Duke Kunshan Professor Named Nature Photographer of the Year

Stunning pictures of wildlife earn conservationist and Duke alumna Binbin Li one of China’s top prizes in nature photography

An award winning photograph showing 2 antelope in front of a snowy, jagged, mountainous landscape
Binbin Li’s award-winning shot of two rival male antelope roaming the Tibetan landscape in Qiangtang National Nature Reserve.
Binbin Li holding a camera crouched in the underbrush
Binbin Li

Duke Kunshan University professor and Duke alumna Dr. Binbin Li is highly revered in the environmental science field for her conservation work.

But her triumph in the flagship award of a national photography contest shows that her talents extend well beyond the traditional sphere of academia.

Li has been named nature photographer of the year in Chinese National Geography magazine’s third annual China Wildlife Image and Video Competition 2022, beating some of the country’s top professional wildlife photographers in the process.

The assistant professor of environmental science also won the nature reserve category for her stunning shot of two rival male antelope roaming the Tibetan landscape in Qiangtang National Nature Reserve.

Describing how the award-winning shot came about, Li said her team spotted the Tibetan antelopes, also known as chiru, locking horns in the distance during a check of camera traps for a wildlife survey they were doing in 2019.

“It was breeding season and the two males were fighting and chasing each other, between periods of rest,” she said.

“The wind was blowing the snow off the ground; all of these elements made this moment very special.

“The weather made our field day hard, cold and windy like hell. But it created this breathtaking moment and showed how beautiful it is when wildlife can freely roam in their unspoiled natural environment.”

Enjoy more of Li’s photography below, taken on location across China and beyond (story continues below):

Accepting her award during a Feb. 24 ceremony, Li said photography plays an important role in conservation and that in recent years she had been increasingly active in capturing animals on film to support her work.

“Taking photographs of the natural world helps me to more effectively communicate the significance of scientific findings and the urgency of our conservation efforts,” she said.

“They inadvertently create a connection between us and nature, changing our perception of it and even our expectations of ourselves.”

The professor told the ceremony that she had been inspired as a child to pursue a conservation career by a picture of Peking University’s Dr. Lu Zhi studying giant pandas in the wild.

The young Li spotted the picture hanging on the wall during a visit to the university as part of a middle school biology competition.

Li receives praise from Lu Zhi and Jane Goodall at the ceremony

Years later, she was presented her latest award by Zhi herself — who in turn credits chimpanzee expert Dr. Jane Goodall with influencing her own career — in the hope that Li would continue the chain of high-achieving conservationists inspiring the next generation of women into the field.

Goodall, who is one of the world’s most admired conservationists and a member of the competition’s academic committee, said she was “extremely impressed” by the way Li combined research and “wonderful” photography.

“You’ve had to shoot film and conduct research often in difficult conditions and you’ve had to succeed in a world where women are typically in the minority,” she told Li.

“I hope that this competition and your example will encourage more people — especially young people, including young women — to become involved in wildlife research and conservation.”

The photography prize, awarded by a jury of renowned photographers, nature publication editors and environmental experts, is the latest accolade to adorn Li’s mantelpiece.

Her DKU team last year received a Pineapple Science Award for its research into bird-window collisions.

Li earned her Ph.D. at Duke University and holds a secondary appointment there as an assistant professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. She has worked as a science adviser for the Disney nature documentary “Born in China” and holds editor positions at several conservation journals.