The Ethics of Wildlife Photography

A while ago a certain person had made a facebook post boasting how he and his friends had deliberately blocked the path of a tigress in order to get their shots. Only one person, one of India's finest wildlife photographers, publicly castigated this individual on facebook, but in retrospect the violator probably did not know better.

Much is made of ethical wildlife photography but little actually written about it, especially in India where the hobby has exploded over the last five years. This article attempts to address this lacuna specifically in the Indian context.

To begin with, part of the problem is with the overcrowding in parks. In its infinite wisdom the Supreme Court ruled that tourism must be confined to 20% of the park. Thus vehicles tend to overcrowd certain sections of the park whilst other areas do not see any vehicles at all!

Still further I do not advocate the adopting of the stand of some African conservancies which price their wildlife viewing at a premium. To begin with we do not have conservancies in India, a shortcoming beyond the scope of this article, and we cannot afford to price our wildlife tourism  out of reach of the common man.

Thus within these constraints let us consider the ethics of wildlife and nature photography in India.

The ethics of wildlife photography are founded on the basis that the welfare of the subject comes before the necessity of getting your image. Unfortunately, patience is a virtue more valued and scarce to come by in today’s world of instant gratification.

However it would seem that this basic tenet is found difficult to digest by most of our wildlife photographers.

The rules below also apply to your driver and guide. Much of what appears below is also relevant to wildlife tourism in general.

Start by being a decent wildlifer, by learning about the behavior of an animal or bird so you know the reasonable distance you can approach before causing the animal to flee because it is either disturbed or scared. Don’t be the photographer who parks his Gypsy on top of the head of the tiger and then stands up in the Gypsy to take pictures.

Don’t snap your fingers, sing, clap, whistle or dance to attract the attention of a sleeping or browsing animal. As mentioned be patient and wait until the opportunity presents itself. Don't rev the engine of the vehicle to provoke elephants to charge. In short don't be a complete and total jerk!

Avoid the use of flash. It disturbs wildlife. And avoid night safaris. To begin with they are illegal. Still further just as you need your time to yourself, so does wildlife. Leave them alone at night,

Don’t use your mobile phone in the forest to make calls. Nobody else is interested in your business, work, or personal issues. Still further, it ruins the experience of the forest for other users. And please, don’t play music on your mobile whilst waiting for an animal. Learn about the sounds of the forest, ask your guide about the origin of the names of particular parts of the forest, learn about the trees and shrubs around you.

The first image here was taken in Kanha, whilst waiting for a sleeping tigress to consider awaking, I noticed a langur eating the bark of a tree. On questioning, the guide told me it was a harra tree. A Google search informed me that this was Terminalia chebula used in Indian Ayurveda for a wide variety of uses, from a laxative to treating mouth ulcers.

Don’t indulge in loud conversation and laughter with people around you or in an adjoining Gypsy.

Don’t litter both inside as well as outside the park, try and carry as much plastic as possible out of the forest area. Try to eat and use the facilities before and after your safari. We understand if you are diabetic, but try not to carry crackling and noisy packets of biscuits and chips into the jungle. Incidentally, I see many photographers storing these items in their camera bags, a bad idea!

Do not feed the animals. Photographers sometimes tend to ignore this old tenet. What we eat may not suit the animals. I particularly notice this in the Masai Mara where packed lunches are the norm. Photographers throwing dozens of cakes at Superb starlings is not a pretty sight. Leaving your picnic area littered with chicken bones is both unsightly and stupid. Domestic chickens are not part of the food chain in the Mara.

In this vein baiting of wildlife with either dead or live bait is completely unacceptable as it alters the animals natural behaviour and makes them dependent on bait,

If you are a smoker carry a portable ash tray. If you don’t have one an empty  metal box (the kind in which you get mints) will suffice. Just don’t store it in your camera bag!

Treat your driver and guide with respect, they do not own pet tigers and leopards to show on cue. Trust their judgement, they enter the park almost every day, you don’t.

A quick word  on bird photography. Photographing birds at the nest is not encouraged. It disturbs the birds and often causes them to abandon the nest, especially when vehicle after vehicle stops at the nest.

Do not deliberately make birds fly to get flight shots and then continue pursuing them. They also need to rest. This also applies to animals like the blackbuck, they need to lie down and digest their cud, pursuing them endlessly will kill them.

Do your best to avoid offroading. It damages fragile plants and you may run over an unsuspecting small animal or a nesting bird.

With regard to macro photography do not freeze subjects or place them in the refrigerator so they stay still. Do not move macro subjects, it stresses them and may leave them exposed to predators.

I personally am not a fan of manhandled subjects, thus you won't find the ubiquitous head shots of snakes in my portfolio. 

Avoid photographing subjects that are restrained or boxed in.

When photographing flowers and fungi keep your ‘gardening’ i.e., removing minor distractions to the minimum.

Will following these guidelines get you better images? Yes, because your subjects will be relaxed and natural. Consider the second image below made at Tadoba's Jamunjhura waterhole. When all vehicles rushed to another area where a sighting had been reported, I chose to try this waterhole. We were the only vehicle and stayed away from the tigress, thus getting images of her totally relaxed.

Both images appear on Getty.

In conclusion I repeat that the welfare of the subject comes before the photograph. If you feel you are disturbing the subject back off.

Cheers and remember it's all about the light!


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