turned back, he was thrilled to spot one small frog clinging to a branch, its eyes like shimmering mosaics. Not only was it eating — he had photographed glass frogs eating only once before — but it was also a newly discovered species. Serenaded by a frog chorus in torrential rain — he held his umbrella and flash in one hand and the camera in the other — Jaime captured the first ever picture of this species feeding.
‘Great Crested Sunrise’ by Jose Luis Ruiz Jiménez, Spain
Winner, Behaviour: Birds
After several hours up to his chest in water in a lagoon near Brozas, in the west of Spain, Jose Luis captured this intimate moment of a great crested grebe family. The grebes are at their most elegant in the breeding season — ornate plumage, crests on their heads, neck feathers that they can fan into ruffs, striking red eyes and pink-tinged bills. They build a nest of aquatic plant material, often among reeds at the edge of shallow water. To avoid predators, their chicks leave the nest within a few hours of hatching, hitching a snug ride on a parent’s back.This morning, the parent on breakfast duty emerged with damp feathers and a tasty meal. In soft light and muted reflections, Jose Luis was able to reveal the fine detail of these graceful birds and their attentive parental care.
‘The Fox That Got the Goose’ by Liina Heikkinen, Finland
Winner, 15–17 Years Old
It was on a summer holiday in Helsinki that Liina, then aged 13, heard about a large fox family living in the city suburbs on the island of Lehtisaari. So Liina and her father spent one long July day, without a hide, watching the two adults and their six large cubs. It was 7pm when the excitement began, with the vixen’s arrival with a barnacle goose. Feathers flew as the cubs began fighting over it. One finally gained ownership — urinating on it in his excitement. Dragging the goose into a crevice, the cub attempted to eat his prize while blocking access to the others. Lying just metres away, Liina was able to frame the scene and capture the expression of the youngster as it attempted to keep its hungry siblings at bay.
‘The Pose’ by Mogens Trolle, Denmark
Winner, Animal Portraits
A young male proboscis monkey cocks his head slightly and closes his eyes. Unexpected pale blue eyelids now complement his immaculately groomed auburn hair. He poses for a few seconds as if in meditation. He is a wild visitor to the feeding station at Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary in Sabah, Borneo — “the most laid-back character,” says Mogens, who has been photographing primates worldwide for the past five years. Mogens’ unforgettable portrait, with the young male’s characteristic peaceful expression — “quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen on another monkey” — connects us, he hopes, with a fellow primate.
‘The Last Bite’ by Ripan Biswas, India
Winner, Portfolio Award
These two ferocious predators don’t often meet. The giant riverine tiger beetle pursues prey on the ground, while weaver ants stay mostly in the trees — but if they do meet, both need to be wary. When an ant colony went hunting small insects on a dry river bed in Buxa Tiger Reserve, West Bengal, India, a tiger beetle began to pick off some of the ants. In the heat of the midday sun, Ripan lay on the sand and edged closer. In defence, one bit into the beetle’s slender hind leg. The beetle swiftly turned and, with its large, curved mandibles, snipped the ant in two, but the ant’s head and upper body remained firmly attached. “The beetle kept pulling at the ant’s leg,” says Ripan, “trying to rid itself of the ant’s grip, but it couldn’t quite reach its head.” He used flash to illuminate the lower part of the beetle, balancing this against the harsh sunlight, as he got his dramatic, eye-level shot.
‘A Mean Mouthful’ by Sam Sloss, Italy/USA
Winner, 11–14 Years Old
On a diving holiday in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, Sam stopped to watch the behaviour of a group of clownfishes as they swam with hectic and repeated patterns in and out and around their home, a magnificent anemone. He was intrigued by the expression of one individual, the result of its mouth being constantly open, holding something. Rather than following the moving fish in his viewfinder, Sam positioned himself where he knew it would come back into the frame. It was only when he downloaded the photos that he saw tiny eyes peeping out of its mouth. It was a “tongue-eating louse,” a parasitic isopod that swims in through the gills as a male, changes sex, grows legs and attaches itself to the base of the tongue, sucking blood. When the tongue withers and drops off, the isopod takes its place. Its presence may weaken its host, but the clownfish can continue to feed. Sam’s image, the reward for his curiosity, captures the three very different life forms, their lives intertwined.
‘When Mother Says Run’ by Shanyuan Li, China
Winner, Behaviour: Mammals
This rare picture of a family of Pallas’s cats on the remote steppes of the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau in northwest China is the result of six years’ work at high altitude. These small cats are normally solitary, hard to find and mostly active at dawn and dusk. Through long-term observation, Shanyuan knew his best chance to photograph them in daylight would be in August and September, when the kittens were a few months old and the mothers bolder and intent on caring for them. Hours of patience were rewarded when the three kittens came out to play, while their mother kept her eye on a Tibetan fox lurking nearby. In the clear air, against a soft background, Shanyuan caught their expressions in a rarely seen moment of family life, when their mother had issued a warning to hurry back to the safety of the lair.
‘The Golden Moment’ by Songda Cai, China
Winner, Under Water
A tiny diamondback squid paralarva flits below in the blackness, stops hunting for an instant when caught in the light beam, gilds itself in shimmering gold and then moves gracefully out of the light. The beam was Songda’s, on a night dive over deep water, far off the coast of Anilao, in the Philippines. He never knows what he might encounter in this dark, silent world. All sorts of larvae and other tiny animals — zooplankton — migrate up from the depths under cover of night to feed on surface-dwelling phytoplankton, and after them come other predators. Transparent in all stages, a diamondback squid swims slowly, propelled by undulations of its triangular fins, but by contracting its powerful mantles, it can spurt away from danger. Chromatophores (organs just below the skin) contain elastic sacs of pigment that stretch rapidly into discs of colour when the muscles around them contract. Deeper in the skin, iridophores reflect and scatter light, adding an iridescent sheen. From above, Songda captured the fleeting moment when, hovering in perfect symmetry, the diamondback paralarva turned to gold.
‘The Embrace’ by Sergey Gorshkov, Russia
Grand Title Winner—and Winner, Animals in their Environment
With an expression of sheer ecstasy, a tigress hugs an ancient Manchurian fir, rubbing her cheek against bark to leave secretions from her scent glands. She is an Amur, or Siberian, tiger, here in the Land of the Leopard National Park, in the Russian Far East. The race — now regarded as the same subspecies as the Bengal tiger — is found only in this region, with a small number surviving over the border in China and possibly a few in North Korea. Hunted almost to extinction in the past century, the population is still threatened by poaching and logging, which also impacts their prey — mostly deer and wild boar, which are also hunted. Low prey densities mean that tiger territories are huge. Sergey knew his chances were slim but was determined to take a picture of the totem animal of his Siberian homeland. Scouring the forest for signs, focusing on trees along regular routes where tigers might have left messages — scent, hairs, urine or scratch marks — he installed his first proper camera trap in January 2019, opposite this grand fir. But it was not until November that he achieved the picture he had planned for, of a magnificent tigress in her Siberian forest environment.
Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum, London.