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Wildlife Photographer of the Year winners show the beauty — and precarity — of nature

<strong>Portfolio Award Winner: </strong><em>The ancient mariner. </em>Pangatalan Island, Palawan, the Philippines. The tri-spine horseshoe crab has survived for more than 100 million years but now faces habitat destruction and overfishing for food and for its blood, used in the development of vaccines.
Laurent Ballesta/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Portfolio Award Winner: The ancient mariner. Pangatalan Island, Palawan, the Philippines. The tri-spine horseshoe crab has survived for more than 100 million years but now faces habitat destruction and overfishing for food and for its blood, used in the development of vaccines.

If you're looking for a breath of fresh air, we have just the thing: the newly-crowned winners of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

The London Museum of History, which runs the prestigious contest, revealed the winning images at a ceremony on Tuesday. It said an international panel of expert judges chose the 19 category winners out of 49,957 entries from 95 countries, based on their originality, narrative, technical excellence, and ethical practice.

The images take us underwater, deep into the woods and high above cities. They come from different parts of the world and tell the stories of various species. But they all showcase the diversity — and precarity — of life on Earth.

"Whilst inspiring absolute awe and wonder, this year's winning images present compelling evidence of our impact on nature – both positive and negative," said Doug Gurr, the director of the Natural History Museum. "Global promises must shift to action to turn the tide on nature's decline."

That's especially true of the two grand title winners.

<strong>Animals in their Environment Winner: </strong><em>Life on the edge</em>. Zin Desert, Israel. Two Nubian ibex clashed on a cliffside for about 15 minutes before one surrendered and they parted ways without serious injury.
/ Amit Eshel/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Amit Eshel/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Animals in their Environment Winner: Life on the edge. Zin Desert, Israel. Two Nubian ibex clashed on a cliffside for about 15 minutes before one surrendered and they parted ways without serious injury.

French marine biologist and underwater photographer Laurent Ballesta was awarded Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his "otherworldly" image of a tri-spine horseshoe crab accompanied by three golden trevallies.

This is actually his second win, which contest organizers say is unprecedented. He took home the grand title in 2021 for his images of mating camouflage groupers in French Polynesia. Both portfolios focused on endangered species in protected waters.

Tri-spine horseshoe crabs have survived for more than 100 million years. Fossil evidence from Lebanon shows they were scuttling through warm waters at the same time dinosaurs roamed the land and skies.

But they are now under threat from habitat destruction and overfishing, with hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs harvested annually to be used both as bait for other species and for scientific research. Their blue blood is used in the development of vaccines — though that could soon start to change.

Ballesta documented the species as they feed, mate and thrive in the protected waters of Pangatalan Island in the Philippines. The Natural History museum said the images took the judges by surprise.

"To see a horseshoe crab so vibrantly alive in its natural habitat, in such a hauntingly beautiful way, was astonishing," said jury chair Kathy Moran. "We are looking at an ancient species, highly endangered, and also critical to human health. This photo is luminescent."

<strong>15-17 Years Winner:</strong> <em>Owls' road house. </em>Hof HaSharon, Israel. The photographer snapped this shot of several barn owls in the window of an abandoned building, using long exposure times to capture the light of passing traffic.
/ Carmel Bechler/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Carmel Bechler/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
15-17 Years Winner: Owls' road house. Hof HaSharon, Israel. The photographer snapped this shot of several barn owls in the window of an abandoned building, using long exposure times to capture the light of passing traffic.

The Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year award went to 17-year-old Carmel Bechler of Israel for his dynamic shot of barn owls in an abandoned roadside building. He used natural light and long exposure times to capture the light from passing traffic.

Bechler said his work aims to show that "the beauty of the natural world is all around us, even in places where we least expect it to be, we just need to open our eyes and our minds."

To the judges, the contrast between the neon lights and nesting owls highlights a growing tension between humans and wildlife.

"It simultaneously screams 'habitat destruction' and 'adaptation,' begging the question: If wildlife can adapt to our environment, why can't we respect theirs?" Moran said.

The other winning shots raise similar questions.

<strong>Natural Artistry Winner: </strong><em>The art of courtship</em>. Noss National Nature Reserve, Shetland, Scotland, UK. Each summer the Isle of Noss hosts more than 22,000 northern gannets, which return to breed on the ledges carved by the elements. This species was hardest hit by the 2022 avian flu outbreak.
/ Rachel Bigsby/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Rachel Bigsby/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Natural Artistry Winner: The art of courtship. Noss National Nature Reserve, Shetland, Scotland, UK. Each summer the Isle of Noss hosts more than 22,000 northern gannets, which return to breed on the ledges carved by the elements. This species was hardest hit by the 2022 avian flu outbreak.

Karine Aigner of the U.S. won the photojournalist story award for her portfolio focused on hunting competitions in Texas, for example. Overhead views of a polluted river in Indonesia and bulldozed land in Mexico serve as stark reminders of the impact humans are having on their own environment.

All of the images will be on display as part of an exhibit at London Natural History Museum that opens Friday. It will tour across the U.K. and to other countries including Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand and Singapore before it closes in late June 2024.

Then it will be nearly time to award a whole new batch of winners. The historic 60th edition of the competition will be accepting submissions starting Monday and until early December.

In the meantime, check out a sampling of this year's winners:

<strong>Invertebrates Behavior Winner: </strong><em>Lights fantastic. </em>Anamalai Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu, India. The photographer combined 50 19-second exposures to show the firefly flashes produced over 16 minutes in the forests near his hometown.
/ Sriram Murali/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Sriram Murali/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Invertebrates Behavior Winner: Lights fantastic. Anamalai Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu, India. The photographer combined 50 19-second exposures to show the firefly flashes produced over 16 minutes in the forests near his hometown.
<strong>Plants and Fungi Winner: <em></em></strong><em>Last breath of autumn. </em>Mount Olympus, Pieria, Greece. Parasol mushrooms release spores from the gills under their cap. Some will land where there is moisture and food, enabling them to grow networks under the forest floor.
/ Agorastos Papatsanis/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Agorastos Papatsanis/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Plants and Fungi Winner: Last breath of autumn. Mount Olympus, Pieria, Greece. Parasol mushrooms release spores from the gills under their cap. Some will land where there is moisture and food, enabling them to grow networks under the forest floor.
<strong>Mammals Behavior Winner: </strong><em>Whales making waves. </em>Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica. A pod of B1 Antarctic killer whales prepare to 'wave wash' a weddell seal off a piece of sea ice and into the water so they can eat it. The bubbles are thought to be part of the way they communicate with each other to form these waves.
/ Bertie Gregory/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Bertie Gregory/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Mammals Behavior Winner: Whales making waves. Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica. A pod of B1 Antarctic killer whales prepare to 'wave wash' a weddell seal off a piece of sea ice and into the water so they can eat it. The bubbles are thought to be part of the way they communicate with each other to form these waves.
<strong>Birds Behavior Winner: </strong><em>Silence for the snake show. </em>Guiana Space Center, between Kourou and Sinnamary, French Guiana. Trumpeters – named for their loud calls – spend most of their time foraging on the forest floor, eating ripe fruits, insects and the occasional small snake. The boa constrictor could have made a meal out of them.
/ Hadrien Lalagüe/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Hadrien Lalagüe/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Birds Behavior Winner: Silence for the snake show. Guiana Space Center, between Kourou and Sinnamary, French Guiana. Trumpeters – named for their loud calls – spend most of their time foraging on the forest floor, eating ripe fruits, insects and the occasional small snake. The boa constrictor could have made a meal out of them.
<strong>Rising Star Portfolio Award: </strong><em>Alpine exposure. </em>Vercors Regional Natural Park, Rhône-Alpes, France. Melcarne skied six hours across a national park and spent a night in a temporary shelter to get early access to ibex territory. He thawed his camera with his breath to take this portrait.
/ Luca Melcarne/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Luca Melcarne/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Rising Star Portfolio Award: Alpine exposure. Vercors Regional Natural Park, Rhône-Alpes, France. Melcarne skied six hours across a national park and spent a night in a temporary shelter to get early access to ibex territory. He thawed his camera with his breath to take this portrait.
<strong>Underwater Winner: </strong><em>Hippo nursery. </em>Kosi Bay, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa. A hippopotamus and her two offspring resting in the shallow clear-water lake. Hippos produce one calf every two to three years.
/ Mike Korostelev/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Mike Korostelev/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Underwater Winner: Hippo nursery. Kosi Bay, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa. A hippopotamus and her two offspring resting in the shallow clear-water lake. Hippos produce one calf every two to three years.
<strong>10 Years and Younger Winner: </strong><em>The wall of wonder. </em>Nallur Heritage Tamarind Grove, Karnataka, India. An ornamental tree trunk spider prevents its prey from escaping. To the photographer, it seemed the spider had positioned its web after being entranced by the sound of Krishna's flute.
/ Vihaan Talya Vikas/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Vihaan Talya Vikas/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
10 Years and Younger Winner: The wall of wonder. Nallur Heritage Tamarind Grove, Karnataka, India. An ornamental tree trunk spider prevents its prey from escaping. To the photographer, it seemed the spider had positioned its web after being entranced by the sound of Krishna's flute.
<strong>Animal Portraits Winner: </strong><em>Face of the forest. </em>Tapiraí, São Paulo, Brazil. A lowland tapir steps cautiously out of the swampy Brazilian rainforest. They rely on the forest for their diet of vegetation and in turn they act as seed dispersers — an important relationship threatened by habitat loss, illegal hunting and traffic collision.
/ Vishnu Gopal/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Vishnu Gopal/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Animal Portraits Winner: Face of the forest. Tapiraí, São Paulo, Brazil. A lowland tapir steps cautiously out of the swampy Brazilian rainforest. They rely on the forest for their diet of vegetation and in turn they act as seed dispersers — an important relationship threatened by habitat loss, illegal hunting and traffic collision.
<strong>Wetlands Winner: </strong><em>The dead river. </em>Ciliwung river, Jakarta, Indonesia. Plastic and human waste and agricultural fertilizers are suffocating the Ciliwung river. As a result, Jakarta's residents must use groundwater for drinking water, which has resulted in widespread subsidence. The city is now sinking.
/ Joan de la Malla/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Joan de la Malla/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Wetlands Winner: The dead river. Ciliwung river, Jakarta, Indonesia. Plastic and human waste and agricultural fertilizers are suffocating the Ciliwung river. As a result, Jakarta's residents must use groundwater for drinking water, which has resulted in widespread subsidence. The city is now sinking.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum in London.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.