The best wildlife photos of the year

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We salute the strong presence of images from Africa in the 2018 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

We shouldn’t be surprised, given the depth of subject matter in the world’s most exciting continent, but we’re excited to see so many photographs from Africa feature in this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

In particular, we celebrate the success of 16-year-old Skye Meaker as the winner of the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year category.

We’re delighted to share with you a selection of the top shots from Africa, now on display as part of the remarkable 100-image exhibition celebrating the best of the 2018 competition, running at the Natural History Museum in London until Summer 2019. It will also tour the UK and international locations such as Canada, Spain, the USA, Australia and Germany.

And if this inspires you, entries for the 2019 competition are already open, closing on 13 December. Click here for more information.

Lounging leopard, by Skye Meaker (South Africa)

Grand Title Winner: Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2018 (15-17 years old)

Mathoja was dozing when they finally found her, lying along a low branch of a nyala tree. And she continued to doze all the time they were there, unfazed by the vehicle. “She would sleep for a couple of minutes. Then look around briefly. Then fall back to sleep,” says Skye.

Mathoja’s home is Botswana’s Mashatu Game Reserve, which Skye and his family regularly visit, always hoping to see leopards, though they are notoriously elusive. In Bantu language, Mathoja means ‘the one that walks with a limp’. Skye calls her Limpy. She limps because of an injury as a cub, but otherwise she is now a healthy eight-year-old, and she remains the calmest of leopards around vehicles.

Though she dozed just metres away from Skye, she blended into the background, the morning light was poor, leaves kept blowing across her face, and her eyes were only ever open briefly, making it hard for Skye to compose the shot he was after.

Finally, just as she opened her eyes for a second, the overhead branches moved enough to let in a shaft of light that gave a glint to her eyes, helping him to create his memorable portrait.

Canon EOS-1D X + 500mm f4 lens; 1/80 sec at f4; ISO 1250.

Kuhirwa mourns her baby, by Ricardo Núñez Montero (Spain)

Winner 2018, Behaviour: Mammals

Kuhirwa, a young female member of the Nkuringo mountain gorilla family in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, would not give up on her dead baby.

What Ricardo first thought to be a bundle of roots turned out to be the tiny corpse. Forced by the low light to work with a wide aperture and a very narrow depth of field, he chose to focus on the body rather than Kuhirwa’s face. Guides told him that she had given birth during bad weather and that the baby probably died of cold.

At first Kuhirwa had cuddled and groomed the body, moving its legs and arms up and down and carrying it piggyback like the other mothers. Weeks later, she started to eat what was left of the corpse, behaviour that the guide had only ever seen once before.

Kuhirwa’s initial reactions to her bereavement echo responses to death seen in other species. From elephants stroking the bones of dead family members to dolphins who try to keep dead companions afloat, there is an abundance of credible evidence that many animals – ranging from primates and cetaceans to cats, dogs, rabbits, horses and some birds – behave in ways that visibly express grief, though individual reactions vary. Kuhirwa’s behaviour can be understood as mourning, without the need to speculate about her thoughts.

Nikon D610 + 70–300mm f4.5–5.6 lens at 185mm; 1/750 sec at f5; ISO 2200.

Desert relic, by Jen Guyton (Germany/USA)

Winner 2018, Plants and Fungi

The cones of a female welwitschia reach for the skies over the Namib Desert, proffering sweet nectar to insect pollinators.

These desert survivors have an extraordinary biology. There are male and female plants, both producing distinctive cones. Each plant comprises just two leaves, a stem base and a tap root. The woody stem stops growing at the apex but widens with age, forming a concave disc, but the two original seedling leaves continue to grow, gradually splitting and fraying.

With a slow growth rate and the largest specimens spanning more than 8 metres (26 feet), some may be 1,000 years old or more (twice that has been claimed). Endemic to Namibia and Angola, welwitschia endures harsh, arid conditions, usually within 150 kilometres (90 miles) of the coast, where its leaves capture moisture from sea fog.

Jen’s challenge was to find a striking way to photograph what can be seen as just a pile of old leaves. After trekking all day over hot sand, scouting widely scattered plants, Jen found one about 1.5 metres (5 feet) across, and with “the right shape and lively colours”. It had ripening cones, some with their papery wings ready to detach and carry the seeds away on the wind.

Adopting a low, wide angle to catch the vibrant tones and to display the plant’s architecture against the expansive landscape, she started shooting just as the sun was going down and while a scattering of clouds rolled in and diffused the light.

Canon EOS 7D + Sigma 10–20mm f4–5.6 lens at 10mm; 1/100 sec at f22; ISO 400; Venus Laowa flash; Manfrotto tripod.

Windsweep, by Orlando Fernandez Miranda (Spain)

Winner 2018, Earth’s Environments

Standing at the top of a high dune on Namibia’s desert coastline, where mounds of wind-sculpted sand merge with crashing Atlantic waves, Orlando faced a trio of weather elements: a fierce northeasterly wind, warm rays of afternoon sunshine and a dense ocean fog obscuring his view along the remote and desolate Skeleton Coast.

Such eclectic weather is not unusual in this coastal wilderness. It is the result of cool winds from the Benguela Current, which flows northwards from the Cape of Good Hope, mixing with the heat rising from the arid Namib Desert to give rise to thick fog that regularly envelopes the coast. As it spills inland, the moisture from this fog is the life-blood for plants and insects in the dry dunes.

Orlando framed his shot using as a focal point the sharp ridge of sand snaking out in front, ensuring that the sweep of wind-patterned dunes to his right remained in focus, and kept the distant fog‑shrouded coast as a mysterious horizon.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III + 70–200mm f2.8 lens at 110mm; 1/500 sec at f11; ISO 100.

The meerkat mob, by Tertius A Gous (South Africa)

Highly commended 2018, Behaviour: Mammals

When an Anchieta’s cobra reared its head and moved towards two meerkat pups near their warren on Namibia’s Brandberg Mountain, the rest of the pack – foraging nearby – reacted almost instantly. Rushing back, the 20-strong group split into two: one group grabbed the pups and huddled a safe distance away, the other took on the snake. Fluffing up their coats, tails raised, the mob edged forwards, growling. When the snake lunged, they sprang back. This was repeated over and over for about 10 minutes.

Tertius had a ringside seat from his vehicle and relished the chance to capture such intense interaction between the meerkat pack and the little known Anchieta’s cobra. Focusing on the snake’s classic profile and flicking tongue, he also caught the expressions of fear and aggression among the meerkats, some facing their attacker and one fleeing.

Finally, the cobra gave up and disappeared down a burrow into the warren. The meerkats reunited and scurried away, most probably to an alternative – snake-free – warren in their territory.

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV + 500mm f4 lens; 1/1000 sec at f16; ISO 640 flashes; Trailmaster trail monitor.

Cool cat, by Isak Pretorius (South Africa)

Highly commended 2018, Animal Portraits

A lioness drinks from a waterhole in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. She is one of the Mfuwe Lodge pride – two males, five females and five cubs. Isak had been keeping watch on them while they slept off a feast from a buffalo kill the night before. Lions kill more than 95 per cent of their prey at night and may spend 18–20 hours resting.

When this female got up and walked off, Isak anticipated that she might be going for a drink, and so he headed for the nearest waterhole. Though lions can get most of the moisture they need from their prey and even from plants, they drink regularly when water is available.

Isak positioned his vehicle on the opposite side of the waterhole, close to the edge, steadying his long lens in the low light on a bean bag. Sure enough, the lioness appeared through the tall, rainy-season grass and hunched down to drink, occasionally looking up or sideways. With perfect timing, Isak caught her gaze and her tongue, lapping the water, framed by the wall of lush green.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II + 600mm f4 lens; 1/400 sec at f4; ISO 1600

The upside-down flamingos, by Paul Mckenzie (Ireland/Hong Kong)

Highly commended 2018, Creative visions

Reflected on the still surface of Lake Bogoria, lesser flamingos move with synchronicity through the shallow waters of this alkaline-saline lake in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.

For a photographer who enjoys creating photographs that challenge initial perceptions, Paul was drawn to the clear reflection of the birds and the pink shades of the flock – it was a scene ripe for some experimentation. Lying prone in a quagmire of thick mud on the lakeshore, he spent an hour slowly edging closer, while watching the orchestrated movement of the flamingos as they bowed their long necks to dip their bills upside down in the salty water to filter out their microscopic food – blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) – before lifting their heads in unison to move on a short distance for more filter-feeding.

Focusing on the birds’ red legs and framing the shot to include the reflection of the upright birds, Paul rotated the image 180 degrees in post-production to create a more abstract, reflective image.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV + 600mm f4 lens; 1/1600 sec at f9; ISO 1250; Canon angle finder + Visual Echoes panning plate.

Flight, by Sue Forbes (UK)

Highly commended 2018, Behaviour: Birds

For days, Sue scanned rough seas in the Indian Ocean. “We’d often see flying fish,” she says, “but only occasionally would there be boobies.” Then, one morning – northeast of D’Arros Island in the Outer Islands of the Seychelles – she awoke to find tranquil water and a single juvenile red-footed booby, circling.

These ocean‑going birds – the smallest booby species, with a metre-wide (3-foot) wingspan – spend most of their time at sea, flying long distances with ease. Sharp-eyed, they swoop down to seize prey, mainly squid and flying fish. Their bodies are streamlined for plunge‑diving – nostrils closed and wings pinned back – and nimble enough to grab flying fish in mid-air. Before breaking the surface to escape predators such as tuna and marlin, flying fish build up tremendous speed under water, to glide, airborne, on their stiff pectoral fins.

Sue kept her eye on the bird. She had no idea when and where a chase might happen. “Suddenly, a fish leapt out”, she says, “and down came the booby.” With quick reactions, Sue captured the fleeting moment of the pursuit. The booby missed, and the fish got away.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III + 300mm f2.8 lens + 1.4x extender; 1/1600 sec at f9; ISO 640.

Ahead in the game, by Nicholas Dyer (UK)

Highly commended 2018, Behaviour: Mammals

A pair of African wild dog pups play a macabre game of tag with the head of a chacma baboon – the remains of their breakfast.

The endangered African wild dog (aka the painted hunting dog) is best known for hunting antelopes, such as impalas and kudus. But over the past five years, in Mana Pools National Park, northern Zimbabwe, Nick has witnessed three different packs regularly killing and eating baboons – highly unusual, not least because baboons are capable of inflicting severe wounds.

The hunting technique has been perfected by Blacktip, mother of the pups and the alpha female of the Nyakasanga pack. That morning, Nick had tracked a pack on foot for three kilometres (nearly two miles), taking in two failed impala hunts before the dogs finally seized a baboon. It wasn’t enough to feed the whole pack, but it satisfied nine pups. They stopped short of the baboon’s skull, and then the fun began. Nick, lying nearby, watched more than half an hour of chasing, tackling and tugs-of-war with the leftovers.

Nikon D5 + 400mm f2.8 lens; 1/640 sec at f5.6 (-0.6 e/v); ISO 800; Redged tripod + Wimberley head.

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