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16 Extraordinary, Highly-Commended Finalist Photos

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The internationally-renowned Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021 has released a special selection of the images named as finalists in the 57th edition of its prestigious competition, which this year drew a record-breaking number of entries from more than 50,000 photographers in 95 countries.

From lynx making a comeback and Narwhal shrimp communicating at great depths to the photo above showing the world’s only recorded group of five male cheetahs trying to cross an overflown river, this year’s Highly Commended images offer a unique and fascinating record of the state of our wilderness, and will be part of London’s Natural History Museum Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

The cheetahs’ story

Monstrous rains in Masai Mara Kenya during January 2020 caused a major river to flood and swell larger and more violent than ever before. The Tano Bora (Maasai for “magnificent five”), an unusually large grouping thought to comprise two pairs of brothers joined later by a single male, were trying to cross its terrifyingly powerful currents and seemed doomed to failure. Many cheetahs die in efforts to cross much less daunting waters.

“After hours of careful searching along the banks, they suddenly jumped into the water and began trying to swim across the maelstrom of water as we watched terrified,” the photographer said. “They would be washed away or eaten by crocodiles. Their aim was to cross over to the other side, which was part of their territory and full of game. The lead cheetah looked straight at us during the crossing while gritting teeth with swimming effort, as if accusing us of not helping them and watching them about to die. We screamed with delight as we saw them finally cross over about a 100 meters downstream from where they jumped.”

A planet under pressure

The competing images are a compelling reminder of the importance of the variety and variability of life on Earth in securing the future of our planet, revealed just ahead of the first phase of the global United Nations COP15 conference on biodiversity.

Telling the story of a planet under pressure, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition illuminates the urgent challenges we face and the collective action we need to take.

This preview of Highly Commended photographs has been released ahead of the opening of the very anticipated exhibition of the best 100 wildlife photos of the year at the Natural History Museum in London on October 15.

“It was the overall quality of entries that took us by surprise,” said Roz Kidman Cox, chair of the judging panel. “With most travel plans canceled over the past year, photographers seem to have spent extra time considering what gems to submit. There are stand-out pictures of unforgettable scenes and encounters – those unique wild moments, skilfully framed, that result from knowledge, experience and planning – but also fresh, beautiful observations of nature close to home or in close-up.

The result is a collection of both thought-provoking images and ones that, in these dark times, remind us of the joy and wonder to be had from nature.”

The contest offers a global platform for photographers of all ages and levels from around the world to capture the beauty and vulnerability of the natural world.

The 2022 competition opens for entries this year on October 18 and closes on December 9.

Every entry for the current contest was judged anonymously on its creativity, originality and technical excellence by an international panel of industry experts.

The 100 award-winning images, including the Grand Title award winners, will be announced on October 12 during an online awards show before being opened to the public. The exhibition will then go on an international tour.

A young Iberian lynx framed in the doorway of an abandoned hayloft where it was raised on a farm in eastern Sierra Morena, Spain.

Once widespread on the Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal, by 2002 there were fewer than 100 lynx in Spain and none in Portugal. Their decline was driven by hunting, killing by farmers, habitat loss and loss of prey. (They mainly eat rabbits.)

Thanks to ongoing conservation efforts – reintroduction, rewilding, prey boosting and the creation of natural corridors and tunnels – Iberian lynx have escaped extinction and, though still endangered, are fully protected.

Only recently, as their numbers increase, have they begun to take advantage of human environments. This individual is one of the latest in a family line to emerge from the old hayloft. This young lynx, lineage descendant of a female coming from a breeding center, will conquest new territories.

Three rose-ringed parakeet chicks pop their heads out of the nest hole as their father returns with food. Ten‑year-old photographer Gagana Mecdis Wickramasinghe was watching from the balcony of his parents’ bedroom in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

The nest was in a dead areca-nut palm in the backyard which his parents had deliberately left standing to attract wildlife.

When incubating the eggs, the female stayed inside while the male foraged for fruit, berries, nuts and seeds mainly, feeding her by regurgitating food. When Gagana took this picture, both parents were feeding the five growing chicks.

Also known as ring‑necked parakeets, these medium-sized parrots are native to Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan as well as a band of sub‑Saharan Africa but feral populations are now found in many countries, including Great Britain. These are often found in urban settings, where they sometimes even breed in holes in brick walls.

In the wake of a fishing boat, a slick of dead and dying herrings covers the surface of the sea off the coast of Norway.

The boat had caught too many fish and the encircling wall of the purse-seine net was broke as it was being closed and winched up, releasing tons of crushed and suffocated animals. The photographer was aboard a Norwegian coastguard vessel on a project to satellite‑tag killer whales.

The whales follow the migrating herrings and are frequently found alongside fishing boats, where they feed on fish that leak from the nets.

For the Norwegian coastguard, responsible for surveillance of the fishing fleet, the spectacle of carnage and waste was effectively a crime scene. So these photographs became the visual evidence in a court case that resulted in a conviction and fine for the owner of the boat.

Overfishing is one of the biggest threats to ocean ecosystems, and according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization more than 60% of fisheries today are either ‘fully fished’ or collapsed, and almost 30% are at their limit (‘overfished’).

Clutched in the coils of a golden tree snake, a red-spotted tokay gecko stays clamped onto its attacker’s head in a last attempt at defence.

Named for their to‑kay call, tokay geckos are large – up to 40 centimetres (16 inches) long – feisty and with powerful jaws. But they’re also a favorite prey of the golden tree snake.

This snake, common in the lowland forests of South and Southeast Asia, also hunts lizards, amphibians, birds and even bats, and is one of five snakes that can ‘fly’, expanding its ribs and flattening its body to glide from branch to branch.

Wei was photographing birds at a park near his home in Bangkok, Thailand, when his attention was caught by the loud croaking and hissing warnings of the gecko. It was being approached by the golden tree snake, coiled on a branch above and slowly letting itself down.

As the snake struck, injecting its venom, the gecko turned and clamped onto the snake’s upper jaw. Wei watched as they wrestled, but within minutes, the snake had dislodged the gecko, coiled tightly around it and squeezed it to death.

While still hanging from the loop of its tail, the slender snake then began the laborious process of swallowing the gecko whole.

After a feeding of special formula milk, an orphaned grey-headed flying-fox pup lies on a ‘mumma roll’, sucking on a dummy and cradled in the hand of a wildlife-carer.

She was three weeks old when she was found on the ground in Melbourne, Australia, and taken to a shelter. Grey‑headed flying-foxes, endemic to eastern Australia, are threatened by heat-stress events and destruction of their forest habitat – where they play a key role in seed dispersal and pollination.

They also come into conflict with people, get caught in netting and on barbed wire and electrocuted on power lines.

At eight weeks, this pup was to be weaned onto fruit, then flowering eucalyptus. After a few months, she would join a crèche and build up flight fitness before being moved next to Melbourne’s Yarra Bend bat colony for eventual release into it.

Bright red blood dripping from the muzzle of the lioness – oxygenated blood, indicating that her wildebeest meal was alive as it was being consumed.

Perhaps being inexperienced, this young lioness had not made a clean kill and had begun eating the still-struggling animal. With a paw holding it down, she awarded the photographer an intense stare.

More than two million wildebeest move through the north of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park on their annual migration in search of greener grass, providing the Serengeti lions with a seasonal glut of food.

“She was already quite full,” Jackson said, “probably after feeding the night before. But she grabbed the opportunity for an easy meal.”

Though most successful when hunting with a pride, a single lion can bring down an animal twice its weight.

This arresting portrait captures the rawness of the moment and the intensity of the lioness’s stare. She didn’t eat much before leaving the kill to walk off with the male whom she had been lying up with, seemingly more interested in mating than feeding.

The best way to photograph a female ornamented mosquito, says Wizen, is to let it bite you.

The elegant Sabethes mosquitoes, found only in Latin America, are just four millimetres (0.16 inches) long and skittish. Only the females bite – they need a blood meal to produce eggs – and in doing so, can act as vectors of tropical diseases such as yellow fever and dengue fever.

Their long legs sport brushes of hairs — possibly important in attracting mates — and their hind legs are typically raised and waved around as they bite. With large compound eyes and sensitive, feathery antennae, they can detect the slightest movement.

So when this one, in central Ecuador, landed on Wizen, he kept stock-still as he framed it, head on, proboscis poised to pierce his finger knuckle.

Its bite, he admits, was rather painful. But clearly worth it.

In southern California, a juvenile white-tailed kite reaches to grab a live mouse from the clutches of its hovering father.

A more experienced bird would have approached from behind as it’s easier to coordinate a mid-air transfer while both are moving in the same direction. But this cinnamon-streaked youngster had been flying for just two days and still had much to learn.

It must master aerial food exchange until it is capable of hunting for itself, typically by hovering then dropping down to grab mainly small mammals. Later, it needs to perform aerial courtship rituals, where a male offers prey to a female.

To get the shot, Zhi had to abandon his tripod, grab his camera and run. The result was the highlight of three years’ work – the action and the conditions came together perfectly.

As dusk starts to fall, an Apollo butterfly settles on an oxeye daisy. Dupieux had long dreamed of photographing the Apollo, a large mountain butterfly with a wingspan up to 90 millimetres (31/2 inches) and now one of Europe’s threatened butterflies, at risk from the warming climate and extreme weather events.

In summer, the Alpine meadows in the Haut-Jura Regional Nature Park on the French‑Swiss border are full of butterflies, including Apollos. Though slow flyers, the Apollos were constantly on the move.

After numerous adjustments of settings and focus, Dupieux finally achieved his emblematic image, the whites standing out in stark contrast and just daubs of colour – the yellow hearts of the daisies and the red eyespots of the Apollo.

In deep water among cold-water black coral off the French Mediterranean coast, Ballesta came across a surreal sight: a vibrant community of thousands of narwhal shrimps.

Their legs weren’t touching, but their exceptionally long, highly mobile outer antennae were. It appeared that each shrimp was in touch with its neighbors and that, potentially, signals were being sent across a far‑reaching network.

Research suggests that such contact is central to the shrimps’ social behaviour, in pairing and competition.

Against the deep-blue of the open water, floating among the feathery black coral, white when living, the translucent narwhal shrimps looked exceptionally beautiful, with their red and white stripes, long orange legs and sweeping antennae.

Between a shrimp’s bulbous, stalked eyes, flanked by two pairs of antennae, is a beak-like serrated rostrum that extends well beyond its 10-centimetre (four‑inch) bodies.

Narwhal shrimp are normally nocturnal and often burrow in mud or sand or hide among rocks or in caves in the day.

They’re commercially fished, which involves bottom‑trawling over such deep-water locations, destroying the slow‑growing coral forests as well as their communities.

This eye-catching detail of a small river in the Geamana Valley in Romania’s Apuseni Mountains is deceiving.

These designs – perhaps made sharp by recent heavy rain – are the result of an ugly truth: In the late 1970s, more than 400 families living in Geamana were forced to leave to make way for waste flowing from the nearby Rosia Poieni mine exploiting one of the largest deposits of copper ore and gold in Europe.

The picturesque valley became a ‘tailings pond’ filled with an acidic cocktail of pyrite (fool’s gold), iron and other heavy metals laced with cyanide. These toxic materials have infiltrated the groundwater and threatened waterways more widely.

The settlement was gradually engulfed in millions of tons of toxic waste, leaving just the old church tower protruding and the sludge still piling up.

The photographer’s composition – “to draw attention to the ecological disaster” – captures the elemental colors of heavy metals in the river and the ornate radiating banks of this shockingly toxic landscape.

The fox was busy searching in the shallows for salmon carcasses – sockeye salmon that had died after spawning. The vixen was one of only two red foxes resident on the tiny island in Karluk Lake on Alaska’s Kodiak Island — and she was surprisingly bold.

Armstrong had followed her over several days, watching her forage for berries, pounce after birds and playfully nip at the heels of a young brown bear until he was able to get this atmospheric, studio-style portrait moments before a deluge of rain.

When Culebras spotted this tarantula hawk wasp dragging a tarantula across his kitchen floor, in Quito, Ecuador, he rushed to get his camera. By the time he got back, the giant wasp – nearly 4 centimetres (11/2 inches) long – was hoisting its victim up the side of the fridge.

Tarantula hawks are said to have among the most painful stings on the planet, deadly to spiders. They actually feed on nectar and pollen but the females also hunt tarantulas as food for their carnivorous larvae.

The wasp injects her victim with venom via a sharp, curved sting, then drags it paralyzed but still alive to her nest, where she lays a single egg on its body.

When the egg hatches, the larva burrows into the spider’s body and eats it alive, eventually emerging as an adult.

Culebras waited for the colorful wasp to level with his fridge magnets, then framed his shot to include this passing addition to his collection.

On a summer night, under a full moon after monsoon rain, Freund found the ghost fungus on a dead tree in the rainforest near his home in Queensland, Australia.

Comparatively few species of fungi are known to make light in this way, through a chemical reaction called luciferin oxidizing that occurs when it comes in contact with the enzyme luciferase.

Why this inedible bioluminescent mushroom, also known as ghost fungus, glows is a mystery. No spore‑dispersing insects seem to be attracted by the light, which is produced constantly and may simply be a by-product of the fungi’s metabolism.

This magical sight is more often seen in southern Australia.

Houses on the edge of Kakinada City reach the estuary, buffered from the sea by the remains of a mangrove swamp. Development has already destroyed 90% of mangroves – salt-tolerant trees and shrubs – along this eastern coastal area of Andhra Pradesh, India.

But mangroves are now recognized as vital for both human and non-human coastal life. Their roots trap organic matter, providing carbon storage, slowing incoming tides, protecting communities against storms and creating nurseries for numerous fish and other species on which fishing communities rely.

Flying his drone over the area, Pulapa could see the impact of human activities – pollution, plastic waste and mangrove clearance – but this picture seemed to sum up the protective, nurturing girdle that mangroves provide for such storm-prone tropical communities.

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