COP26 Countdown Photo Competition



At a time when climate-related catastrophes – floods, fires, deadly storms and extreme heat – have become the norm, world leaders are currently gathered in Glasgow for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change summit – also known as COP26. In the countdown to this landmark event, the Earth Project (tEP), in collaboration with Nature Picture Library (NPL), organised a photography competition to raise awareness of the huge challenges faced by nature, as well as the impacts of climate change on global ecosystems.

26 of the world’s leading photographers came together, to provide eye-witness accounts of nature under threat. Thousands of members of the public voted on which of these stunning images best reflected the beauty of the natural world and our critical relationship with nature and the environment. The three images with the most votes have been jointly crowned as the winners. The awarded photographers are:

  • Rivoni Mkansi (South Africa) for his image of a rhino being dehorned to deter poaching
  • Doug Gimesy (Australia) for his image of little blue penguins silhouetted against Melbourne city
  • Jo-Anne McArthur (Canada) for her image of pigs in an industrial farm.

As well as helping to increase public awareness of the climate emergency, each of the winning photographers will receive a donation to an environmental charity of their choice.

At the time of writing, the awarded images – and others from the competition – are being displayed at COP26, in sight of global leaders. Their actions during this time are critical if governments are to deliver on the ambition of the Paris agreement: to limit global warming to well below 2 – preferably to 1.5 – degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. Right now, ministers and negotiators are discussing what must be done to keep this goal within reach, and adapt to the impact of climate change.

The Earth Project and Nature Picture Library hope that the competition images will help ignite action, as well as changing hearts and minds across the world.

All 78 image entries are available on our website.

There were 3 rounds of voting in the competition, each with a gallery of 26 images. Voting has now closed for all three galleries, and the winners are shown below.

Winners of the first gallery

1st PLACE: Dehorning white rhino, South Africa by Rivoni Mkansi

“South Africa has the largest population of rhino in the world – however, there has been a catastrophic decline in their numbers due to poaching. Desperate times call for desperate measures and dehorning is a last-ditch attempt to deter poaching. Although a traumatic experience for the rhino, dehorning is like cutting one’s fingernails and the horn will grow back.”

2nd PLACE: Melting ice sheet, Svalbard by Roy Mangersnes

“Austfonna glacier on Nordaustlandet in the Svalbard archipelago is Europe’s third-largest glacier by area and volume and with a glacier wall of around 200 kilometres, it is an impressive sight. During the last decades, every month has brought new record high temperatures in the Arctic, and the ice cap on Nordaustlandet is melting at high speed. The meltwater starts as small streams but eventually gathers in larger, almost river-like systems, that finally pour off the steep wall. ”

3rd PLACE: Eastern grey kangaroo in burnt forest, Australia    by Jo-Anne McArthur/We Are Animals

“An Eastern grey kangaroo and her joey who survived the cataclysmic forest fires in Mallacoota, Australia, stand amidst a burned eucalyptus plantation, January 2020. Scientists state that the bushfires were exacerbated and accelerated by climate change. An estimated 3 billion animals, both wild and domestic, lost their lives in what some call the climate fires.”

Winners of the second gallery

1st PLACE: Penguins silhouetted against Melbourne city by Doug Gimesy:

Two little blue penguins (Eudyptula minor) – the world’s smallest penguin species – stand on the rocks of St Kilda breakwater with Melbourne’s city lights in the background. The breakwater was built for the 1956 Olympics, only 7km from the heart of Melbourne, and this is the only penguin colony in the world that lives, feeds and forages in a bay. But what makes this colony especially interesting, is that it is the only penguin colony in the world that can be impacted by drought.
As Dr Preston – who completed her PhD on the foraging behaviour, diet and reproductive success of this penguin colony – explains “Little penguins eat about 20% of their body weight a day, primarily feeding on small fish species. The local availability of this food source is driven by nutrients that are carried in by the nearby Yarra River. So when we have a drought, less nutrients are carried into the bay, which impacts fish stocks and subsequently the penguins, who have a greatly reduced level of breeding success.”

2nd PLACE: Polar bear by Roy Mangersnes:

Things are changing in the Arctic and it’s not for the better. Over the past years, we have clearly seen how the glaciers on Svalbard are retreating and ocean ice is getting thinner. The ice on the fjord, where the seals are having their pups in spring, is also disappearing faster as warm water is being pushed towards the coast. In a world where its inhabitants are dependent on snow and ice, the impact of warmer ocean and air temperatures is devastating. When the fjord ice melts in late April or doesn’t form at all some years, the seals don’t have anywhere to give birth to their young, leaving Polar bears to roam the shores spending much more energy trying to catch different prey. The seal pups are extremely important for the bears, as this is the time of the year they will fatten up before the hard summer months with no ice and very little food available. Polar bears are still doing well in Svalbard, but it is getting harder every year for them to keep up with the changes we are currently witnessing. Unless we are able to stop the climate change in the Arctic there is a real threat that the King of the Arctic will disappear from Svalbard.

JOINT 3rd PLACE: Humpback mother and baby by Tony Wu:

The humpback whale calf (Megaptera novaeangliae) pictured here was attacked when he was very small, not long after he was born. His right pectoral fin has a large rip in the middle. His dorsal fin was almost cut off, and there were large chunks of flesh missing from several areas of the young whale’s body. No one saw the actual attack, so it was not possible to say with certainty how the calf was injured. But I did see and photograph the calf and his mother shortly after the attack. What I documented were multiple small injuries, made by small mouths, most likely at or near the same time. In other words, more likely an attack by a pack of animals, a strategy more characteristic of marine mammals like false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) than a shark. The calf and his mother were wary that first day, for obvious reasons. I had the good fortune of meeting this pair nine times over the course of 33 days, which gave me the opportunity to document the calf’s recovery and growth, as well as his mother’s change in mood and interactions with other whales. This photograph is from just over three weeks after the calf was attacked. By this point, his wounds were healing well. He was energetic, active, and so accustomed to seeing me that he often swam over to say hello. His mother had grown comfortable with my presence as well. I have not seen this calf again—by now a young adult if he survived—but I have met his mother, the second time with a healthy baby girl. Even before I could confirm the ID with photos, she felt familiar. Our first encounter that second time started with eye contact. We looked at one another. She relaxed and rested, let her calf wander over to play. Humans and humpback whales are different in many ways. This calf and his mother demonstrated many of the things we have in common – fear, love, hope, resilience, trust, and perhaps even friendship.

JOINT 3rd PLACE: Cattle in truck by Jo-Anne McArthur:

Every year, millions of animals are transported for slaughter from across Europe through the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Animals endure long hours, often without water or food, sometimes in the cold but more often in extremes of heat as they head south. This photo was taken during the hotter summer months, when animals can suffer from heat exhaustion, dehydration, injuries and, at times, death. The emissions created by the mass production of animals for food contributes to climate change, as does the additional emissions created by the global transport of animals. Animals raised for food are even shipped by sea from Australia to the Middle East, a journey of weeks that contribute to pollution and the climate emergency.


Winners of the third gallery

1st PLACE: Pigs in an industrial farm by Jo-Anne McArthur:

One piglet from a large litter looks around her small crate as her mother lies immobile beside her. Sows are kept in gestation crates and then farrowing crates in industrial farms, which is the standard way of raising pigs for food. The pollution caused by industrial farming – the mass production of animals – is one of the factors that accelerates climate change.

2nd PLACE: Humpback whale by Nick Garbutt:

Few places in the world are as ethereal and scenically spectacular as the coastal regions of British Columbia. The intricate mosaic of forests, islands, fjords and mountains are incredibly rich and biodiverse and support a wealth of wildlife. When vast schools of herring migrate to these waters to spawn, predators follow suit – including seabirds, sea lions, and humpback whales – which migrate all the way from tropical waters to make the most of the bounty. Everywhere there is intricate inter-connectivity, all driven by seasonal cycles that are threatened by climate change.

3rd PLACE: Adelie penguins by Edwin Giesbers:

Blue icebergs are created when fallen snow is compressed and turns into ice. At first, there are many air bubbles in the ice, but if it drops further than 50 meters, the air bubbles are squeezed out and the ice turns bright blue. Years ago, Edwin Giesbers made a special journey through the waters of Antarctica on board the Grigoriy Mikheev – a former Russian research ship. During one of the cruises on a rubber zodiac boat, he sailed to the opening of a bay that looked like a fairytale world: beautiful blue ice rocks everywhere. Two Adelie penguins stood side by side like friends on one of those blue icebergs. It is precisely this photo – with the penguins small in the frame – that clearly conveys his feelings about Antarctica: “an infinitely large and magical world where you as a human being feel small and insignificant.” Nowadays, global warming is, unfortunately, a big threat to the Penguin colonies.

About the Overall Winning Photographers

Despite qualifying for veterinary school, Rivoni Mkansi (21) from South Africa has followed his heart to become a successful commercial photographer. He grew up in an impoverished community in rural Mpumulanga, bordering Kruger National Park in South Africa. In 2016, when still at high school, he was introduced to photography through Wild Shots Outreach. His talent and creativity shone through.

After leaving school, he joined a number of conservation photo assignments with Wild Shots Outreach and took their Advanced Photography and Videography course in 2019. Rivoni has since set up his own photographic studios in Pretoria. His images taken during lockdown made South Africa’s national press. “I use my camera and images to speak for me. I sometimes fail to put things in words but with photography, I can capture the entire story or message I want to convey without even thinking of the language barrier. For me, photography is the greatest form of communication”.


Doug Gimesy is a professional conservation and wildlife photojournalist who focuses on Australian issues. Believing people should focus on the issues they care about that are close to home, his recent work has focused on the conservation and animal welfare issues that face the platypus and the Grey-headed Flying-fox – having recently facilitated the platypus being listed as threatened species in his home state of Victoria, as well as launching a children’s book with his partner on Grey-headed Flying-foxes titled ‘Life Upside Down’. Current projects include covering the illegal reptile trade out of Australia, the impact of bushfires and floods, and series of portraits called ‘Wildlife Warriors, Conservation Champions and Animal Advocates’. A Senior Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), Doug’s clients include National Geographic, BBC Wildlife, bioGraphic, Australian Geographic, Audubon, as well various newspapers. His hope is that the images and information he shares, will inspire people to stop, think, and treat the world more kindly.



Jo-Anne McArthur is an award-winning photographer, author, and speaker. She documents our complex relationship with animals around the globe, and in 2019 she founded We Animals Media. Jo-Anne is the author of three books, We Animals (2014), Captive (2017), and HIDDEN: Animals in the Anthropocene (2020) and she was the subject of Canadian filmmaker Liz Marshall’s acclaimed documentary, The Ghosts in Our Machine, which followed her as she documented the plight of abused and exploited animals and advocated for their rights as sentient beings. McArthur speaks internationally at schools, universities, and conferences on the subjects of photography, the human-animal relationship, social change, and empathy. She is based in Toronto, Canada and travels many months each year to document and share the stories of animals world-wide. McArthur’s photography and writing has been published in National Geographic, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Canadian Geographic, Huffington Post, and many more. We Animals images have been used by hundreds of organizations, publishers and academics to advocate for animals.

McArthur was thrilled that three of her images were awarded in the competition, and shared her thoughts with us: “We know that industrial farming contributes to pollution, methane emissions, deforestation, and ultimately climate change. But less acknowledged  are the billions of animals caught at the centre of this environmental and ethical catastrophe. As we face them in these photos – looking out at us from their burned home, or from a long-distance transport truck,  or a gestation crate – I hope a call to action stirs amongst us all. Industrial farming needed to end decades ago and  I know that many of you share that sentiment.”

More images from the competition

The photos entered into the competition highlight the threats to our precious planet and its biodiversity across all seven continents. A diversity of photographers contributed, helping draw attention to the global threat that climate change presents to our planet and its animal and plant life. A wider ranfe of entries, together with powerful words from the photographers, can be browsed below.



Ancient pine forest, Sweden by Staffan Widstrand

“Very few people today have ever seen a real forest, a forest where trees are allowed to live until they die of old age. The pines in a real forest are said to live for 300 years, stand dead for another 300 and then lie dead for a final 300 years. These trees in their final stages lying on the forest floor in Muddus National Park, Sweden, may have started life in the Viking age.”

Clear-cut forest, Norway by Pal Hermansen

“Modern forestry, involving clear-cutting of large areas, is a threat not only to biodiversity but also contributes to dramatic CO2 emissions. When talking about important forests, we often think of equatorial rainforests, but the richest CO2 depository is a slow-growing, boreal taiga forest.”

Beaver feeding at night, Scotland by Peter Cairns

“Beavers are often described as ‘habitat engineers’ but I look upon them as rewilding ambassadors. Beavers create intricate, complex wetlands – one of the most efficient habitats for carbon sequestration. Scotland is one of the first countries in the world to declare a climate emergency and yet it has been one of the slowest to recognise the benefits of restoring beavers to its river systems. ”

Beaver at its dam, Devon, England by Nick Upton

“The beaver is an industrious creator of healthy environments for other wildlife and us.  Beaver dams slow flowing water, reduce downstream flooding after rainstorms, and preserve water during droughts.  Masses of carbon is stored in all the plant material submerged in beaver ponds, in sediments held up by dams and within damp, alluvial beaver meadows.”

Firefly trails, Netherlands by Edwin Giesbers

“Fireflies (Lamprohiza slendidula) are small beetles that are active for a short period at the end of June-early July, after sunset and also for a maximum of one hour when the males fly around and glow. A magical event in the dark forest! This image was taken as part of a story for National Geographic about insect decline. In 2017 a German-Dutch research project showed that in the past 30 years more than three-quarters of flying insects (biomass) have disappeared from nature reserves in Germany.”

Bumblebee covered in pollen, Surrey, England by Heather Angel

Many fruits and vegetables we eat depend on pollinators cross-pollinating the flowers so they can produce the fruits and vegetables we enjoy. Further decline in pollinators, can impact our food supplies.


Wildebeest herd migrating, Tanzania by Nick Garbutt

“The annual cycles of rain drive the Serengeti ecosystem. Between January and April, rain falls on the short grass plains of the southern Serengeti. Over a million and a half wildebeest and zebra migrate into the area to feed on the flourishing nutrient-rich grasses and herbs that helps produce milk and succulent grazing for newborn calves. In May the herds begin heading back north following the receding rains, arriving in the northern Serengeti and Masai Mara by July and August. By October, northern regions begin to dry out and the herds start the long journey south. It is perpetual motion driven by annual weather patterns that have persisted for millennia. Climate change is disrupting these established norms and fundamentally threatening the viability of the entire ecosystem.”

Bushman examines zebra carcass, Botswana by Neil Aldridge

“Every year, tens of thousands of zebra trek further than their more famous counterparts in East Africa, moving between the river systems of the north and the vast pans of the interior. When the rains fail and drought hits, as it did in 2019, the death toll amongst the exhausted animals can be staggering. Climate change is driving more extreme weather events and wildlife, livestock and people all suffer when these already arid regions become even dryer.”

Coral reef split-level, Red Sea, Egypt by Alex Mustard

“Thriving corals like these in the Red Sea, off Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, are becoming a rarer sight, and we should be very concerned. Hard corals are the foundation of one of the world’s most incredible habitats, the coral reefs that they build support hundreds of thousands of species. Their robust skeletons that build the reefs also protect our coasts and the marine life feeds millions of people.”

Green turtle feeding, Red Sea, Egypt by Shane Gross

“Endangered green sea turtles, like this one in the Red Sea, eat seagrass almost exclusively. This marine flowering plant is an ecological powerhouse that sequesters carbon 35 times more efficiently than rainforests, increases biodiversity, reduces pollution, protects shorelines during storms, increases fish numbers and decreases poverty.”

Waterbuck grazing in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique by Jen Guyton

“Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, is a story of hope and revival in the wake of devastation. Civil war (1975-1995) precipitated two decades of heavy poaching reducing a world-renowned park to a near-wasteland devoid of wildlife. Ecologically important large mammals were especially affected, with more than 90% declines in most species. In 2004, the Gorongosa Project began. Their mission: to restore the park’s biological richness and ecosystem function. Twenty-five years after the war, large mammals are now becoming abundant again. This story demonstrates that ecosystems are resilient: with our support, they can recover from major disturbances.”



Tar sand extraction, Canada by Ashley Cooper

“Of all man’s efforts to exploit fossil fuels, the Canadian tar sands are by far the most environmentally destructive. The tar sands are a mix of bitumen, sands, clays and gravels. They are only economically viable to exploit when oil prices are at the higher end of their range. They can be turned into synthetic oil, but only by separating out the bitumen from the sands and gravels. At this site, deposits close to the surface are strip-mined. This involves clear-felling the boreal forest leading to a rate of deforestation second only to the rates in the Amazon rain forest. ”

Forest fire, California by Jack Dykinga

“Fire, caused by a lightning strike, races through Pusch Ridge in the Santa Catalina Mountains on 6 June 2020 – one of many fires that raged through the Southwest US last year destroying natural habitats and people’s homes.”

People touching grey whale, Baja California, Mexico by Mark Carwardine

“The eastern Pacific grey whale population is a heart-warming success story. Whalers would enter the grey whale breeding lagoons along the wild Pacific coast of Baja California, Mexico, and harpoon their calves. The fiercely protective mothers, lured to help, would, in turn, be harpooned. Whalers killed so many that there were only a few hundred left by 1885. The grey whale was given full official protection in 1946 and the population has successfully returned to pre-whaling levels. But what is most extraordinary is that grey whales seem to have forgiven us for our past atrocities – nowadays, they willingly approach small tourist boats to be petted in the same lagoons where they were once slaughtered.”

Stingray among mangrove roots, Bahamas by Sirachai Arunrugstichai

“A Southern stingray glides over the aerating roots of a mangrove forest, Bimini, the Bahamas. The roots are an adaptation that aid oxygen intake in the waterlogged soils of coastal habitats. In addition to being an important habitat for various animals, mangrove and seagrass ecosystems in the coastal zones are recognised for their important role in mitigating climate change as they can sequester and store more carbon per unit area than terrestrial forest.”


Peafowl at dawn, India by Sandesh Kadur

“Common peafowl perched on trees at dawn, Western Ghats, Southern India. Forests are one of our most powerful weapons in fighting climate change. If we allow the earth’s forests to regenerate and recover, researchers theorize that many of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions could be controlled. Forests are not just about their trees. They are a whole self-regulating ecosystem, from the soil bacteria that fix nitrogen to fertilize soils to the rodents and birds that help in seed dispersal and the fungi that help rot away carcasses and break down tree trunks. All these organisms working together allow forests to push moisture into the air and pull carbon into the ground.”

Tapanuli orangutan, Indonesia by Tim Laman

“The Tapanuli orangutan is one of the three known species of orangutan along with the Sumatran and Bornean orangutans. All three species are critically endangered primarily due to loss of rainforest habitat to logging and agricultural conversion, but the Tapanuli orangutan, which was only recognized as a distinct species in 2017, has the smallest remaining population with only an estimated 800 individuals remaining. It is thus the rarest great ape, and protecting the remaining forest in Borneo and Sumatra is critical not only for its survival but to protect all biodiversity and mitigate climate change.”

Bengal tiger at night, India by Yashpal Rathore

“Two hundred years ago, an estimated 50,000 tigers roamed India’s lush, unbroken forests. But by the 1970s, centuries of hunting and habitat destruction left fewer than 2,000 wild individuals. In 1973, fearing the extinction of this most magnificent cat, the government declared the tiger India’s national animal, banned hunting and set up a conservation scheme “Project Tiger” in six forest Tiger Reserves. Fifty years of collective effort by government, NGOs, local communities and scientists have raised tiger numbers to around 4000 individuals living in 50 reserves. But the reserves are small, averaging less than 1,500 square kilometres each. The population of Indian tigers continues to be fragmented by loss of habitat and corridors which connect reserves, this results in inbreeding and potential loss of diversity. If forest corridors remain intact between reserves, they benefit not only tigers but many other larger animals.”

Olive ridley turtle entangled in fishing net, Indian Ocean by Tony Wu

“The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 179 million tonnes of seafood were captured in 2018, sustenance for much of the world’s population. There is however a hidden cost. Sometimes fishing gear is lost at sea or possibly intentionally discarded. Such ghost nets and lines can become entangled and form large rafts, floating death traps for many sea birds, fish, reptiles like this turtle, dolphins, whales and more.”

Bar-headed geese in flight, China by Dong Lei

“A small flock of Bar-headed geese  fly through a rainbow lenticular stratocumulus cloud. Bar-headed geese are typical high-altitude species. A research paper on the Bar-headed geese in the Qinghai Lake region shows a significant decline in the past 10 years. The authors of the paper believe that climate change is having an impact.”



Platypus, Australia    by Doug Gimesy

“When people think of bushfires, they often don’t realise the potential impact to animals like the platypus (Ornithorynchus anatinus) that lives in freshwater ways and streams, but platypuses can suffer, not just during the fires, but afterwards because streams can boil away leaving no place them to forage, and the destruction of riverbank vegetation can eliminate places for platypuses to safely hide from predators and also make the riverbanks less stable for their burrows.”

Sooty albatross, sub-Antarctica     by Nick Garbutt

“I’ve only been fortunate enough to visit South Georgia – one of the world’s greatest wildlife wonders – on two occasions. The first was in 2009 when this photograph of a Light-mantled sooty albatross and Fortuna Glacier was taken. My second visit was nine years later in 2018, by which time the glacier was noticeably smaller. Areas that were once covered in ice were now barren rock. Shorelines normally cloaked in a thick layer of snow were instead visible shingle and tussock grass. Everywhere I looked the contrasts were stark. So much had changed in less than a decade.”

Deforestation, Ecuador     by Lucas Bustamante

“South America has the highest rate of deforestation globally, and Ecuador is ranked number two on the continent, just after Brazil. Deforestation is the largest and most serious biodiversity and conservation problem in South America. In general, countries from the global south think that they don’t contribute significantly to climate change – we have less industrialization and thus lower emission of greenhouse gasses than the global north. However, if we add deforestation to the equation, we are also doing very significant harm to the planet as well. Cutting ancient trees leaves us with fewer carbon sink sources and releases to the atmosphere a lot of carbon dioxide captured by those giant trees. Forests have been mainly replaced by monoculture crops for industrial and commercial use, for example, African oil palm. It is not just a matter for the countries where deforestation happens, but also for the countries that demand the products of those monocultures.”

Flying fox in flight, Australia    by Doug Gimesy

“A Grey-headed Flying-fox  mother carries her young back to the roost as rain begins to fall at Yarra Bend Park, just a few kilometres from Melbourne’s busy city centre.  This species is currently listed as vulnerable to extinction, with significant threats including continued habitat destruction and increasing heat stress events due to human-driven climate change.”

Limon grass frogs, Ecuador      by Lucas Bustamante

“Limon glass frogs in Canande Reserve, Ecuador in the Choco region. The Chocó is one of the most vulnerable and biodiverse ecosystems in Ecuador, with less than 2% of the original vegetation remaining. Biodiversity loss resulting from climate change is a big threat to the world’s most biodiverse places. Species like these frogs that are adapted to high elevation ecosystems or have a restricted distribution will be the ones that potentially cannot adapt to increases in temperature.”

Glacier, Antarctica     by Michel Roggo

“This aerial image of Dugdale Glacier which drains from the Admiralty Mountains into Robertson Bay, North Victoria Land, Antarctica, was taken as part of my Freshwater Project in February 2017 and shows meltwater on the glacier. Our New Zealand based guide, who has experience of countless expeditions in Antarctica told us that he has never before seen meltwater on a glacier in Antarctica.”