Photograph by Sergey Gorshkov, Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Photograph by Sergey Gorshkov, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The wildlife photo of the year

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By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor

A Siberian tiger bathed in dappled light stands on her hind legs and embraces an ancient tree. Her eyes are squeezed shut, her mouth is pulled into what looks like a blissful smile, her cheek is pressed against the bark. It’s a moment of pure beauty: Siberian tigers are highly endangered, but this one, notably, is at peace.

I couldn’t describe this photo by Sergey Gorshkov any better than Natasha Daly did in writing about it for Nat Geo. On Tuesday, Gorshkov was awarded Wildlife Photographer of the Year by the Natural History Museum of London—the most prestigious wildlife photography award in the world.

The odds of Gorshkov getting this photo were low. Siberian tigers are very rare and have huge territories, so they’re extremely hard to find. But thanks to smart positioning of a camera trap and 11 months of patience, he got it.

What also struck me about the awards this year was that both photojournalism categories (single image and story) went to photographers documenting wildlife exploitation. Kirsten Luce’s photo (below) of a muzzled polar bear performing at a Russian circus (taken for Nat Geo’s story on wildlife tourism) and Paul Hilton’s project on wildlife trade, which included a photo of chained monkeys at a Bali bird market, confront viewers with a stomach-churning reality that’s sometimes lost in the docu-tainment world of shows like Tiger King.

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"They have really leaned into these categories over the last five years,” says Nat Geo’s Kathy Moran, a past judge and Luce’s photo editor for the tourism story. “It has given the competition the opportunity to both honor the natural world and highlight threats to the species and environments that the competition celebrates.”

As a text journalist myself, I believe in the power of the pen. But sometimes, it takes a photograph to really bring a message home. Looking at these photos, I don’t see how anyone could think that watching a muzzled polar bear do tricks would be fun or that having a monkey as a pet is a good idea.

This is the power of photojournalism.

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Today in a minute

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Mezcal’s gain = bats’ pain? The popularity of the strong liquor has caused the overharvesting of wild agave plants in Mexico before they flower. The lesser long-nose bat (above) depends on the nectar of agave flowers to fuel its migration, and the agave plant needs the bat so it can reproduce. Conservation organizations are working with liquor companies to encourage a sustainable harvest by letting some plants flower—just for the bats, Di Minardi reports for Nat Geo.

A bridge to survival: Gibbons like to swing from tree to tree, rarely touching the ground. When a landslide felled trees and divided the habitat for last remaining 30 Hainan gibbons in the world, conservationists built a simple rope bridge to connect the world's rarest primates on their southern Chinese island. After six months, the gibbons began to use it, Mary Bates reports today for Nat Geo. Even the bridge builders know their intervention messes with the gibbons’ natural habitat, and they hope that natural corridors between the two sections of the forest can be restored.

Dogs for wool? In the oral tradition of the Coast Salish Indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest, there was a story of a special dog that was long kept and bred for its fleece. After an elder of the Tulalip Tribes donated what he called a dog wool blanket, an examination under an electron microscope confirmed that the blanket, dating to 1850, was dog wool, the New York Times reports. A recent study of 16,000 specimens of the dog family at Pacific Coast archaeological sites found small woolly domesticated dogs that were kept for their fur. The breed is believed to no longer exist.

Charged: Tiger King star Doc Antle, who ran a South Carolina cub petting zoo long before Joe Exotic gained fame, has been charged with wildlife trafficking and animal cruelty to lions. The charges stem from a months-long investigation into illegal selling and transport of lions between Antle and an animal park owner in Virginia, Natasha Daly reports. It’s illegal to sell lions—a protected species under the Endangered Species Act—across state lines.

Picturing the natural world: A petrified forest, uncovered in a storm. A 22,000-year-old cave bear. These are among the science images gathered over the past month by Nature. Our favorite? Floki, the springer spaniel bring trained to sniff out the coronavirus in Australia.

Your Instagram photo of the day

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Why the stripes? Though the debate around their exact origins and function continues, perhaps the most dazzling (and familiar) explanation for those distinctive markings frames them as an adaptation of the anti-predator sort. And it’s certainly not hard to imagine why a species that features so prominently on the menus of Africa’s large carnivores might need all the evasion tactics it can summon. It’s all about baffling your enemy: Faced with a nebulous target of high-contrast stripes, a hungry lion loses track of the speed and direction of its target … and the zebras hoof their way to safety. Like this image? So have more than 365,000 readers of our Instagram page. (Join us there!)

Related: Endangered by drought, rare zebras must depend on humans

The big takeaway

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A singular songbird: On one side, the bright scarlet feathers of a male. On the other, the canary yellow plumage of a female. This rose-breasted grosbeak from Pennsylvania (above) is getting all sorts of attention. It’s a bilateral gynandromorph—half male, half female, separated down the middle of its body, Jason Bittel reports for Nat Geo. Since bird monitoring began six decades ago at the Powdermill Nature Reserve, only five of roughly 800,000 captured birds have been documented as likely gynandromorphs.

In a few words

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The last glimpse

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One good thing about this year: New Yorkers, hard hit in the first wave of COVID-19, have rallied to help save migrating birds who fly into the city’s skyscrapers. A nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation center has reported a surge of people bringing in injured birds this year, Nat Geo’s Natasha Daly reports. Some carry them in their pockets or a paper bag, and the rehab center uses soft laundry baskets to house the birds, such as the recovering Swainson’s thrush pictured above. “There’s so much hurt going around, but also so much caring,” says Genevieve Yue, who rescued an injured pigeon from a sidewalk on the Lower East Side.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse. Kimberly Pecoraro helped produce this. Have an idea or a link? Are you paying more attention to nature and wild animals since the pandemic? We’d love to hear from you at . And thanks for reading.