Portrait of a leopard by young photographer Skye Meaker

Lounging Leopard. Credit: Skye Meaker

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: sharing a daydreaming leopard with the world

Young photographer Skye Meaker looked on as the leopard dozed on a branch in the Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana.

He watched the animal slumber for two hours, visualising his image in detail.

'Then for about half a second she opened her eyes and looked at me. That's how I made the photo,' says Skye.

This intimate moment earned the 16-year-old South African the title of Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

A special bond

Skye has been taking photos since the age of seven. This wasn't his first time photographing Limpy, a leopard named by local guides after she sustained a serious a serious leg injury as a youngster.

On the day he captured his winning image, Skye had been tracking the leopard for a few hours.

He says, 'I've got to know this leopard since she was just a bit older than a cub.

'I've seen her grow. She's just recently had her first cub. Growing up alongside her has been such a special opportunity for me.

'She's one of the calmest leopards I've ever met. But she's very inquisitive, which is why I like her as a subject. There's an intimacy between me and her.

'What made me fall in love with this picture is how clear her eyes are, and the reflection of light. It draws you into her perspective of the world.'

A young talent

Even at his young age, Skye is already a Wildlife Photographer of the Year veteran. His image Vanishing Lions was Highly Commended in 2014 in the 11-14 Years Old category.

A portrait of a lion with a blurred effect

Vanishing Lions. Credit: Skye Meaker

 

The unusual image was an early sign of Skye's willingness to try new techniques.

He says, 'To me, this picture conveys the feeling that lions are fading from Africa.'

Taken on a trip with his family at Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve, Skye steadied his camera on a beanbag, focused on the nearest lion and, as he pressed the shutter, zoomed the lens out, adding flash to highlight the lion's eyes.

He says, 'It was tricky to move the lens at precisely the right moment and just enough to get the blurred effect, but not so much as to lose the lion's face.'

It is this eagerness to experiment that often makes the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition so compelling.

Skye also has some advice for any budding young wildlife photographers.

He says, 'Keep trying to break the rules - they're there to be broken. Youngsters have a new idea and a new approach every year. I think that's a big advantage.'

Skye's efforts in the competition over the years make his victory this year all the sweeter.

Photograpaher Skye Meaker standing beside his winning photograph of a leopard.

Skye Meaker and his winning image Lounging Leopard. Credit: The Trustees of the Natural History Museum

 

He says, 'It's been a dream of mine ever since I started photography to win this competition. It's the Mount Everest of wildlife photography, so it's really important to me.'

Big cats under threat

Not only does Wildlife Photographer the Year give photographers the chance to receive recognition for their work, it also offers an international platform to highlight conservation challenges.

Skye says, 'The reason I love to take photos of big cats is that they embody African wildlife and how dangerous yet beautiful the bush is.

'They are also severely endangered so I try to make the most of every opportunity I have, as I may not get another one due to human impact.

'We should be protecting these cats. It's not just poaching, it's also land being taken away.

'On the poaching side, when you kill one male lion or leopard, you're also culling all of its cubs, and the whole ecosystem goes out of whack.'

Taking his story to the world

Skye's extraordinary achievement has also led to new opportunities.

He was invited to talk about his photography at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2019, where he appeared alongside renowned conservationist Jane Goodall.

Skye Meaker and Jane Goodall at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.

Skye Meaker and Jane Goodall at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.

 

Skye's image was exhibited in Davos, alongside the 99 images of his fellow photographers in Wildlife Photographer of the Year, on a large-scale projection installation.

The event is a platform for Skye and the Natural History Museum to encourage a global conversation about the state of wildlife today.

Clare Matterson, Director of Engagement at the Natural History Museum, says, 'Inspiring and supporting young people is of paramount importance to the Museum, and this life-changing opportunity for Skye is a testament to the global impact of Wildlife Photographer of the Year on the nature photographers, naturalists and scientists of the future.'

 

For Skye, appearing at Davos is another way of bringing his photography to new audiences.

He says, 'To think that my dream of sharing my pictures with the world would not only come true by winning Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year, but that I could be the youngest speaker at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, is just truly mind-blowing.

'I am both honoured and grateful for the opportunity Wildlife Photographer of the Year has given me.'

Visit the exhibition

Explore the world's best nature photography, exhibited on 100 exquisite light panels.

Opening at the Museum on 18 October.