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2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition winners

The winners of the Natural History Museum’s 57th Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition have been revealed, with French underwater photographer, Laurent Ballesta, awarded the top prize. Two Australian photographers, Adam Oswell and Justin Gilligan, also won categories.

Laurent Ballesta’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award winning image, Creation. Photo: Laurent Ballesta.

Bellesta’s image, Creation, shows camouflage groupers exiting their milky cloud of eggs and sperm in Fakarava, French Polynesia.

‘Every year, for five years, Laurent and his team returned to this lagoon, diving day and night so as not to miss the annual spawning that only takes place around the full moon in July,’ the Natural History Museum’s image description states. ‘After dark, they were joined by hundreds of grey reef sharks, hunting the groupers in packs. Overfishing threatens this vulnerable species, but here the fish are protected within a special biosphere reserve.’

Chair of the judging panel, Rosamund ‘Roz’ Kidman Cox, said the image ‘works on so many levels’, as it’s ‘surprising, energetic, and intriguing and has an otherworldly beauty’.

‘It also captures a magical moment –a truly explosive creation of life –leaving the tail-end of the exodus of eggs hanging for a moment like a symbolic question mark,’ she said.

The winners were selected from more than 50,000 entries submitted by photographers in 95 countries.

Asia-based Australian photographer, Adam Oswell, won the Photojournalism category for his image, Elephant in the room.

‘A group of visitors watch and take photos as a young elephant performs tricks underwater at a zoo in Thailand’. Photo: Adam Oswell.

Oswell’s photo brings into question this form of tourist entertainment.

‘Shows like this one are often promoted as educational and advertised as good exercise for the animals, but rights organisations are concerned for the welfare of the elephants involved,’ the Natural History Museum’s image description states. ‘The training for this type of show usually starts with the removal of a calf from its mother and uses fear and pain-based punishment.

‘An increase in elephant tourism over the last few years combined with the low birth rate of elephants in captivity has driven a rise in poaching young calves from their mothers. There are now more captive elephants in Thailand (possibly 3,800) than wild ones (fewer than 3,600).’

Oswell specialises in wildlife trade and protection, and has worked in Asia for over 20 years. The image was captured on a Nikon D810 with a 24-70mm lens at f2.8 and 1/640 sec.

Australian wildlife photographer, Justin Gilligan, won the Plants and Fungi category for his image, Rich Reflections, showing marine ranger, Caitlin Wood’s moment of tranquillity in the world’s southernmost tropical reef.

‘Seizing the short 40-minute window when tide conditions were right, Justin presents this lush forest of seaweed as an underwater Eden.’ Photo: Justin Gilligan.

‘Marine ecosystems like this one are vital in the fight to bring the climate emergency under control and protect the natural world. Seaweed forests support hundreds of species while capturing carbon and producing oxygen for our planet,’ the website states. ‘Lord Howe Island, where this photo was taken, is often regarded as one of the last remaining wildernesses on Earth. The World Heritage site supports several thousand species of flora and fauna, many of which are threatened and protected species. This untouched island paradise is beginning to feel the effects of human existence.’

Here’s a gallery of the other category winners.

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Photo contest criteria

Organising group: Natural History Museum in London, a ‘registered charity and a scientific institution’.
Status/Objective: To ‘celebrate the captivating beauty of the natural world and shine a spotlight on crucial ecosystems, many of which are endangered’, and curate an exhibition.
Entry fee: £30 to £35.
Prizes: £10,000 for winning the top prize and £1250 for adult category winners.
Sponsors: It doesn’t appear to have major sponsors.
Judges: A panel consisting of seven experts from the photo and wildlife conservation industry.
Number of entrants/submissions: Over 50,000
Categories: 20 categories.
Exposure: It’s the biggest wildlife photography contest in the world, run by a prestigious scientific institution. Winning and finalist images are given exposure across a print exhibition at the museum, along with winners appearing in media campaigns.
Transparency: Extremely transparent.
Communication: Readily available.
Estimated Gross Revenue: 50,000 x £30 per entry = £1.5 million. Wow! ‘Income from entries to the competition are vital in helping to fund the smooth running of the competition, the production of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition and global projects such as taking the winning images to environmental conferences, events and museums around the world.’
Copyright standards: Entrants retains copyright.
Overall rating: A top gold star contest. The biggest and most prestigious wildlife photography contest. Not much more to say.

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