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Canadian wildlife’s tender moments on display in photography contest

WARNING: This story contains a distressing photo.

A softer, gentler side of the Canadian wilderness is on display at the 2023 Wildlife Photographer of the Year People’s Choice awards.

A baby polar bear frolicking in a field of flowers in northern Manitoba, and two foxes sharing a tender nuzzle on a cold PEI day were among the magical moments captured by this year’s Canadian finalists.

More than 60,000 people voted in the annual competition, which is run by the Natural History Museum in London. Two Canadians were among the four “highly commended” finalists: Martin Gregus of Vancouver and Brittany Crossman of Riverview, NB

First place went to Sascha Fonseca of Germany.

A ‘little goofball’ named Beans

The photo by Gregus shows a baby polar bear — nicknamed Beans — playing in a field of bright purple fireweed on a sunny day near Churchill, Man., a town known as “the polar bear capital of the world.”

Using a remote-controlled camera during a 33-day trip to the area in 2021, he captured Beans just he poked his head above the flowers, his eyes closed as if taking in the sounds and smells around him.

“He kind of pulled on our heartstrings the entirety of the time. He was a little goofball,” Gregus told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. “For him to be in that picture is even more special.”

A polar bear cub stands in a field full of bright purple flowers, peeking his head out, his eyes closed.
A baby polar bear peeks his head above the fireweed near Churchill, Man. (Martin Gregus/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)

It’s the kind of photo you get by spending a lot of time with the bears, getting to know them, and building trust, Gregus said.

He recalled that on one of his visits in 2020, a mama bear conscripted him and his colleagues into “babysitting duties.”

“The mom kind of came by with her cubs and she nursed, and the cubs fell asleep and the mom just left. And she didn’t just leave like a few meters. She walked off like 5,000 meters away,” he said.

“They kind of stayed and they went to our camp a little bit and they played and they fell back asleep. And it was like two or three hours later she came and picked them up, and then they all walked off together.”

Gregus also won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year’s Rising Star Portfolio Award in 2021.

Unexpected intimacy

Crossman has been photographing foxes for years, but his shot of the canoodling critters took him by surprise.

She was taking pictures in North Shore, PEI, in March 2019 when she saw one fox approach another that was sitting along the tree line.

A closeup of two silky red foxes, one of which is nuzzling into the other's neck.
On a chilly day on Prince Edward Island, a pair of red foxes greet each other with a nuzzle. (Brittany Crossman/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)

“Most of the interactions I’ve observed between foxes result in high-pitch screaming, tail wagging, bellies to the ground, then chasing or bickering on their hind legs,” he told CBC by email. “A territorial dispute or asserting dominance to the passerby.”

She readied her camera to catch the kerfuffle.

“To my surprise, they quietly greeted one another, momentarily sat side by side, exchanged a couple of intimate nuzzles, then both carried on in separate ways,” she said.

“It is a tender moment shared between two individuals that I’ll never forget.”

‘Ghost of the mountains’

The winning photograph in this year’s competition takes us far from Canada, to the mountains of Ladakh in northern India.

It was there that Germany’s Fonseca captured his image of a snow leopard set against a stunning backdrop of snow-capped mountains and a bright pink sunset.

A leopard standing in the snow, looking to one side, against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains and a bright pink and blue sunset.
An elusive snow leopard triggered Sascha Fonseca’s DSLR camera trap high up in the Indian Himalayas. (Sascha Fonseca/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)

The image was the hard-earned product of a three-year bait-free camera-trap project to document the sleek mountain predators.

Snow leopards are notoriously difficult to photograph because of their stealth, camouflage, remote territory and, sadly, dwindling numbers. The National History Museum estimates there are only about 6,500 adult snow leopards left in the wild, and they face threats from poaching, habitat loss and human-animal conflict.

“Photography can connect people to wildlife and encourage them to appreciate the beauty of the unseen natural world,” Fonseca said in a press release.

“I believe that a greater understanding of wildlife leads to deeper caring which hopefully results in active support and greater public interest for conservation.”

More big kitties — and their unwitting prey

The snow leopard wasn’t the only big cat on display in the contest. And not all the selections were as soft and sweet as the Canadian shots — so be forewarned, this next one is more intense.

Igor Altuna was honored for his photo of a leopard huntress carrying a monkey she had just slain. The prey’s baby, still alive, was clinging desperately to its mother’s corpse.

Altuna told the Natural History Museum that he watched the predator calmly carry the terrified baby to her own cub, who played with it for an hour before making the kill.

A leopard walks along the grass holding a dead monkey by the scruff of its neck.  A small baby monkey clings to the dead prey.
A female leopard in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park carries its prey. The dead monkey’s baby, still alive, clings to its mother’s body. (Igor Altuna/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)

Spain’s Marino Canio was honored for portrait of Olobor, a powerful and grizzled lion in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve.

“All around the lion, the ground was black, having been burnt by local Maasai herdsmen to stimulate a new flush of grass,” the museum’s photo description reads.

“Marina wanted to capture her majestic and defiant look against the dark background and lowered her camera out of her vehicle to get an eye-level portrait.”

A close-up of a grizzled lion's face against a black backdrop.  The animal is looking directly at the camera.  His mane is askew and he has a scar over his right eye.
Olobor is one of five males in the Black Rock pride in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. (Marina Cano/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum in London. The titular prize will be chosen by a panel of judges in October.