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An award-winning image from the Nature of the Year Photographer (WPY) competition was disqualified because it featured a stuffed animal.
The photo, known as “The Night Invader,” shows an anteater approaching a mound of termites in a nature reserve in Brazil.
The Museum of Natural History in London, which administers the competition, declared that the stuffed animals violate their rules.
The photographer, Marcio Cabral, denies that he has falsified the image and affirms that there is a witness who was with him that day.
Other photographers and tourists were in the reserve park at the same time and for that reason “it would have been very difficult for anyone to see a stuffed animal being transported to the place and placed in that position,” he told the BBC.
But Roz Kidman Cox, president of the jury of the Nature Photographer of the Year, was firm with his criticism.
“The disqualification should remind the participants that any transgression of the rules and the spirit of the competition will finally be discovered,” he said.
The night invader had won in the category of Animals in their environment in the WPY 2017 award. The photo was taken in the Emas National Park, in the states of Goiás and Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil.
The green lights are elaterids or cascarudos that use bioluminescence to attract termites for food.
The appearance of the anteater was described in the mention of the image as fortuitous, a “gratifying surprise” that got into the photo.
But the Museum of Natural History (MNH, for its acronym in English) indicates that third people expressed their suspicion that the photo was mounted , that the hungry intruder is actually a mannequin that can be seen in the visitor center at the entrance of the Park.
When they were alerted to that possibility, the museum asked five scientists to review the winning photo and compare it to the inert model.
These experts, including the NHM taxidermist himself and researchers from mammals and anteaters in South America, worked independently, but came to the same conclusion: both were the same animal.
The scientists found that the marks, the pose, the morphologies, even the position of the tufts of hair were too similar.
The NHM says that Cabral cooperated fully with the investigation, providing for inspection the RAW files of photos that were taken before and after the winning scene. But none included the anteater.
“Unfortunately, I do not have another image of the animal because it was a long exposure of 30 seconds and ISO 5000,” said Cabral.
“After the flashes, the animal left the place, so it was not possible to take another picture with the animal coming out of a place that was completely dark.”
The rules of the WPY establish that “the inscribed images should not deceive the spectator or try to distort the natural reality”.
So, “The Night Invader” has been stripped of his prize and removed from the photo exhibition of the competition in the UK.
Roz Kidman Cox, who has been a WPY jury for more than 30 years, told the BBC: “I find it disheartening and surprising that a photographer had tried so hard to fool the competition and its followers around the world.”
” The competition considers honesty and integrity very important , and such violation of the rules is disrespectful to the community of nature photographers that is the center of this competition.”
This is not the first time that the WPY jury has had to disqualify a winning photo. In 2009, they eliminated the one that was awarded the grand prize that supposedly showed a Spanish wild wolf jumping over a fence.
A similar investigation concluded that the animal in the photo was not wild, but a domesticated wolf from a zoo .
Kidman Cox noted that the jury is always alert to the possibility that the photos could be mounted but that the artifice could be difficult to detect if the animals were in a natural pose with low lighting.
“The members of the jury have a range of skills and knowledge, both biological and photographic, and are very capable of questioning the veracity of an image,” he added.
“The rules also make it clear that the competition defends honest and ethical photography, and they are translated into several languages so there are no misunderstandings.”
Cabral describes the exclusion of his photo as sad, but said he will continue to dispute the decision .
The visitor center is closed at night and has guards, so he would not have had access to the mannequin, the photographer says. He intends to return to the Emas National Park, later this year, to collect evidence that he believes will exempt him.