The Anthropocene

We are living in the age of humans, a time referred to by many as the Anthropocene. Our species has caused huge changes on our planet, including global warming, ocean acidification, and habitat destruction.

This year, we introduced Natural History Museum Insights to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, which were curated with our scientists. Through the comparison of images from the competition, we revealed important stories about our relationship with the planet.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year provides a close-up look at the issues facing our planet and highlights pioneering work that is trying to save our world.

Adapt and Survive

Most animals experience a population decline when humans impact their habitats, though some highly adaptable species are able to survive under disturbed conditions.

A proboscis monkey in profile with its eyes shut
The pose © Mogens Trolle

In recent years, the proboscis monkey population has declined as its environment has changed. A proboscis monkey’s ability to survive is dependent on very specific needs and conditions: it only lives in forests near rivers, swamps or coastal mangrove areas in Borneo; it has a varied but specific diet of leaves and fruits; and it only produces one or two offspring in each litter.

A red fox hunting in the snow. A strong wind parts its thick coat to reveal its soft undercoat.
A fox for all seasons © John Blumenkamp

By contrast, the red fox is more adaptable. It is found almost everywhere in the northern hemisphere and has the widest geographical range of any carnivore. Unlike the proboscis monkey, the red fox can eat a wide range of food and produces large litters of up to 15 cubs.

Elusive Animals

Animals that are hard to study are even harder to conserve. If an animal is to be protected effectively, its behaviour and its relationship with its environment must be understood.

An ocelot walks on top of a tree trunk that has fallen across a river in the rainforest
Ocelot on the highway © Charlie Hamilton James

Like some other wild cats, ocelots are solitary and nocturnal. While this makes monitoring them in their natural habitat challenging, the use of camera traps in recent times has allowed scientists to discover more about their numbers, movements and environment. The information provided helps maintain protected habitats, which are increasingly under threat from human activities like hunting and farming.

Two tiny shrimp blending in with brain coral
Life in the coral corridors © Weiwei Zeng

Technology is also granting greater scientific access to the often-overlooked world of shrimp. Time-lapse cameras with windscreen wipers have been developed to remove algal growth from underwater lenses, allowing longer-term remote observations of coral reefs. Because scientists need diving equipment to venture into the ocean, they have only limited hours on the seafloor to locate shrimp and collect information.

Using Wild Animals

People all over the world use wildlife for a variety of purposes, including as food, for clothing or in medicine, and many depend on animals for their livelihoods.

A market trader in a wildlife market slices fruit bats. The stall displays wares including pythons, rats tails and more bats.
A risky business © Quentin Martinez

Wild animal meat is eaten on every continent and is a crucial part of the diet of millions, providing a vital and affordable source of protein. Yet there are downsides to humans eating animals, too, such as the risk of viruses crossing species barriers at wildlife markets or the fact that killing animals for meat consumption poses a threat to numerous species.

A polar bear wearing a muzzle mirrors its trainer by raising its front paws. The ice rink circus ring it stands on is surrounded by blue safety netting.
Show business © Kirsten Luce

Wildlife is also handled within an entertainment context. The use of performing animals has declined a little in recent years, but does still happen globally. The animals are sometimes forced to act in unnatural ways and are often kept in cramped or unhealthy conditions.

Restoring Nature

The destruction of forests is decimating biodiversity and destabilising our climate. Yet human commitment and resources may enable forests to be returned to their near-natural state.

An aerial shot of vast tar pits that extend to the horizon
World of tar © Garth Lenz

In order to mine the Alberta Oil Sands, one energy company cleared a type of forest ecosystem that can only be found at high northern latitudes. This is among the most damaging forms of oil extraction as it removes all vegetation and washes topsoil into rivers. Some mining companies study the plants that grow on the land before clearance and then try to restore them with similar species.

An out-of-control fire rages across a rainforest. The sky is filled with orange smoke. A lone tall tree stands out in the centre of the image,.
Amazon burning © Charlie Hamilton James

Tropical forests, such as those found in the Amazon, are more complex and richer in biodiversity, but they are not adapted to fire. As a result, when fires are used to clear land for agriculture, they can easily burn out of control, killing both vegetation and seeds in the soil. These forests take longer to recover, perhaps hundreds of years, but local efforts using indigenous plants can help them along.

If you would like to find out more about the issues facing our planet, please visit our Anthropocene hub for news, features and videos.

Visit the exhibition

Get a close up look at the issues facing our planet through the world's best nature photography at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

16 October 2020 - 6 June 2021

Book tickets