From a family portrait of burrowing owls to a rare rhino's final moments, the shortlist for the Natural History Museum's Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2020 People's Choice Award offers a slate of images that range from the truly captivating to the profoundly heartbreaking.

Family portrait by Andrew Lee, US
Capturing a family portrait of mum, dad and their eight chicks proved tricky for Lee – they never got together to pose as a perfect 10. Burrowing owls in Ontario, California, often have large families, so he knew it wouldn’t be easy. After days of waiting, and when dad was out of sight, mum and her brood suddenly turned wide-eyed to glance in his direction – the first time he had seen them all together. He quickly seized the moment.
Image © Andrew J Lee/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The 25 shortlisted images were selected from over 49,000 entries and showcase animals in beautiful destinations across the globe as well as those in urban and suburban settings, at times forcing viewers to scrutinise our relationship with the natural world.

A public vote will determine the overall winning image, which will then be showcased in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at London's Natural History Museum until July 2021.

"This year's shortlist includes a wide diversity of wildlife photography from a fragile planet," Tim Littlewood, executive director of science at the Natural History Museum and member of the judging panel, said in a statement. "Whether assessing human-animal relationships, highlighting the plight of captive species or animals thriving in their environments, the public are in for a difficult decision.”

Here's a look at the shortlisted images (you can cast your vote here):

Lion king by Wim van den Heever, South Africa
As Van den Heever watched this huge male lion lying atop a large granite rock, a cold wind picked up and blew across the vast open plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania. A storm was approaching and, as the last rays of sun broke through the cloud, the lion lifted its head and glanced in the photographer’s direction.
Image © Wim van den Heever//2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Baby on the rocks by Frédéric Larrey, France
When this six-month-old snow leopard cub wasn’t following its mother and copying her movements, it sought protection among the rocks. This was the second family of snow leopards that Larrey photographed on the Tibetan plateau in autumn 2017. Unlike other regions, where poaching is rife, there is a healthy breeding population in this mountain massif as the leopards are free from persecution by hunters and prey is plentiful.
Image © Frédéric Larrey/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Turtle time machine by Thomas Peschak, Germany/South Africa
During Christopher Columbus’s Caribbean voyage of 1494, green sea turtles were said to be so numerous that his ships almost ran aground on them. Today the species is classified as endangered. However, at locations such as Little Farmer’s Cay in the Bahamas, green turtles can be observed with ease.
Image © Thomas Peschak/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Spirit of Bhutan by Emmanuel Rondeau, France
On assignment for WWF UK, Rondeau’s brief was to photograph the elusive wildlife of the Bhutanese mountains. Surprised to find a rhododendron at an altitude of 3,500 metres (11,500ft), he installed a camera trap, hoping – although not overly confident – that the large mammals he was there for would use the narrow forest path nearby. Returning many weeks later, he was amazed to find a head-on picture of a takin, with the colours of blue sky, pink flowers and the beast’s mustard yellow coat perfectly complementing one another.
Image © Emmanuel Rondeau/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
The last goodbye by Ami Vitale, US
Joseph Wachira comforts Sudan, the planet’s last male northern white rhino, moments before the animal died at Ol Pejeta wildlife conservancy in northern Kenya. Suffering from age-related complications, Sudan died surrounded by those who had cared for him.
Image © Ami Vitale/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Shut the front door by Sam Sloss, Italy/US
This coconut octopus was spotted walking around the black sand of the Lembeh strait, Sulawesi, carrying its house made of shells. This small octopus constructs its own protective shelter using clam shells, coconuts, and even glass bottles. These intelligent creatures are very picky when it comes to building materials. They know that certain types and sizes of shell have their advantages, whether for shelter or camouflage.
Image © Sam Sloss/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Bushfire by Robert Irwin, Australia
A fire line leaves a trail of destruction through woodland near the border of the Steve Irwin wildlife reserve in Cape York, Queensland, Australia. The area is of high conservation significance, with more than 30 different ecosystems, and is home to many endangered species. The fires are one of the biggest threats to this habitat.
Image © Robert Irwin/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Drey dreaming by Neil Anderson, UK
As the weather grew colder, two Eurasian red squirrels (only one clearly visible) found comfort in a box Anderson had put up in one of the pine trees near his home in the Scottish Highlands. In the colder months, it is common for even unrelated squirrels to share dreys. After discovering the box full of nesting material, Anderson installed a camera and LED light with a diffuser on a dimmer. The box had a lot of natural light so he slowly increased the light to highlight his subjects – and using the wifi app on his phone he was able take stills from the ground.
Image © Neil Anderson/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
White danger by Petri Pietiläinen, Finland
While on a photography trip to the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard, Pietiläinen hoped to spot polar bears. When he sighted one in the distance on a glacier, he switched from the main ship to a smaller rubber boat to get a closer look. The bear was making its way towards a steep cliff and the birds nesting there. It tried and failed several times to reach them, but perseverance, and probably hunger, paid off as it found its way to a barnacle goose nest. The adults and some of the chicks jumped off the cliff, leaving the bear to feed on what remained.
Image © Petri Pietiläinen/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Hare ball by Andy Parkinson, UK
Parkinson spent five weeks watching mountain hares near Tomatin in the Scottish Highlands, waiting patiently for any movement – a stretch, a yawn or a shake – which typically came every 30 to 45 minutes. As he watched, frozen and prostrate, with 50-60mph winds surging relentlessly around him, the cold started to distract and his fingers clasping the icy metal camera body and lens began to burn. Then relief came as this little female moved her body into a perfect spherical shape.
Image © Andy Parkinson/2020 wildlife photographer of the year/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Close encounter by Guillermo Esteves, US
The worried-looking expression on this dog’s face speaks volumes and is a reminder that moose are large, unpredictable, wild animals. Esteves was photographing moose on the side of the road at Antelope Flats in Grand Teton national park, Wyoming, US, when this large bull took an interest in the furry visitor – the driver of the car was unable to move before the moose made its approach. Luckily, the moose soon lost interest and went on its way.
Image © Guillermo Esteves/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Licence to kill by Britta Jaschinski, Germany
Jaschinski’s photographs of items seized at airports and borders across the globe are a quest to understand why some individuals continue to demand wildlife products, even if this causes suffering and, in some cases, pushes species to the brink of extinction. This zebra head was confiscated at a border point in the US. Most likely, the hunter was not able to show proof that the zebra was killed with a licence. Jaschinski found the use of a shopping trolley to move the confiscated item ironic, posing the question: wildlife or commodity?
Image © Britta Jaschinski/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Resting dragon by Gary Meredith, Australia
The Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia is home to a wide variety of wildlife, which exists alongside man-made mining operations. The wildlife found in this environment needs to adapt to the harsh living conditions. When the opportunity arises, the long-nosed dragon makes use of human structures. This individual positioned itself on a piece of wire mesh outside a workshop, waiting for the sun’s rays.
Image © Gary Meredith/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Coexistence by Pallavi Prasad Laveti, India
An Asian palm civet kitten peeps out of a bag in a remote village in India. This baby was orphaned and has lived in the village backyard – comfortable in the company of locals, who have adopted the philosophy of ‘live and let live’. Laveti sees the image as one of hope, for in other parts of the world the civets are trapped for kopi luwak coffee production (coffee made from beans that are partially digested and then defecated by the civet) – where they are kept in tiny, unsanitary cages and force-fed coffee beans.
Image © Pallavi Prasad Laveti/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Eye to eye by Andrey Shpatak, Russia
This Japanese warbonnet was photographed in the Sea of Japan. These unusual fish lead a territorial lifestyle among the stones and rocks of shallow coastal waters. They use their sharp-edged jaws to snap off sea cucumbers and gastropods. They were once thought to be timid and almost impossible to observe, but curiosity has taken over and they will now often swim right up to divers.
Image © Andrey Shpatak/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Life saver by Sergio Marijuán Campuzano, Spain
As urban areas grow, like Jaén in Spain, threats to wildlife increase, and Iberian lynx have become a casualty of traffic accidents as they too seek to expand their own territories. In 2019, more than 34 lynx were run over, and three days before Campuzano took this photo, a two-year-old female died not far from this spot. To combat mortality on the roads, improvements in the fencing and the construction of under-road tunnels are two proven solutions, and are a lifeline for many other creatures as well as lynx.
Image © Sergio Marijuán Campuzano/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
A window to life by Sergio Marijuán Campuzano, Spain
Two Iberian lynx kittens, Quijote and Queen, play in the abandoned hayloft where they were born. Extremely curious, but a bit scared as well, they started exploring the outside world through the windows of their straw-bale home. The reintroduction of the species to eastern Sierra Morena, Spain, has seen them take advantage of some human environments.
Image © Sergio Marijuán Campuzano/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
A special moment by Oliver Richter, Germany
Richter has observed the European beavers near his home in Grimma in Saxony, Germany, for years, watching as they redesign the landscape to create valuable habitats for many species of wildlife, including kingfishers and dragonflies. This family portrait is at the beavers’ favourite feeding place.
Image © Oliver Richter/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Bat woman by Douglas Gimesy, Australia
Wildlife rescuer and carer Julie Malherbe takes a call to assist the next animal rescue while looking after three recently orphaned grey-headed flying foxes. This megabat is native to Australia and is endemic to the south-eastern forested areas, playing a vital role in seed dispersal and the pollination of more than 100 native species of flowering and fruit-bearing tree. The species is listed as vulnerable to extinction because of the destruction of foraging and roosting habitats and, more frequently, mass die-offs caused by heat-stress events.
Image © Douglas Gimesy/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Drawn and quartered by Laurent Ballesta, France
Scraps of grouper flesh fall from the jaws of two grey reef sharks as they tear the fish apart. The sharks of Fakarava Atoll, French Polynesia, hunt in packs but do not share their prey. A single shark is too clumsy to catch even a drowsy grouper. After working together to extract the grouper from its hiding place in the reef, the sharks encircle it but then compete for the spoils.
Image © Laurent Ballesta/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Backstage at the circus by Kirsten Luce, US
At the St Petersburg state circus in Russia, bear trainer Grant Ibragimov performs his daily act with three Siberian brown bears. The animals rehearse and then perform under the lights each evening. Luce was told that to train a bear to walk on two feet, they are chained by the neck to the wall when they are young to strengthen their leg muscles. Russia and eastern Europe have a long history of training bears to dance or perform, and hundreds continue to do so as part of the circus industry in this part of the world.
Image © Kirsten Luce/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Border refuge by Joseph Dominic Anthony, Hong Kong/UK
Anthony formed the idea for this photograph in 2016 on a visit to Mai Po nature reserve in Hong Kong. Strictly timed access rules meant years of studying tide tables and waiting for the perfect weather. Anthony wanted to convey the story and mood of Mai Po in a single balanced photograph, combining individuals and the behaviour of multiple species in the context of their wider environment, particularly to juxtapose the proximity of the ever encroaching urban development.
Image © Joseph Dominic Anthony/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
The real garden gnomes by Karine Aigner, US
Located a short ride from the Florida Everglades, Marco Island is the largest and only developed land in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands. This Gulf Coast retreat offers luxury resorts, beautiful beaches, multimillion-dollar neighbourhoods and, surprisingly, a thriving community of burrowing owls. The owls are happy to take up residence on meticulously manicured lawns, the perfect place to hunt insects and lizards.
Image © Karine Aigner/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year
The alpha by Mogens Trolle, Denmark
Of all the primate species Trolle has photographed, the mandrill has proved the most difficult to reach, preferring to hide in tropical forests in remote parts of central Africa. This made the experience of sitting next to this impressive alpha, as he observed his troop above, even more special. When a male becomes alpha he undergoes physical changes that accompany a rise in testosterone levels, resulting in the colours on his snout becoming brighter. With loss of status, the colours fade. Mogens used a flash to enhance the vivid colours.
Image © Mogens Trolle/2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year