These are our best animal photos of 2021

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The specter of humans, however, is never far away. In some of our photographers’ most powerful wildlife images, there is an underlying threat stream. Thomas Peschak’s meerkats and pangolins in the Kalahari Desert, a hotspot of climate change, highlight their vulnerability. Mélanie Wenger’s image of a curious African penguin in Simon’s Town, South Africa, highlights a species more endangered than the white rhino and potentially threatened with extinction within 15 years.

Other photographs highlight aids. Brent Stirton’s footage of a warden cradling a dying gorilla he helped raise and a pilot flying orphaned chimpanzees to a sanctuary, as well as Nichole Sobecki’s photographs of baby cheetahs rescued from the animal trade, document victims of violence and humans trying to undo terrible evil.

The dominant theme of this collection, says Kathy Moran, deputy director of photography for National Geographic, who organized the choices, is the connection between man and nature. “Our photographers care so much about the stories they tell that they are willing to go to great lengths to take photographs that no one has seen before and to share the natural world and all that we need to pay attention to.”

Moran, who is retiring this month after 40 years with the magazine, reflects on the evolution of our animal photojournalism over the decades. “When I started, what you saw were animal stories, and it was pure wildlife, pure natural history. Photos celebrating wild creatures have defined National Geographic’s wildlife narrative for years.

“There will always be a place where that fun and charm is needed,” says Moran. “But more and more, what became clear to me was to stay focused on what meant we weren’t telling half the story.”

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