Photos Capture Newsworthy Moments in Nature and the Environment

World Press Photo Awards highlight climate concerns and pandemic issues.

Rescue of Giraffes from Flooding Island

© Ami Vitale, United States, for CNN

A sea lion plays with a discarded face mask. A pair of pigeons visits a family during the lockdown. Locusts invade East Africa and villagers clean their rooftops after a volcanic eruption.

Photographers captured these compelling images of newsworthy moments in the natural and environmental world. They are some of the winning photos announced by the World Press Photo Foundation for the 64th annual World Press Photo Contest. The competition highlights photojournalist images from global events. There's an overall winner and winners in several categories.

Because we're Treehugger, we were most interested in the winners in the nature and environmental categories.

Above is "Rescue of Giraffes from Flooding Island," the winner of the first prize in the Nature, Singles category. Photographer Ami Vitale shot this photograph of a stranded Rothschild’s giraffe being transported to safety in a custom-built barge from flooded Longicharo Island, Lake Baringo, in western Kenya, in December 2020.

Here's an excerpt from the story behind the photo:

Rising water levels in Lake Baringo over the past ten years have cut the peninsula off to form an island. Particularly heavy rainfall in 2019 caused further floods, stranding nine giraffes. The local community worked with conservationists from the Kenya Wildlife Service, the Northern Rangelands Trust, and Save Giraffes Now, to build the barge and transport the marooned animals to a sanctuary in the Ruko conservancy on the shores of the lake. The rains had also led to an abundance of food on the island, so edible treats could not be used to entice the giraffes onto the barge. Instead, the giraffes had to be tranquilized, which is a dangerous procedure given their anatomy, as they are at risk of choking on their own saliva, and changes in blood pressure can cause brain damage. A vet was on hand to immediately counteract the drug; the animals were then hooded and led onto the barge with guide ropes.

"Path of the Panther"

Nature—Second Prize, Singles

path of the panther

© Carlton Ward Jr., United States

Carlton Ward Jr. of the United States photographed this Florida panther climbing through a fence between Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and an adjacent cattle ranch, in Naples, Florida, in April 2020. Her kitten follows her.

From the photographer's story:

Florida panthers feed primarily on white-tailed deer and wild hogs, but also smaller mammals such as raccoons, armadillos, and rabbits. Ranches are vital to panthers, because few public lands are big enough to support even one adult male panther, which may require up to 500 square kilometers of territory in which to roam and hunt. Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is too small to supply the full territory needs of one panther, yet serves as part of the home range for several. The panthers are caught in a race between the need for territory, and increasing land development as a result of Florida’s rapidly growing population, with some 400 square kilometers of their habitat being lost each year.

"New Life"

Nature—Third Prize, Singles

new life

© Jaime Culebras, Spain

Photographer Jaime Culebras of Spain photographed the eggs of a Wiley’s glass frog (Nymphargus wileyi) hanging on the tip of a leaf in the Tropical Andean cloud forest, near the Yanayacu Biological Station, in Napo, Ecuador, in July 2020. 

Nymphargus wileyi is known only from examples discovered around the Yanayacu Biological Station, and so is listed as ‘data deficient’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The species inhabits primary cloud forests. Individuals can be found on leaves at night. Females deposit eggs in a gelatinous mass on the dorsal surface of leaves hanging above streams, near the tip. A male can fertilize up to four clutches of eggs in a breeding season. The whitish embryos, between 19 and 28 per clutch, will develop for a few days until they are ready to drop into the water to continue their metamorphosis.

"Pandemic Pigeons—A Love Story"

Nature—First Prize, Stories

pandemic pigeons

© Jasper Doest, The Netherlands

In the Netherlands, photographer Jasper Doest documented the friendship that developed between a pair of pigeons and his family. Above, Ollie sits on a plate while Dollie watches from outside as Doest fills the dishwasher in April 2020.

Here's the story on the series:

A pair of feral pigeons befriended the photographer’s family, who were isolated in their apartment in Vlaardingen, the Netherlands, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ollie and Dollie, as the family named them, were regulars in the house, their daily visits a reminder that humans are not alone on this planet, even while living isolated in urban areas. Feral pigeons (Columba livia domestica) are descended from the rock dove, which naturally inhabits sea cliffs and mountains. They find the ledges of buildings to be substitutes for sea cliffs, have adapted to urban life and surroundings, and now live in urban areas on every continent except Antarctica, with a global population in the hundreds of millions. Rock doves were the first birds to be domesticated, between five and six thousand years ago, in Mesopotamia. They were bred for food, and later trained to carry messages. Birds escaping or released from a domestic environment became the first feral (or city) pigeons. Although they are believed to be vectors of diseases, the evidence is to the contrary. It is rare for city pigeons to transmit a disease to humans, and while they do transmit contagions such as Salmonella and avian mites, infecting mammals is rare.

"Taal Volcano Eruption"

Nature—Second Prize, Stories

Taal volcano eruption

© Ezra Acayan, Philippines, for Getty Images

Ezra Acayan took this photograph as residents of Laurel, in Batangas, Philippines, clean their rooftops of volcanic ash after the eruption of Taal Volcano in January 2020.

Taal volcano, in Batangas province, on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, began erupting on 12 January, spewing ash up to 14 kilometers into the air. The volcano generated ashfalls and volcanic thunderstorms, forcing evacuations from the surrounding area. The eruption progressed into a magmatic eruption, characterized by a lava fountain with thunder and lightning. According to the Department of Social Welfare and Development, a total of 212,908 families, nearly 750,000 people, were affected by the eruption. Damage caused to infrastructure and livelihoods, such as farming, fishing and tourism, was put at around US$70 million. Taal volcano is in a large caldera filled by Taal Lake, and is one of the most active volcanoes in the country. It is a ‘complex volcano’, which means it doesn't have one vent or cone but several eruption points that have changed over time. Taal has had 34 recorded historical eruptions in the past 450 years, most recently in 1977. As with other volcanoes in the Philippines, Taal is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a zone of major seismic activity that has one of the world's most active fault lines. 

"Locust Invasion in East Africa"

Nature—Third Prize, Stories

locust invasion in East Africa

© Luis Tato, Spain

This is a desert locust that is part of a massive swarm Luis Tato of Spain photographed near Archers Post, Samburu County, Kenya, in April 2020.

In early 2020, Kenya experienced its worst infestation of desert locusts in 70 years. Swarms of locusts from the Arabian Peninsula had migrated into Ethiopia and Somalia in the summer of 2019. Continued successful breeding, together with heavy autumn rains and a rare late-season cyclone in December 2019, triggered another reproductive surge. The locusts multiplied and invaded new areas in search of food, arriving in Kenya and spreading through other countries in eastern Africa. Desert locusts (Schistocerca gregaria) are potentially the most destructive of the locust pests, as swarms can fly rapidly across great distances, traveling up to 150 kilometers a day. A single swarm can contain between 40 and 80 million locusts per square kilometer. Each locust can eat its weight in plants each day: a swarm the size of Paris could eat the same amount of food in one day as half the population of France. Locusts produce two to five generations a year, depending on environmental conditions. In dry spells, they crowd together on remaining patches of land. Prolonged wet weather—producing moist soil for egg-laying, and abundant food—encourages breeding and producing large swarms that travel in search of food, devastating farmland. Border restriction necessitated by COVID-19 made controlling the locust population harder than usual, since it disrupted pesticide supply and affected multiple neighbouring countries already facing high levels of food insecurity. 

These are the winners in the Environmental category.

"California Sea Lion Plays with Mask"

Environment—First Prize, Singles

California sea lion with mask

© Ralph Pace, United States

Ralph Pace of the United States photographed a sea lion swimming toward a face mask at the Breakwater dive site in Monterey, California, in November 2020.

California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) are playful animals, native to western North America. With COVID-19 lockdowns in place across California, outdoor and natural beauty spots with plenty of wildlife became a popular focus for local travel. In many countries the wearing of face masks outdoors was obligatory. Similar destinations around the world became littered with abandoned masks. The BBC reported an estimated 129 billion disposable face masks and 65 billion throwaway gloves being used each month through the pandemic. Such personal protective equipment (PPE) can be mistaken for food by birds, fish, marine mammals, and other animals. PPE also contains plastic, and so contributes to the eight million tons of plastic that end up in the oceans every year. According to World Animal Protection, every year an estimated 136,000 seals, sea lions, and whales die from plastic entanglement. Surgical masks break down into millions of microplastic particles over time, which are eaten by fish and other animals, and therefore carry contamination back up the food chain, potentially also affecting humans.

"Temple and Half-Mountain" 

Environment—Second Prize, Singles

Temple and Half-Mountain

© Hkun Lat, Myanmar

Photographer Hkun Lat of Myanmar shot this photo in Hpakant, Kachin State, Myanmar. There's a Buddhist temple on half of the mountain and the other half has been carved away for jade mining.

Hpakant is the site of the world’s biggest jade mine, and is the largest supplier of jadeite, the more valuable of the two forms of jade. Demand from China, where jade is a popular status symbol, fuels the industry. Global Witness reported Myanmar’s jade trade to be worth US$31 billion in 2014 alone—nearly half the country’s GDP—and that the sector appeared to be controlled by networks of military elites, drug lords, and crony companies. The National League for Democracy (NLD) government has made promises to tackle problems in the sector, but progress has been slow. Companies do not fulfill government requirements to undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to international standards, and officials allegedly lack the capacity to assess EIAs. Destruction of the environment by mining operations includes indiscriminate vegetation loss, degradation of farmland, and river sedimentation, and is mainly a result of inappropriate mining practices. At Hpakant sites, issues include illegally high heaps of mining waste, vast abandoned mining pits, and companies failing to stabilize deep excavations. Landslides are frequent, including a mudslide after heavy rainfall in July 2020 that killed at least 100 people.

"Climate Crisis Solutions: Collecting Drinking Water in Kalabogi"

Environment—Third Prize, Singles

climate crisis solutions

© K M Asad, Bangladesh

K M Asad of Bangladesh captured this image of a woman drawing drinking water from a cloth set out to catch rainwater in the village of Kalabogi, in the Sundarbans mangrove forest, Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh, in September 2020.

People living in Kalabogi and the Sundarbans region suffer from a water shortage in the dry season as a result of increasing salinity in the groundwater, and of the river Satkhira, caused by rising sea levels. Houses in villages like Kalabogi are raised on poles to avoid frequent tidal flooding. A 2016 World Bank report states that the climate crisis poses a number of threats to the Sundarbans, including rising sea levels and the frequency and intensity of storms. Satellites have found the sea advancing by 200 meters a year in parts of the region. Academic studies indicate an estimated 20 million people living along the Bangladesh coast are affected by salinity in drinking water. More than half of the coastal areas are impacted by salinity, which reduces soil productivity and vegetation growth, degrading the environment and impacting people’s lives and livelihoods. Rice paddies and cultivable land are converted to shrimp farms, which further contribute to groundwater salinity and soil degradation.

"Pantanal Ablaze"

Environment—First Prize, Stories

Pantanal ablaze

© Lalo de Almeida, Brazil, Panos Pictures, for Folha de São Paulo

In this photo from Lalo de Almeida of Brazil, a volunteer checks for fire spots under a wooden bridge on the Transpantaneira, in September 2020. The road has 120 bridges, most of them made of wood, and is the only way into the community of Porto Jofre and to several farms in the area.

Nearly a third of Brazil’s Pantanal region—the world’s largest tropical wetland and flooded grasslands, sprawling across some 140,000 to 160,000 square kilometers—was consumed by fires over the course of 2020. According to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, there were triple the amount of fires in 2020 compared to 2019. Fires in the Pantanal tend to burn just below the surface, fueled by highly combustible peat, which means they burn for longer and are harder to extinguish. The Pantanal, which is recognized by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve and is one of Brazil’s most important biomes, is suffering its worst drought in nearly 50 years, causing fires to spread out of control. Many of the fires started from slash-and-burn farming, which has become more prevalent due to the weakening of conservation regulation and enforcement under President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration. The Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) has seen its funding reduced by around 30 percent. Bolsonaro has frequently spoken out against environmental protection measures, and has made repeated comments undermining Brazilian courts’ attempts to punish offenders. Environmentalists say that this is encouraging agricultural burning and creating a climate of impunity. Luciana Leite, who studies humanity’s relationship with nature at the Federal University of Bahia, predicts the total collapse of the Pantanal, if current climate trends and anti-environmental policies persist.

"One Way to Fight Climate Change: Make Your Own Glaciers"

Environment—Second Prize, Stories

make your own glacier

© Ciril Jazbec, Slovenia, for National Geographic 

Ciril Jazbec of Slovenia photographed this ice stupa built by a youth group in the village of Gya in India in March 2019. They installed a cafe in its base and used the proceeds to take village elders on a pilgrimage.

As Himalayan snows dwindle and glaciers recede, communities in the Ladakh region of northern India are building huge ice cones that provide water into summer. Ladakh is a cold desert, with winter temperatures reaching -30°C, and an average rainfall of around 100 millimeters. Most villages face acute water shortages, particularly during the crucial planting season in April and May. In 2013, Sonam Wangchuk, a Ladakhi engineer and innovator, came up with a form of glacier-grafting that creates artificial glaciers in the form of conical ice heaps, resembling Buddhist religious stupas. The ice stupas store winter meltwater and slowly release it for the growing season in spring, when it is most needed for crops. The stupas are created in winter, when water is carried down from higher ground in underground pipes. The final section rises vertically, and the difference in height causes water to fountain outwards, in subzero temperatures, freezing to form a stupa. Stupas were established in 26 villages in 2020, and a pipeline is under construction to create 50 more. Stupa creator Wangchuk says that the stupas stand for a final attempt of Himalayan mountain communities to fight the climate crisis, but should not be considered as a solution to the challenge: that remains the responsibility of national governments, and people adopting environmentally friendly lifestyles to reduce emissions.

"Inside the Spanish Pork Industry: The Pig Factory of Europe"

Environment—Third Prize, Stories

inside the pork industry in Spain

© Aitor Garmendia, Spain

Aitor Garmendia of Spain shows the gestation area of a pig farm in Aragon in December 2019. Minimum welfare standards allow sows to be placed in crates where they are immobile during the first four weeks of pregnancy.

Spain is one of the four largest global exporters of pork, alongside Germany, the US, and Denmark. The European Union as a whole consumes around 20 million tons of pork annually, and exports some 13 percent of its total production, mostly to East Asia, in particular to China. An EU-funded campaign, Let’s Talk About Pork, has been launched in Spain, France, and Portugal, giving its objective as a drive to counter fake claims surrounding meat production and the consumption of pork in Europe, and to demonstrate that the sector meets the highest standards of sustainability, biosecurity, and food safety in the world. Such standards include guarantees that animals do not suffer pain, and that they have enough space to move freely. Animal rights groups, on the other hand, argue that such practices as routine tail-docking and narrow gestation crates for sows constitute animal abuse, and that animal pain and suffering is widespread. Animal rights investigators say that the industry makes access to farms difficult, and that they are compelled to gain access to such facilities covertly, often at night, in order to document what happens inside. These photographs were taken on a number of such incursions, on different dates, at various facilities across Spain.

All the images are also published in the book World Press Photo 2021 (Lannoo Publishers).