An image of a clearly ecstatic tigress hugging an ancient Manchurian fir tree in a remote Siberian forest has won one of the world’s most prestigious photography prizes.
It took Russian photographer Sergey Gorshkov 11 months to capture the moment using hidden cameras. His patience led to him being named 2020 wildlife photographer of the year by the Duchess of Cambridge at a ceremony at London’s Natural History Museum.
The image was selected from more than 49,000, with Roz Kidman Cox, the chair of the judging panel, calling the photograph “a unique glimpse of an intimate moment deep in a magical forest”.
The animal is an Amur, or Siberian, tiger, which live in the vast woodlands of eastern Russia with a small number over the border in China and possibly North Korea. Hunted to the verge of extinction, the population is still threatened by poaching and logging, which also affects their prey – mostly deer and wild boar. Recent surveys have indicated that greater protection may have resulted in a population of 500 to 600.
Kidman Cox said the photograph told this story “in glorious colour and texture of the comeback of the Amur tiger, a symbol of the Russian wilderness”.
“It’s a scene like no other,” she said. “Shafts of low winter sun highlight the ancient fir tree and the coat of the huge tigress as she grips the trunk in obvious ecstasy and inhales the scent of tiger on resin, leaving her own mark as her message.”
Amur tigers have huge territories of up to 2,000km for males and 450km for females, which makes photographing them incredibly difficult.
Gorshkov said he knew his chances were slim but he was determined to capture an image of such a totemic animal. He scoured the forest for signs on trees where messages – scent, hair, urine or scratch marks – appeared to exist. He installed his camera trap opposite this fir tree in January 2019 and struck gold in November. He titled the image The Embrace.
Tim Littlewood, the Natural History Museum’s executive director of science and a jury member, said the Amur tiger population was still in a perilous place. But he added: “The remarkable sight of the tigress immersed in her natural environment offers us hope. Through the unique emotive power of photography, we are reminded of the beauty of the natural world and our shared responsibility to protect it.”
Now in its 56th year, the prize leads to one of the most popular photography exhibitions in the world. It opens to the public this year, with reduced admission and booking essential, on Friday.
The show will include “the fox that got the goose”, taken by Finnish teenager Liina Heikkinen on the island of Lehtisaari, Helsinki. As the title suggests, it shows a fox cub grimly hanging on to a barnacle goose it has caught, refusing to share it with siblings. The image wins the young wildlife photographer 2020 title.
Other images going on display include a stonechat perched on a flower stem; a clownfish with a tongue-eating louse doing just that; a chilled proboscis monkey posing at a sanctuary in Sabah, Borneo; a Manduriacu spider glass frog snacking on a spider; the good parenting skills of great crested grebes; a sand wasp and a cuckoo wasp both about to enter their neighbouring nest holes; and a rare picture of a family of Pallas’s cats in north-west China.
o Wildlife Photographer of the Year is at the Natural History Museum, 16 October to 6 June 2021