EACH year the British Natural History Museum, the BBC and Veolia Environment invite the nature photographers from around the world to submit their best images for competition. Now, in its 45th year, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition is an international showcase for the very best nature photographs. Winning a prize in one of its 17 categories has become the ultimate accolade, one that wildlife photographers worldwide aspire to.

In 2009 there were over 43,000 entries from 94 countries and a distinguished panel of 16 nature photographers awarded the Wildlife Photographer of the Year prize of 10,000 pounds sterling to Jose Luis Rodriguez for his picture of the very rare Iberian wolf. The image and its photographer received much acclaim. The photograph was captioned as ‘The storybook wolf’.

Here is how his photograph feat was described in the official magazine produced by the three sponsor organisations:

‘When Jose Luis realised that he had got the shot of his dreams - one that he had even sketched on paper - he couldn’t quite believe it. From the start, his fear had been that the wolves would be too wary. Iberian wolves, a subspecies of grey wolf, has always been persecuted, and as a result only 1,000-2,000 survive in the wild. People see the wolves as a threat to livestock, which they hunt when natural food is scarce, and there is also superstition and ignorance about the supposed danger they pose. And yet, though wolves have lived very close to humans for centuries, there are no verified incidences of them attacking people.

Jose Luis risked a slow-shutter speed to reveal the moonlit sky and conjure up the atmosphere of his chosen location. He also switched from his usual Nikon D2X to a Hasselblad to get the exact framing that he had in mind. What Jose hopes is that his picture, “which shows the wolf’s great agility and strength”, will be used to highlight just how beautiful the Iberian wolf is and how the Spanish can be proud to share their country with such an emblematic animal.’

One of the photographers on the judging panel, Jim Brandenberg wrote: ‘This wolf jumping over the farmer’s enclosure, with the supposed intent of killing his livestock, speaks for itself - thousands of years of history are frozen in this masterfully executed moment. The photograph is also much, much more technically complex and difficult to achieve than one would imagine.’

In the middle of January 2010 this photograph and the photographer were exposed as frauds. Jose Luis Rodriguez had hired the Iberian wolf called Ossian from a Madrid wildlife park and fabricated a photo shoot. This was a sensational international embarrassment for the prestigious prize and its sponsors.

The revelation contradicted the photographer’s elaborate claims that this extraordinary image had been taken ‘in the wild after months of painstaking tracking of the cryptic species in its natural locations’.

The organisers of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year were tipped off to suspicions about the faked nature of the image by other Spanish photographers who recognised the wolf and the wildlife park. Wolf experts also questioned why a wolf would jump the gate when a wild animal was more likely to squeeze between the railings. 

After the photographer was unable to corroborate his story and there was no one that could act as a witness to back him up, he was disqualified from the award and ordered to refund the prize money.

At the British Museum of Natural History where the prize-winning photographs were initially displayed, organisers were hurriedly planning to erect a notice to explain to visitors that the prize winning photo was stage-managed.  It was too late to remove the image from the tens of thousands of books, cards and calendars that had been published by BBC Worldwide to coincide with the first exhibition in London.

Another miffed photographer on the judging panel, Chris Gomersall said: ‘In wildlife photography there are ethical guidelines and there has always been an explicit understanding that if you take pictures of a captive subject you declare it on your caption.’

Rodriguez was not contactable after the truth was revealed, but the competition organisers stated that he continued to deny the wolf was ‘tame’.

The chairman of the judging panel, Mark Carwardine said: ‘I remember thinking, “my God, this is really a wild wolf. What an achievement”. …I don’t understand the mentality at all. People feel very disappointed with the photographer.’