It could almost be a scene from a slapstick comedy: a marmot stands frozen in fear, slack-jawed and balanced on one foot, as it suddenly notices a charging fox.
The dramatic image, captured with perfect timing by Chinese photographer Yongqing Bao, has won the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year award, given out annually by London’s Natural History Museum.
He was chosen from a longlist of various category winners, all of whom managed to record the oddities, rivalries and beauty of the natural world.
Bao caught the scene on the snow-draped sloped of China’s Qilian Mountains in early spring.
He had been observing the interactions between the two creatures for some time; around an hour earlier, the marmot had spotted the fox and raised the alarm to his neighbors to get underground.
But the fox lay low and still; and, believing the coast was clear, the marmot eventually emerged to find food.
In an instant the fox dashed forward and, thanks to some lightning-quick reflexes, Bao was able to immortalize a frightening moment of realization as the marmot comes face to face with its mortality.
“Photographically, it is quite simply the perfect moment,” said Roz Kidman Cox, the chair of the judging panel, in a statement. “The expressive intensity of the postures holds you transfixed, and the thread of energy between the raised paws seems to hold the protagonists in perfect balance.”
“Images from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau are rare enough, but to have captured such a powerful interaction between a Tibetan fox and a marmot — two species key to the ecology of this high-grassland region — is extraordinary,” Cox added.
“This compelling picture captures nature’s ultimate challenge — its battle for survival,” Natural History Museum director Michael Dixon added.
Bao collected the award at a ceremony, held at the London museum on Tuesday evening.