These are our best animal photos of 2019

Rescued songbirds fly to freedom and an orphaned giraffe nuzzles her caretaker in these beautiful pictures selected by National Geographic editors.

National Geographic photographers have always captured animals in nature at their most beautiful, fascinating, and mysterious. In 2019, a different theme dominated our photojournalism: animals, as they’re affected by us.

In the Bolivian Amazon, John Paul Ampudia photographed a man soothing an injured armadillo rescued from a forest fire. In Vietnam, Brent Stirton captured a pangolin’s little face peering out of a wooden box as his caretakers bring him to a remote mountainside, where he’ll have a second chance at life after being rescued from poachers. At a clinic in South Africa, Nichole Sobiecki photographed a veterinarian as she crawled with formerly neglected lion cubs, patiently helping them learn to walk again.

The photos illustrate just how much animals’ lives intersect with our own—how some humans hurt them, and how others try to undo the damage.

“What is really striking this year is that we really made a shift from natural history storytelling to conservation storytelling,” says Kathy Moran, National Geographic’s deputy director of photography. “When you look at wildlife through that lens, you cannot take people out of the equation.”

Even photographs of animals in nature bear the unseen marks of man. Thomas Peschak photographed thousands of sea turtle hatchlings crawling toward the ocean on a Costa Rican beach. The mass nesting event, called an arribada, is overseen by local residents, many of whom can legally harvest and sell a portion of unhatched eggs. The proceeds help them afford to monitor the beach, protecting the rest. In Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, Charlie Hamilton James photographed an elephant amid sun-dappled ferns. The scene looks like a primordial paradise, but it was only possible through considerable human effort. Elephants were poached to near-elimination in the park during decades of civil war, but they're now thriving thanks to a dedicated conservation initiative.

Kirsten Luce’s photograph of Gluay Hom, an abused elephant in Thailand’s tourism industry, sparked petitions and outcry on social media calling for his rescue. Two months later, he started a new life at a sanctuary.