It happened at night. Working quickly and quietly, local poachers snuck into South Africa’s Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve. They shot a rare black rhino bull with a silencer and then proceeded to saw off its two horns before slipping out of the reserve and eluding discovery. The poachers most likely sold the horns to be smuggled into China or Vietnam. There, the keratin treasures would be peddled as hangover cures and aphrodisiacs, or ground up for traditional medicine.
Soon after the poachers absconded, photojournalist Brent Stirton was on-site to take in the crime scene as part of a mission to investigate rhino poaching in South Africa. There are only 5,000 black rhinos left in the world, their numbers decimated by poaching.
Now the Natural History Museum recognized Stirton, who shoots mainly for National Geographic, as the 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his harrowing images of the carnage left behind by illegal hunting.
“To make such a tragic scene almost majestic in its sculptural power deserves the highest award,” competition judge Roz Kidman Cox said in a press release. “There is a 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.”
“The great thing with this competition is it just means that, you know, your work gets another life, or it gets seen by that many more people,” Stirton says. “The issue gets a certain longevity.”
Stirton joins other photographers, including Steve Winter, Brian Skerry, Thomas P. Peschak, and Charlie Hamilton James in the annual contest, which recognizes the art of nature photography while challenging humans to think deeper about issues facing our planet.