Beating almost 50,000 other entries, Canon Ambassador Brent Stirton has won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPOTY) 2017 competition with ‘Memorial to a Species’ – a heart-rending shot of a felled, de-horned black rhino, taken on his Canon EOS-1D X.
The WPOTY 2017 awards were dominated by Canon photographers, with a total of eight of 16 category-winning images shot on Canon cameras. Canon EOS 6D user Daniël Nelson won the second major award, Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017. His winning photograph and Brent’s are now on show with 99 other images selected by an international panel of judges at the Natural History Museum in London, creating a powerful panorama of the astounding diversity of life on Earth.
Brent Stirton has previously won numerous categories, but it’s the first time the well-known South African documentary photographer has claimed the grand title. Brent has produced extensive projects exploring subjects as diverse as male breast cancer, acid attacks in Bangladesh and orphaned gorillas in the Congo. But this year’s winning image was drawn from his second Rhino Wars series – a journey from the killing fields of South African nature reserves to Vietnamese back rooms where officials grind rhino horn for quack cure-alls.
The crime scene was one of more than 30 Brent shot while photographing the series.
Entering the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park game reserve at night, the killers shot the black rhino bull using a silencer. They hacked off the two horns and escaped before being discovered by the reserve’s patrol. The horns would have been sold to a middleman and smuggled out of South Africa, it’s expected via Mozambique, to China or Vietnam. The crime scene was one of more than 30 Brent shot while photographing the series.
“To make such a tragic scene almost majestic in its sculptural power deserves the highest award,” said WPOTY judge Roz Kidman Cox. “There is rawness, but there is also great poignancy and therefore dignity in the fallen giant. It’s also symbolic of one of the most wasteful, cruel and unnecessary environmental crimes, one that needs to provoke the greatest public outcry.”
In its 53rd year, the competition saw photos on a range of subjects coming in from 92 countries. The 16 categories included Mammals, Birds, and Plants, as well as more general themes such as Urban, Details, Impressions, and Land.
Though Brent’s grand title-winning image pulls no punches, many entries covered the lighter side of wildlife: the Netherlands’ Daniël Nelson’s winning photo of a young western lowland gorilla, ‘The Good Life’ (also winner of the 15-17 years old category), is a case in point.
Taken on his Canon EOS 6D in the Republic of Congo, the photo grabbed the judges’ attention for its subtlety as much as its intimacy. “This scene of a gorilla lounging on the forest floor is peaceful, a state of being we would wish for all these magnificent creatures,” said Daniel Beltrá, competition judge and previous grand title winner.
Daniël met the young gorilla, Caco, in the forest of Odzala National Park in the Republic of Congo. A three‑hour trek through dense vegetation with skilled trackers led him to where the 16-strong Neptuno family was feeding, and to a close encounter with one of the few habituated groups of western lowland gorillas.
Western lowland gorillas are critically endangered, threatened by illegal hunting for bushmeat (facilitated by road networks created for logging and mineral mining industries), disease (notably the Ebola virus), loss of habitat (to mines and palm oil plantations), and the impact of climate change. In his compelling portrait of Caco – relaxed in his surroundings – Daniël captured the inextricable similarity between these wild apes and humans and the importance of the forest on which they depend.
The WPOTY 2017 winners were announced in London’s National History Museum on 20 October, where an exhibition of the winning photographs is being displayed until 28 May 2018, when it will then move around the UK before travelling to Spain, Canada, Australia, Germany, and the USA.