Toshiji Fukuda: Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Tiger Untrapped by Toshiji Fukuda – Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2013. Winner of the Gerald Durrell Award for Endangered Species

BEDRAGGLED LIONS in the Serengeti; the weird looking dugong underwater encroached upon by apparently phantom divers; and on a snow-covered sea shore a magnificent Amur tigress coolly surveying her photographer – these are just a few of the entries for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition. The photo of the Amur tigress titled Tiger Untrapped is the winner of a special Gerald Durrell Award for Endangered Species, created to raise awareness of species in danger of extinction. This year’s winner was the Japanese photographer Toshiji Fukuda.

In its 49th year, the competition attracted almost 43,000 entries from 96 countries, whittled down to 100 photos for an exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum. The final images were selected for their evocative beauty, dramatic effect and technical expertise.

Tiger Untrapped was taken by Japanese photographer Toshiji Fukuda in the Russian Far East where he has been working since 1990. He spends at least half the year in this cold, remote region taking pictures of rare and threatened animals, in particular the highly endangered Amur leopard and Amur tiger. This photograph of the Amur, or Siberian, tigress is one of only a very few shot in the wild, and almost certainly the best, enriched by such a striking landscape. It was the reward for spending months cooped up with a Russian colleague in a cramped hide.

The Amur Tiger

‘Photographers who have worked for 30 years might have seen it once,’ says Toshiji Fukuda. ‘The Amur tiger is a very rare species and encounters are rare – even Russian photographers have never seen this tiger. I had only seen it once before, in 1995. I was with two other photographers, who spotted it before I did. I could not see it, then I looked down, and it was only five metres away. But no-one had cameras ready. She began to walk away, and strangely, I wanted to stand where she had been. I had faith that she would not attack – females are not usually aggressive.’

When Fukuda heard that tiger tracks had been found on the shore of the Sea of Japan in Russia’s Lazovsky Nature Reserve, he knew that this was his opportunity, though ‘I was told in advance that if I waited for a whole winter, I might have one chance to see it or not, and at 63, I felt that it was my last chance.’ The enticement for the tiger was sika deer, driven by hunger to feed on seaweed on the shore.

Toshiji Fukuda’s colleague dug a hole into the steep slope overlooking the beach, and in it built a tiny hut, 3 metres long, 1.5 wide and 1.4 deep. There, for the next 74 days, in cold, cramped boredom, they lived, hardly talking to each other. ‘Only when cooking or needing to go to the toilet, did we need to talk. We felt that too much animated talk would make the tiger cautious and shy of us.

However, it was very stressful in that narrow space and how to co-exist as peacefully as possible was the biggest challenge. It was more of collaboration than a friendship. What I did most of the time was to translate Russian books into Japanese, and I consciously chose difficult old books, so it gave me the opportunity to question my colleague, and get his help. But our intentions were the same – we wanted to take photos – we had trust and respect because our purpose was united.’

Chances of Seeing a Tiger in Daylight Slim

Occasionally, at night they would hear growling and were glad of an electric fence around the hut. They knew that the chances of seeing a tiger in daylight were slim. Of the 300 or so Amur tigers left in the wild, under constant pressure from poaching and forest destruction, no more than 12 inhabit the Reserve. On Day 50, the 27 February 2012, Toshiji Fukuda was woken by crows screeching in alarm, audible through the closed window. ‘I instinctively knew that the Amur tiger had shown up. That morning it was very cold. I put on lots of clothes and very slowly opened the window. The clouds had cleared and it was a glorious, sunny morning. And there, just 150 metres away, was a tigress.

My first impression was what a beautiful animal – like a queen. She was very feminine, slim, with no unnecessary flesh, totally fit, her coat a lovely colour. Although there was lots of sound from the waves because we were on the seashore, she noticed me and stared at me for a while. And because she was a fearless queen, she just walked away, very slowly. To witness her shoulder muscles moving so elegantly, up and down, was astonishing.

The scene was divine – it was as if the goddess of the Taiga had appeared to me, and had allowed me to achieve my life-long dream. I had believed the goddess would give me one chance, and that she was on my side. There is still animism in Japan, so we believe that everything in nature and everyone has god-like qualities, including the tigress. In Russian taiga means ‘dense forest’, and in Japan its deity is female, which is why I use this word ‘goddess’ for the tiger.

‘So when she finally appeared, my head and my finger pressed the shutter without my thinking about it. I was very calm and peaceful; there was no excitement. My mind was completely empty, like that of a Zen priest. I just received as a matter of course what was meant to be. But my colleague was so excited, and he tried to change his lens, so missed the opportunity to take the photo.’

What is Wildlife Photography?

So what is ‘wildlife photography’? In essence it concentrates on capturing images of animals and other living creatures in their natural habitats. Often they are photographed in action – eating, fighting or in flight. Alternatively, more static shots show details of the animal or depict it in its environment like the Tiger Untrapped. Debate rages over whether photography of animals in captive, or controlled, situations is genuine wildlife or ‘nature’ photography. Other ethical concerns swirl around potential stress or even harm to wildlife of photographers ‘invading’ natural areas, and the veracity of digital manipulation.

Toshiji Fukuda, for instance, said he does not alter his images in post-production – ‘the power of the moment is more important’. However, he does use White Balance: ‘to get the light and colour, say of an early morning shot, as close to the original as possible’. Anselm Adams is famous for his poetic landscape photography in black and white, images that became abstracted works of art. But Fukuda declares firmly: ‘Black and white is more appropriate for portraits. I only use colour,’ although he shoots both landscape and wildlife images.

The History of Wildlife Photography

The history of wildlife or nature photography is as old as the medium itself. In 1826, a French scientist named Joseph Nicephore Niepce positioned his new invention at a window to take a landscape. In the 1890s, Cherry and Richard Kearton were the first professionals, using a hide in Yorkshire to capture fine images of birds, insects and mammals. In 1906, National Geographic magazine published photos taken at night using the new invention of ‘flash.’

Then in 1926 Charles Martin went underwater armed with cameras encased in waterproof housing and pounds of highly explosive magnesium flash powder. Telephoto and other lenses enabled macro images; infra-red and heat cameras added to the nighttime wildlife photography arsenal, and by 1986, it had become an important conservation tool. Greg Marshall had developed Crittercam, a camera that collects environmental data, allowing scientists to remotely observe animal behaviour.

Toshiji Fukuda Lived Near Nikko Nature Reserve

As a child Toshiji Fukuda collected butterflies and lived near the Nikko Nature Reserve. But this was the boom era for the Japanese economy, with consequent destruction of much natural life. By the age of 18, Toshiji Fukuda owned his first camera and was determined to capture what was left before it disappeared. He did not go to art school ‘because I felt that my interaction with nature was more important than technique’. This interaction includes capturing the relationship between animals and his portfolio contains charming shots of bears ‘dancing’ together and ‘kissing’ each other. ‘I like to take photos of animals having fun.’

As a result of 40 years as a professional photographer working in two arenas – the Far East of Russia and Japan – Fukuda has amassed several collections of endangered species and other wildlife, as well as landscapes. In Russia, his most famous series is of the two large wild cats – the Amur Tiger and Amur Leopard. In the guano-rich sea of Okhotsk lies Iony Island, which although only 700 metres long, is a vital sanctuary for sea lions and seabirds which Fukuda has been recording. His Polar Bear Collection has been amassed on Wrangel Island in the Russian Arctic, where the bears hunt walrus. His Landscape Collection is deeply poetic. In Japan, he has concentrated on two collections, of Steller’s Sea Eagles, and another in the north of the island at Hokkaido.

Japanese Landscape Painting

Japanese landscape painting has been a constant source of inspiration and the reason Fukuda says, why he went to Russia initially. ‘My memory of what Japanese landscape used to be like was alive in Russian landscape, and so I began taking photos of it. I was drawn to Russia because it enabled me to understand Japanese nature better.’ And there were direct links too, such as the biggest sea eagles in the world, which winter in Japan and nest in the Russian Far East. ‘It is as if you cannot see yourself by looking in a mirror. I can understand Japan better when I am distant from it.’

Toshiji Fukuda has been working with the Russian Academy of Sciences since 1991, and is an honorary member of their Far East branch of the Institute of Marine Biology. As a result, he has been given permission to enter nature reserves to which few others are allowed, and where he took Tiger Untrapped.

Away from Japan in Russia at least half of the year, one wonders about home life. ‘I was asked this at the recent award ceremony at the Royal Geographical Society, and I told the audience about a Japanese saying: ‘A good husband is healthy and not at home’. And there is a similar saying in Russia: ‘The best husband is a sailor’.’ Fukuda’s wife runs a photo agency to which other photographers contribute, as well as her husband. This permits Toshiji Fukuda to declare grandiloquently: ‘What I do is work, not business’.


The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition runs at the Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD, until 23 March 2014,