In his natural rainforest habitat, this young macaque would have lived in a large group with other animals. By the time the photojournalist and wildlife trade consultant Paul Hilton found him, he was alone, tied to a cage at an animal market in Indonesia. His parents would have been killed, and after this photo was made, the orphaned animal would have been sold, perhaps as a pet, to a zoo, to be eaten, or to be used in biomedical research.
Early this year, after following news of the coronavirus outbreak, and recognizing the connection between the global wildlife trade and future pandemic threats, Hilton shared this photograph along with an urgent question: “When will it end?” Days later, China’s top legislature banned the trade of wildlife for consumption, though exemptions exist for non-food products, including research, fur, and medicinal uses and conservationists warn violations are widespread.
Wildlife Photographer of the Year, the annual award produced by the Natural History Museum in London, has been a fixture of the photography world since 1965, but this year might be the most important in history, with Hilton’s photograph taking home the prize for the Wildlife Photojournalist Story Award. In many ways, the award’s photojournalism category stands out, serving as an urgent cry for action and highlighting the disastrous consequences of exploiting animals and the natural world.
In 2020, the death toll for the novel coronavirus surpassed one million, sparking overdue conversations about the rise in zoonotic diseases and the dangers of global wildlife trade, the exploitation of animals, and the degradation of the natural environment. Wildlife trafficking is now the second biggest threat to species, following habitat destruction.
Wildlife Photographer of the Year has never shied away from painful images that highlight our precarious relationship with the natural world. In previous years, the Natural History Museum has awarded some of the most important work of photojournalists on the frontlines of the wildlife trade, including images of screaming macaques being used for street shows, the fins of 30,000 sharks killed for shark fin soup, and 4,000 frozen, trafficked pangolins.
This year, the Single Image winner for Wildlife Photojournalism is Kirsten Luce‘s documentation of what is believed to be the world’s only circus act with performing polar bears, where the bears are fitted with metal muzzles and the trainer holds a metal rod. “Though controversial, it is not illegal in Russia for these bears to perform,” Luce says. “Polar bears are a threatened species and are often used as a symbol for conservation.” The image was part of a National Geographic story on wildlife tourism and the unseen suffering animals endure as part of attractions around the world.
Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum, London. The exhibition is open now through June 5th, 2021. Below, you’ll find the stories behind just a few of this year’s Highly Commended images. During this moment of environmental (and human) crisis, these visceral, often challenging photos can take on new and transformative power, highlighting recent tragedies and inspiring long-term change.