A walk on the wild side of life

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It could almost be play ... but it's hunting. This stunning shot, entitled White Water Fishing and taken by the French photographer Eric Lefranc, shows a young brown bear in the Katmai National Park in Alaska trying to catch a salmon at Brooks Falls.

Neck-high in water, the bear spent the day pouncing on fish in a turbulent spot below the falls, with varying success – and in this case, no success at all, because this salmon was one that got away.

The photograph is one of the remarkable wildlife images from this year's Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. Select entries from this year's contest will be displayed at the Natural History Museum from 23 October.

A total of 95 winning or commended pictures in 17 categories feature wild creatures in situations which range from the intimate to the highly dramatic, but none is less than arresting.

Some grab your attention because of the rarity of their subject, such as the shot by the British photographer Andrew Harrington of a leopard – but not a familiar African one.

It was an Amur leopard from the Russian Far East, which is now one of the world's rarest cats – no more than about 25 survive in the wild; Harrington spent two weeks in a hide to capture this shot.

Another creature that features in the exhibition is the puffin, which was captured by the Dutch photographer Jan Vermeer in the remote Varanger Fjord in Norway. Each year thousands of seabirds, including puffins kittiwakes, auks and fulmars fly back to the cliffs to breed, taking to the skies in shrieking spiralling flocks.

Some photographs are technically difficult, such as the French photographer Michel Loup's dreamy, half-in half-out of the water shot of a pike hanging beneath water lilies in the gin-clear water of a lake.

And some are simply mesmerising, such as the Dutch photographer Miles Kooren's image of a treesnake eating a gecko. The two fell from a tree in Lambir Hills National Park in Malaysia, and ended with the snake eating the gecko whole.

The category winners and overall winners – Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year – will be announced at an awards ceremony on 21 October, two days before the exhibition opens at the Natural History Museum; last year, it attracted nearly 161,000 visitors.

The exhibition will tour regional and international venues after its London debut, and more than one million others are expected to have seen the images at international and regional venues when the tour concludes.