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The magic of wildlife photos

Anyone who has pointed a camera at a herd of deer on a Scottish hillside will know how difficult it is to take good wildlife photographs.

Clockwise from main: Connor Stefanison captures a fox mid-pounce; a gharial - or fish-eating crocodile - provides a platform for its hatchlings in  Udayan Rao Pawar's photograph; in the Seychelles, Isak Pretorius finds a lesser noddie caught in a web; a Japanese macaque pictured in a snowstorm by Jasper Doest; and a green turtle faces up to Luis Javier Sandoval off the Yucatan Peninsula
Clockwise from main: Connor Stefanison captures a fox mid-pounce; a gharial - or fish-eating crocodile - provides a platform for its hatchlings in Udayan Rao Pawar's photograph; in the Seychelles, Isak Pretorius finds a lesser noddie caught in a web; a Japanese macaque pictured in a snowstorm by Jasper Doest; and a green turtle faces up to Luis Javier Sandoval off the Yucatan Peninsula

In the hands of an inexpert photographer, those majestic deer become sludgy brown dots.

Used by those who know what they are doing, however, a camera can freeze-frame a moment with such perfect clarity that it arguably improves on seeing the event with the naked eye.

The haunting winning entries in the latest Wildlife Photographer Of The Year competition, prove the point. Taken by amateur and professional photographers, they show what travellers with an interest in wildlife can achieve with the right training and equipment.

This year's overall winner is South African photographer Greg du Toit for Essence Of Elephants, taken at a waterhole in Botswana's Northern Tuli Game Reserve. Wildlife photographer Jim Brandenburg, chairman of the judging panel, said: "Greg's image immediately catapults us to African plains."

Many other photographers were commended, including Andrew Walmsley, 31, from Edinburgh. His image of Celebes crested macaques taken in May 2012 was praised in the Mammal Behaviour category. These critically endangered primates are found only on Sulewesi and nearby islands in Indonesia and are the subject of conservation efforts that Walmsley has been documenting.

He was on the beach training his camera on a large male when he turned to see four young males charging. "They were screaming, kicking up gravel and making as big a show as possible, their faces full of expression. I had just one chance to capture the energy and passion of the display, as in seconds it was all over. The dominant male stood his ground, took just three paces forward, and the group's bravado crumbled. All four members of the rebellion turned tail and ran."

Sulawesi is "incredibly beautiful", says Walmsley, yet its fragile ecosystem and wildlife are under threat. "In the case of the crested macaques, their main threat comes from poachers, who kill them to sell through the illegal bushmeat trade. Yaki, as they are known locally, are a popular dish with affluent families in the area, especially around Christmas and Easter."

He has witnessed some horrendous scenes. "I have spent a few days among the endless crates of dying animals in the pet and meat markets. I find it hard to put into words the sense of despair that penetrates every pore, particularly in the pet markets. Row upon row of cages into which it would be impossible to cram another bird; Tupperware boxes stacked 10 high filled with snakes, lizards, lorises, monkeys and dogs - it is like nothing I had ever seen before. In the meat markets, I have seen more wildlife on sale for dinner than I think I have ever seen alive in a forest.

"However, the overriding thoughts I was left with was how the mass consumption of meat, no matter where in the world, is unsustainable and cruel, and has meant I have had to change the way I think about my food."

Walmsley hopes his photography shows that wild animals have personalities and characters. "Pet owners will know that their cats, dogs and hamsters have a personality and know when they are happy, sad, grumpy or over-excited - I aim to show wild animals in the same way. If people have the opportunity to create an emotional bond with a wild animal, they are more likely to be driven to protect them."

Walmsley has been working with Selamatkan Yaki (Save The Macaques), a research and conservation programme focused on protecting macaques through area management, eco-tourism, education and alternative livelihood strategies.

He points to three simple ways in which tourists can help endangered species. The first is avoiding exploitative animal experiences. "This includes hands-on contact with 'tame' animals, often marketed as sanctuaries, and photo opportunities with lorises, monkeys and other animals." The second is spreading the message of responsible, ethical environmental activities, to help boost that sector. The third is supporting such projects after returning home, both financially and by volunteering.

Wildlife Photographer Of The Year is the world's pre-eminent wildlife photography competition, attracting 43,000 entries from 96 countries. The exhibition of 100 winning images - the top images in 18 categories, plus runners-up - is touring the world, going to America, Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Holland, Israel, Italy, Poland and South Africa, and will be at the National Museum Of Scotland in Edinburgh from March 17.

Dr Nick Fraser, keeper of natural sciences at the National Museums, says: "The complexities of the natural world hold a special fascination for us all. As scientists, we work to try and understand more about these complexities, however, as scientists, we can often struggle to convey our knowledge in an intelligible way. I have nothing but admiration for the way these photographers are able to simply and effectively get a message across to the visitor - this is an awe-inspiring world and it is essential we act as good custodians."

The Wildlife Photographer Of The Year exhibition opens on Monday at the National Museum Of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh, and runs until June 1. Admission is free.

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