02/12/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
WHEN WAYNE BILENDUKE VENTURED OUT ONTO THE TUNDRA NEAR HIS home in Churchill, Man., to photograph the largest annual congregation of polar bears in the world, he was hoping to see something out of the ordinary. Then the 35-year-old freelancer got lucky. In front of him were three large bears playfully tugging on a discarded tire. "One rolled the tire away from the others," he writes, "then lay on his back and raised it in the air as if to say 'I am the champion!' "
As the pictures on these pages attest, wildlife photographers seem to have more than their share of good luck—capturing just the right moment, in perfect light. But most of these images, drawn from the prestigious British Gas Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition, testify to the accuracy of the dictum coined by baseball Hall of Famer Branch Rickey: Luck is the residue of design. Photographers who work in the wild often wait days, even weeks, to bag their prey. But their photographs can be unique—a family of penguins clustered on a cerulean iceberg in Antarctica or a fox cub gazing adoringly at its mother. The winners and the runners-up in the 1995 competition, 88 in all, can be seen at the Houston Museum of Natural Science this week and thereafter in Jamestown, N.Y. (Feb. 25-April 7), Lawrence, Kans. (June 21-Sept. 6), and San Diego (Sept. 27-Nov. 8).