With more than 45,000 entries from professionals and amateurs across 95 countries, being named a winner of the London-based Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition is considered a significant achievement. Do you have what it takes? By Rebekah Funk

Four South African photographers (along with a grand title winner from the Netherlands who was temporarily based in Cape Town) have been recognised for their powerful wildlife images across several categories — including one grand title winner who is just 16 years old!

“In a world which is in thrall to special effects, [these images] celebrate the majestic and otherworldly presence of nature, and remind us of our crucial role in protecting it,” says Natural History Museum Director Sir Michael Dixon.

The exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London opened in October 2018. It will tour across the United Kingdom and internationally.

Images from professional and amateur photographers were selected by a panel of industry-recognised professionals for their originality, creativity and technical excellence.

Grand title winners

Sixteen-year-old South African Skye Meaker took the grand title award for Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2018 with his charming portrait of a leopard waking from sleep in Mashatu Game Reserve, Botswana. Skye has wanted to be a nature photographer since receiving his first pocket camera at the age of seven.

Lounging leopard by Skye Meaker, South Africa
Grand Title Winner 2018, 15-17 Years Old

Mathoja was dozing when they finally found her, lying along a low branch of a nyala tree. And she continued to doze all the time they were there, unfazed by the vehicle. “She would sleep for a couple of minutes. Then look around briefly. Then fall back to sleep,” says Skye. Mathoja’s home is Botswana’s Mashatu Game Reserve, which Skye and his family regularly visit, always hoping to see leopards, though they are notoriously elusive. In Bantu language, Mathoja means ‘the one that walks with a limp’. Skye calls her Limpy. She limps because of an injury as a cub, but otherwise she is now a healthy eight-year-old, and she remains the calmest of leopards around vehicles. Though she dozed just metres away from Skye, she blended into the background. The morning light was poor, leaves kept blowing across her face and her eyes were only ever open briefly, making it hard for Skye to compose the shot he was after. Finally, just as she opened her eyes for a second, the overhead branches moved enough to let in a shaft of light that gave a glint to her eyes, helping him to create his memorable portrait. Shot with: Canon EOS-1D X + 500mm f4 lens; 1/80 sec at f4; ISO 1250.

Meanwhile, Dutch photographer Marsel van Oosten (who was based in Cape Town for some time) took home the grand title for Animal Portraits, for his capture of two endangered Qinling golden snub-nosed monkeys in China’s Qinling Mountains.

The golden couple by Marsel van Oosten, The Netherlands
Grand Title Winner 2018, Animal Portraits

A male Qinling golden snub-nosed monkey rests briefly on a stone seat. He has been joined by a female from his small group. Both are watching intently as an altercation takes place down the valley between the lead males of two other groups in the 50-strong troop. It’s spring in the temperate forest of China’s Qinling Mountains, the only place where these endangered monkeys live. They spend most of the day foraging in the trees, eating a mix of leaves, buds, seeds, bark and lichen, depending on the season. Though they are accustomed to researchers observing them, they are also constantly on the move, and as Marsel couldn’t swing through the trees, the steep slopes and mountain gorges proved challenging. Whenever he did catch up and if the monkeys were on the ground, the light was seldom right. Also, the only way to show both a male’s beautiful pelage and his striking blue face was to shoot at an angle from the back. That became Marsel’s goal. It took many days to understand the group’s dynamics and predict what might happen next, but finally his perseverance paid off with this gift of a perfect situation: a perfect forest backdrop and perfect light filtering through the canopy. A low flash brought out the glow of the male’s golden locks to complete the perfect portrait. Shot with: Nikon D810 + Tamron 24–70mm f2.8 lens at 24mm; 1/320 sec at f8; ISO 1600; Nikon SB-910 flash.

The two grand title images were selected from 19 category winners, depicting the incredible diversity of life on our planet, from displays of rarely seen animal behaviour to hidden underwater worlds.

South Africa’s highly commended

Three other South African photographers received nods from the judges for their impressive work: Isak Pretorius, Tertius A Gous and Susan Scott.

Cool cat by Isak Pretorius
Highly commended 2018, Animal Portraits

A lioness drinks from a waterhole in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. She is one of the Mfuwe Lodge pride – two males, five females and five cubs. Isak had been keeping watch on them while they slept off a feast from a buffalo kill the night before. Lions kill more than 95% of their prey at night and may spend 18–20 hours resting. When this female got up and walked off, Isak anticipated that she might be going for a drink, and so he headed for the nearest waterhole. Though lions can get most of the moisture they need from their prey and even from plants, they drink regularly when water is available. Isak positioned his vehicle on the opposite side of the waterhole, close to the edge, steadying his long lens in the low light on a bean bag. Sure enough, the lioness appeared through the tall, rainy-season grass and hunched down to drink, occasionally looking up or sideways. With perfect timing, Isak caught her gaze and her tongue, lapping the water, framed by the wall of lush green. Shot with: Canon EOS-1D X Mark II + 600mm f4 lens; 1/400 sec at f4; ISO 1600

The meerkat mob by Tertius A Gous
Highly commended 2018, Behaviour: Mammals

When an Anchieta’s cobra reared its head and moved towards two meerkat pups 
near their warren on Namibia’s Brandberg Mountain, the rest of the pack – foraging nearby – reacted almost instantly. Rushing back, the 20-strong group split into two: one group grabbed the pups and huddled a safe distance away, the other took on the snake. Fluffing up their coats, tails raised, the mob edged forwards, growling. When the snake lunged, they sprang back. This was repeated over and over for about 10 minutes. Tertius had a ringside seat from his vehicle and relished the chance to capture such intense interaction between the meerkat pack and the little known Anchieta’s cobra. Focusing on the snake’s classic profile and flicking tongue, he also caught the expressions of fear and aggression among the meerkats, some facing their attacker and one fleeing. Finally, the cobra gave up and disappeared down a burrow into the warren. The meerkats reunited and scurried away, most probably to an alternative – snake-free – warren in their territory. Shot with: Canon EOS-1D Mark IV + 500mm f4 lens; 1/1000 sec at f16; ISO 640 flashes; Trailmaster trail monitor.

Late-night feeding by Susan Scott
Highly commended 2018, Wildlife Photojournalism

At the Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage in South Africa, black rhino orphans Nandi and Storm, warmed by infrared lamps, guzzle the milk that carer Axel Tarifa has prepared for their 2am feed. For Storm, the stress of losing his mother (presumably to poachers) has stunted his growth; he’s actually older than Nandi, the larger, female calf. Black rhinos are critically endangered – as few as 4,000 may remain – due to poaching as a result of the rising demand in China and Vietnam for rhino horn, for its supposed medicinal properties and, now, status. In South Africa, more than 1,000 rhinos are being killed annually, in particular white rhinos – estimated population under 20,000. Nine months after this picture was taken, the orphanage was attacked. Axel was assaulted, and two older white rhino orphans slaughtered. Nandi and Storm, their horns too small to be worth the trouble, were spared. But the orphanage has had to close, and the calves have been moved to a secret location. Shot with: Canon EOS 7D Mark II + 17–55mm f2.8 lens; 1/45 sec at f2.8; ISO 3200.

Have a winning image?

There’s still time to submit your best shots for the 2019 competition: you have until 11:30am GMT on 13 December 2018. Full contest details here.