Why do photography ethics matter? If we take pictures that harm our subjects, no one will want to be photographed. If we manipulate our images and deceive our audience, no one will trust us. If we are not ethical in how we use photography, we risk jeopardising the integrity of the industry as a whole.
Taking steps to make sure that your wildlife photography practice is as ethical as possible is important not only for the animals and plants you photograph, but also for your work. When done right, wildlife and nature photography can be a great tool for raising awareness about endangered species and environments in need of conservation. However, when done wrong, people are mislead, grey areas emerge, and wildlife and habitats are harmed for the sake of a picture.
Wildlife photography needs to be conducted with distinction and grace. It requires an inhuman amount of patience that very few people possess. It’s okay to become a non-invasive part of an animal’s surroundings in an attempt to get closer, but you skirt the line when you intentionally disrupt that animal’s day-to-day life by trying to get a photo. Acting out, and thereby forcing a reaction, does nothing to produce a natural looking image. It only causes harm to your subjects.
Ethical wildlife and nature photography is more important now than in times past because there are strong indicators for the presence of a 6th mass extinction event. With the IUCN predicting that 99.9% of critically endangered species and 67% of endangered species may be lost within the next 100 years (IUCN, 2019).
Wildlife is under pressure from habit loss, including pollution, climate change, poaching, deforestation, human activity such as intentional and unintentional habitat destruction of protected species, illegal wildlife trade, habituation and disturbance etc.
In both the US and UK, there is very little regulation of the photographic industry. Therefore, the wildlife and nature photographer must not add to the aforementioned problems in the way of baiting, manipulating, interfering, or abusing an animal, or smaller than us creature for the sake of a photo or selfie.
There are many people that want to be (and claim to be) photographers. However, photography is about much more than ‘point and shoot’. The wildlife and nature photographer must be knowledgably about the technical aspects of their devices before shooting their subject, such as shutter speed, composition, lighting, lenses, tripods and more.
The objective of this study article is to educate photographers (of all grades) about ethical photography, and to debunk and question numerous immoral photography practices. Furthermore, this dissertation has not been authored to harass, offend or smear individuals or organisations concerning what they believe is professional and moral photography.
“Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time”Tweet
Game reserves are home to hundreds of thousands of animals. Many of these animals are categorised as dangerous game, and sensible precautions to minimize the risk of human species conflict include:
- Remaining in a secure motor vehicle or adequately fenced precincts while in the vicinity of large mammals
- Rigidly observing nature reserve instructions
- Never approaching animals that appear sick, malnourished, displaying aggressive behaviour traits or female wild animals with young
- Demanding adequately trained and experienced game rangers when embarking on walking trails or vehicle safaris
- Never feed the animals
The above precautions are mentioned in most national park glossaries, tourist handbooks, and on game reserve signposts.
Any behaviour that might be construed as antagonistic (see video below) which could provoke an animal to attack should be avoided at all costs, especially if there’s young in the area, females are gestating, or a bull (male) elephant is in musth.
Furthermore, it’s considered good practice to consult with an experienced game ranger, conservationist, or wildlife tour guide before taking images of vulnerable or endangered fauna, especially unpredictable mega-fauna.
The video above is believed to have been recorded back in 1975 close to the border of Angola, Southern Africa, which later featured in a shock horror film called Traces of Death. Traces of Death is a collection of archive film and borrowed stock footage, notorious for its pointless exploitative content.
The brief clip depicts a film photographer on vacation with his family at a game reserve, however, for reasons unknown he decided to leave the safe confines of the families car to photograph a nearby pride of lions.
Unfortunately, the photographer was viciously mauled to death in front of his horrified family by three lionesses. Today this video is televised in several ranger schools to educate wardens, game rangers, and the public about the dangers of national parks and game reserves.
While human species conflict is considered rare within game reserves, a minority of tourists continue to violate the rules whereby such incidents do occur. The image below was snapped in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand, depicting an Asian bull elephant trashing a tourists car.
The tourists ventured too close to the endangered Asian elephant provoking the animal to attack. Fortunately, these tourists survived to tell the tale. Sadly, On the 15th January 2021, in the same park, Coconuts Bangkok reported that a tourist had been killed by an Asian bull elephant in musth that trampled the tourists campsite.
Mega-fauna attract photographic tourists from all over the world. However, caution must always be demonstrated when photographing said animals up-close. After scrutinizing hundreds of images and videos with expert animal behaviourists, veterinarians and zoologists. Concern was raised with regards to the animal’s behaviour, and the close proximity of the photographer/videographer.
Whilst some of these incidents have gone viral causing alarm and concern, a minority of tourists continue to engage in close proximity wildlife photography. On the 12th May 2021, NBC reported yet another incident of a grizzly bear charging a photographic tourist. The tourist seen in the image below could have been mauled or even killed due to her own stupidity.
Until recently, grizzly bear attacks were considered rare however, fatalities are on the increase. On the 1st May, 2021, a woman was found dead after being mauled by a grizzly bear. The Durango resident was believed to have gone walking with her two dogs earlier that Friday, according to information provided to the La Plata County Sheriff’s office by her boyfriend. The victim had last communicated with her boyfriend late in the morning.
While this report is not photography or game reserve related it goes without saying that extreme caution must always be demonstrated in regions where there’s an abundance of dangerous wildlife and mega-fauna.
In recent years, there’s also been a slight increase of elephant and tourist related conflicts within African and Asian game reserves which has lead to some parks banning tourists, and tour guides that violate park rules.
The video below from 2017 demonstrates how hostile and hot-tempered a bull elephant can become when tourists venture too close. This bull was in musth which soon became irritable and aggressive charging the tourist’s at speed. Therefore maintaining a safe distance is always advised for both tourists and animals’ safety.
Despite warnings and advice concerning the dangers posed in African game reserves and national parks, many tourists continue to overlook this advice and flout the rules. I and animal behaviourists scrutinised numerous online videos showing photographic tourists outside of their cars being chased by mega-fauna.
Furthermore, we located several concerning videos showing tourists hanging out of car windows and sunroofs in close proximity to dangerous wildlife placing themselves in grave danger.
In addition, we viewed numerous videos and images of which tourists were not giving animals enough space during their photography sessions. Such behaviour is considered to be reckless, and totally irresponsible by wildlife experts.
The image below is one of many alarming examples that regularly occurs during the tourism season in the Kruger National Park. Crowding an elephant can provoke alarm and distress leading to human species conflict, however, these tourists didn’t seem too bothered despite the bull showing obvious signs of stress.
In recent years, game reserves and national parks on the African continent have reported an increase of visiting tourists. However, reports of wildlife harassment, and other misbehaviour from visitors has escalated too.
On the 16th May 2021, experts and I examined videos and stories depicting human species conflict concerning rhinoceros, hippopotamus, great white sharks, baboons, giraffes and leopards of which it was agreed this behaviour was thoughtless and insouciant. Furthermore, when tourists are attacked by mammals, such stories can be exceptionally newsworthy with potentially deleterious effects on tourism.
The flouting of park rules stems from disbelief among visitors that they will get hurt, said Yellowstone superintendent Dan Wenk. “I can’t tell you how many times I have to talk to people and say, ‘Step back. There’s a dangerous animal,’ and they look at me like I have three heads,” he said.
Wildlife harassment isn’t just confined to game reserves or national parks. On the 11th May 2018, the Metro reported a family being chased by cheetahs at a safari park. The video below demonstrates just how quickly things can go wrong when we humans don’t follow the rules.
All photographers seen in the video should have been in the safe confines of their vehicles. Furthermore, they’re incredibly lucky to have not been injured. While cheetahs may come across as charismatic and charming, they should never be underestimated as seen in the video above.
Regardless of whether you’re using a telephoto lens in the safety of your vehicle, or even a 4WD Bakkie with an armed ranger; every wild and/or captive animal must be treated with respect, compassion, and dignity.
In addition to using common-sense when operating in African or Asian game reserves, one must always be vigilant. Hence why you’re not permitted to vacate your vehicle, or roll down your windows where dangerous wildlife are roaming.
“Alas, there’s always that one individual that believes the rules don’t apply to them”
On the 10th November 2019, Fstoppers reported a story regarding yet another elephant and photographer related incident in India’s West Bengal State. Unfortunately, the photographer stood no chance, and was crushed to death by a four tonne Asiatic elephant.
Fstopper, Jack Alexander reported:
“In what is the eighth trampling death in India’s West Bengal state in a period of just 10 days, a photographer has tragically been killed.
It’s reported that the man, a keen photographer, had ventured too close to the elephants, enraging them and ultimately leading to his untimely death.
Asish Shit, 35, was from Howrah, Calcutta, and had approached a wild herd of 12 elephants, which he discovered when exploring forests around the Atadihi area of Sankrail with a friend. He ended up getting too close, which caused the commotion.”
Arup Mukherjee, the divisional forest officer in charge, said of the incident:
“Shit went to take photographs of some elephants that were roaming in the local forest. He went very close to the elephant that trampled him. He was taken to the Bhangagarh hospital where doctors declared him dead on arrival.”Fstoppers
Elephants are usually peaceful animals that form close family ties, and care for each other. They work as a team to protect the young if there is a threat. Females may, however, be aggressive when young calves are present and bulls can be exceptionally aggressive during musth. All elephants may become aggressive when sick, injured or harassed.
On the 21st August 2014, SANParks reported yet another human and elephant conflict in the Sable Dam near Phalaborwa Gate of the Kruger National Park of which an elephant overturned a vehicle driven by local tourists. A local doctor rushed to the scene of the accident to attend to tourists immediately, fortunately, only minor injuries were reported.
The elephant was busy drinking water from the dam on the opposite side of where the vehicle was, when it suddenly walked through the water towards one of the tourists’ car; which was on the other side. The end result is pictured below.
On the 3rd February 2017, a BBC film crew working on a documentary in Botswana were moments away from being attacked by a humiliated leopard that had been chased up a dead tree by wild dogs.
However, unbeknownst to the film crew that were following the chase, they had unintentionally strayed too close to the angry leopard. Furthermore, the team had no armed ranger, and were travelling in a 4WD open-roof Bakkie which had no windows or protection.
Within minutes the leopard soon turned its attention towards the film crew of which it tried to attack the documentary team. Fortunately, cameraman Richard Jones thwarted the attack. However, it could have easily ended in tragedy.
Contrary to popular perception, game reserves are not home to just dangerous mega-fauna. Game reserves host all sorts of menacing animals which could take you by surprise. On the 13th December 2011, the Daily Mail reported that a British student training to be a safari guide in South Africa died less than an hour after being bitten by a black mamba snake.
Nathan Layton, 28, did not realise he had been bitten while helping to capture the reptile at the college where he and his girlfriend were studying. But within an hour, he complained of blurred vision, collapsed and suffered a cardiac arrest. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Game reserves are large areas of land set aside as a “protected area” for wildlife. One of the earliest examples of a game reserve is the Kruger National Park. Most game reserves are located in Africa that cover hundreds of thousands of miles, serving as a conservation tool for wildlife.
The first tourist to be attacked by an animal in the Kruger National Park occurred in the 1930’s involving a sable antelope. The photographer apparently got out of his car near Pretoriuskop to take a photograph of a sable behind a tree. When he was about six metres from the object of his photographic intentions, it suddenly charged at him, impaling his thigh with one of its metre-long horns.
Fortunately, this tourist lived to tell the tale, unfortunately, some tourists don’t. The story concerning Jacques van der Sandt, 29, who was dragged under the water by a crocodile should be enough to remind the public of the dangers regarding wildlife in game reserves.
Despite all the media coverage concerning wildlife attacks and harassment it would appear a minority of tourists continue to ignore these warnings. In addition, wildlife selfie crazes seem to be the in-thing too which has resulted in many animals suffering, and sadly dying as a direct result of tourist harassment.
On the 1st September 2018, The Islander reported the death of a moose that had been harassed by baying photographic tourists. DIY Photography stated in a news report on the 4th September 2018:
“This weekend, a moose drowned in Vermont because of people who were taking photos of it. The crowd scared the animal into the water, and it drowned from exhaustion, according to the reports.
According to The Grand Isle County Sheriff’s Department, the moose had most likely already swum a few miles to cross Lake Champlain from New York state.
Sheriff Ray Allen says that the animal made its way out of the water and it was exhausted. When the moose tried to rest, people crowded it and scared it back into the water, where it drowned from exhaustion.
The Islander writes that a moose chooses between two options when it feels endangered: it will either leave the area to avoid the threat or become aggressive to defend itself. This moose decided to leave and hide from the danger that he saw in the crowd of people with cameras – but it pushed the poor animal into death.
A witness told The Independent that the area where the moose got out of the water was near a bicycle path. It was “busy during the tourist season, with numerous boats and vehicles nearby.” Sheriff Ray Allen says that, while it’s amazing to see these creatures, “they are wild animals and should be left alone/viewed from a distance.”
He adds that, if you see a large animal like this, you should report it to Vermont Fish and Game immediately. Only this way the tragic situations like this can be avoided, according to Allen.”DIY Photography
“The craze for wildlife photography has increased, but unfortunately, there is no understanding of ecology or animal behaviour amongst most photographers.
We have attempted to create an awareness that the quest for the perfect shot may be detrimental for the species and how repeated off-roading on a wild landscape harms the ecosystem.”Ramki Sreenivasan, co-founders of wildlife portal Conservation India
Photographic tourists that engage in close proximity wildlife photography often overlook how detrimental their behaviour can be when things do go wrong.
For example, had the elephant (seen in the images above) been in musth or was spooked by the reckless photographers. Rangers would have been left with no other option but to shoot the five tonne beast had it charged at the tourists.
Alas, rangers cannot babysit every tourist hence why all African game reserves issue indemnity contracts to all visitors before they embark on their safari. An indemnity agreement is a contract that ‘holds a business or company harmless’ for any burden, loss, or damage. An indemnity agreement also ensures proper compensation is available for such loss or damage.
New York Times journalist, Ariel Levy once said: “Daring to think that the rules do not apply is the mark of a visionary. It’s also a symptom of narcissism.” And with every narcissist comes problems, danger, and in some cases death.
On the 14th January 2014, the Daily Mail reported a terrifying moment a teacher was gored by an elephant through her door as it flipped her car and flung it 40 yards in the Kruger National Park.
Sarah Brooks, 30, and her fiancé were filming the animal from their car as it drank at a waterhole when it turned and went for them. It flipped their vehicle and shunted it around 130ft down a track into thick bushland.
The elephant’s tusk ripped through Miss Brooks’ upper thigh during the ordeal at the Kruger National Park in South Africa. The attack was filmed by tourists travelling in a car behind. The teacher, from Spalding in Lincolnshire, was airlifted to hospital where she required several days of treatment.
The tourists were witnessed edging closer and closer to the African bull elephant ignoring all advice given at the gate, and disregarding their indemnity contract. Park officials later shot the elephant which was in musth, a periodic condition in males that makes them aggressive when their testosterone levels rise by up to 60 times.
It was also claimed the elephant had an injury which is believed to have increased its aggressiveness. Nevertheless, the incident sparked outrage among animal activists, and members of the public when rangers shot the elephant dead.
On the 13th August 2018, the BBC reported that a Taiwanese tourist had been killed after being bitten in the chest by a hippo he was trying to photograph in Kenya at the Lake Naivasha Sopa Resort.
Chang Ming Chuang, 66, was tracking the animal at a wildlife resort on Lake Naivasha, 90km (56 miles) north-west of the capital, Nairobi. A second tourist, also from Taiwan, was injured too. Wildlife officials later shot dead the hippo.
On the 3rd July 2015, the Citizen reported that a leopard had been euthanised after attacking a Kruger park tour operator (see video below).
In a statement, SANParks said the guide, Curtis Plumb, 38, was with about eight tourists on his vehicle and watching the leopard about two metres from it on Thursday at about 1pm.
The animal cunningly disappeared; it probably went around the guide’s side while the group was still searching for it. Suddenly, the leopard leapt and grabbed his arm, trying to jump into the vehicle, Lowvelder reported.
On the 2nd April 2017, Kruger Park Videos uploaded a rather chilling video depicting photographic tourists hanging out of their car windows at a lion sighting in the Kruger National. Fortunately, no one was injured, and rangers didn’t need to euthanise an endangered species.
With the correct camera equipment and patience, wild animals in game reserves can be snapped quite effortlessly without winding down your windows. Clean your windows before entering game reserves, and take decent car window cleaner to wash bugs off and to reduce shine and glare.
Furthermore, practice your aim and style like photographer Chad Barry writes for PetaPixel. Barry uses a Canon 7D Mark II with a 1.6x crop sensor, the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II, and a Canon 1.4x Extender. This combo gives Barry the equivalent of a ~900mm f/8 lens.
While human species conflict is considered uncommon in game reserves, when such incidents do occur, the press and media have a field day. Negative press can tarnish the reputation of game reserves, many of which rely on tourism as a source of profit to protect threatened game reserve animals.
Furthermore, the vast majority of incidents that involve direct human species conflict have been provoked by photographic tourists, while reserves themselves were to blame for a very small number of incidents.
Game reserves provide animals with food, shelter and security. Moreover, many of these animals are threatened ranging from lions, leopards, cheetahs, giraffes, rhino, elephant, blue crane, vultures and wild dogs to name a handful of species. Therefore its critically important that all tourists follow game park rules during their safari.
Close proximity wildlife tourism has also been blamed for anthropogenic disturbance and psychological stress in Indian tigers and African cheetahs too. If the animals are subjected to prolonged stress, their survival and reproduction will be at risk.
Elevated stress hormones can also negatively impact big cat growth and immunity. It is important for tourist vehicles entering the parks to be regulated and human disturbances should be greatly minimized to conserve the existence of these already endangered animals.
Photography organisations, social media platforms, and the media also have a duty of responsibility to protect endangered game reserve animals too. Images depicting up-close wildlife photography must be scrutinised and investigated further to ensure park rules have been adhered too. Failing this, where one is seen to break the rules, others will surely follow, and the circle of abuse goes on and on.
Wildlife encounters are establishments where tourists can directly or indirectly interact with captive animals for a variety of purposes ranging from photography, vlogging, voluntarism, private safaris, and big cat walks etc.
Definitions of a wildlife encounter range from:
- Petting farms
- Animal sanctuaries
- Private safaris
- Animal parks and lodges
- Photography game farms
- Roadside zoos and sanctuaries
- Private game parks
- Wildlife encounters
Wildlife encounters do not host free roaming wild animals. Meaning, all animals are caged, fenced-in, or confined to large farms or parks. Additionally, these establishments operate under various guises whereby they hoodwink unsuspecting volunteers and tourists into visiting and participating in various activities.
All of the above examples constitutes as a wildlife encounter. Some companies may even refer to themselves as a ‘wildlife encounter’ however, many businesses tend to use the terms: sanctuaries, rehabs or animal game parks because it directly promotes what the company is allegedly operating as.
Some wildlife encounters tout themselves as charities and conservation orientated whereby they claim to operate wildlife rehabilitation programmes, human and species conflict projects and volunteer programmes.
The image below was taken at the the N/a’an ku sê Foundation that claims:
“To be a paradise nestled deep in the bush, where orphaned animals are raised with dedication, their natural needs being carefully considered, tending away from the feeling of “captivity” – instead creating an environment where their instinctive behaviours are nurtured and encouraged. Only those carnivores too ill, abused or habituated remain at the sanctuary that is N/a’an ku sê.”N/a’an ku sê Foundation
Captive animals cannot be nurtured or encouraged to behave as they would in the wild if humans are imprinted onto them. The N/a’an ku sê Foundation claims to release some captive animals back into the wild. However, after researching the organisation, it’s evidently clear that the establishments animals are released into a ‘fenced in sanctuary’, aka (game park, lodge, farm or private safari).
Wildlife encounters are dangerous establishments that allow tourists to imprint themselves onto captive animals for profit. Furthermore, they rarely show any evidence of rehabilitation programmes, and what evidence they do show is questionable among animal welfare watchdogs.
In recent years, photography game farms have come under the spotlight too concerning appalling animal welfare conditions, animal trafficking and intensive breeding.
Furthermore, it has been alleged that several photography game farms in America and Southern Africa have links to illegal animal breeders, and the canned hunting industry. Due to ongoing investigations concerning these allegations names and organisations cannot be identified for legal reasons.
Back in 2020, so-called animal lover and professional photographer David Yarrow rented animals from Animals of Montana, a photography game farm that was known for its brutal animal welfare conditions, animal trafficking, and poor animal husbandry.
Soon after David Yarrow’s controversial visit, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) ordered the farm to close due to multiple violations concerning the handling of animals dating back to 2015 (see report above). The photography game farm was closed down in May 2021.
Melissa Groo, an Associate Fellow at International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), succinctly points out that:
“David Yarrow is infamous among wildlife photographers for his disrespect of wildlife and what’s best for them; both wild and captive animals.
He has been a long time supporter of the game farm Animals of Montana, and the owner Troy Hyde. Yarrow also openly talks about how he chases giraffes to get shots of them running.
Animals are nothing more than props to him. He cares nothing for their welfare. It’s upsetting to so many, and he needs to be aware that it matters, and we are watching.”Melissa Groo
One could interpret zoological gardens as a wildlife encounter however, most zoos will not allow visitors to directly or indirectly interact with their animals. Some zoos will allow some close, highly supervised interaction with animals such as penguins or koala bears that might be beneficial to both the animals, and the visitors. However, even this is frowned upon by most zoologists.
The vast majority of zoological societies will be affiliated with an approved governmental association such as the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums, commonly known as (BIAZA). Furthermore, most zoos require a licence if they’re housing or showcasing non-endemic exotic animals and native species.
In addition, zoos may also be operating as a charitable and educational research institute too. Zoos that do not have a registered charity number, or are not affiliated with renowned associations or individuals could be a wildlife encounter therefore, its best to research before visiting.
The image below is a screengrab from Michigan State University, Department of Zoology (MSU) detailing all non-accredited zoos, aquariums, nature wildlife centres, and refuges. Some organisations on this list are genuine start-up zoos however, the majority are wildlife encounters therefore, it’s imperative to always investigate before parting with cash.
As with zoos, some people may interpret wildlife rehabs as a wildlife encounter too. However, genuine wildlife rehabilitation organisations do not allow members of the public to interact with their animals either, be it directly or indirectly.
Wildlife rehabs often treat captured, sick and trafficked animals, many of which are released back into the wild. Therefore, any type of unnecessary human imprinting can be severely counterproductive as confirmed by Dr D. J. Renney, MRCVS, Chairman, Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management (VAWM).
On the 11th October 2021, I reached out to the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management to understand more about human imprinting on animals in captivity.
On the 13th October 2021, Dr D. J. Renney, MRCVS said:
“As Jon points out, animals undergoing rehabilitation are subjected to two stressors – captivity and handling/human contact.
Studies on captive reared and rehabilitated foxes cubs showed behavioural abnormalities in the foxes after release into the wild (Roberston and Harris 1995).
The release of animals from captivity frequently leads to a period of erratic movement behaviour which is thought to expose the animal to a high risk of mortality.
This pattern of movement was compared with the dispersal behaviour of wild-reared foxes. It was concluded that released foxes, despite being proficient in other aspects of behaviour, were moving and behaving in a markedly abnormal manner and this resulted in a high death rate.
Survival rates were low, and road traffic accidents were found to be a major cause of mortality immediately following release.
The stress associated with captive-rearing meant that released foxes weighed less than wild-reared foxes, and they suffered further weight loss in the period immediately following release.
The effects of prenatal handling stress on adrenal weight and function and behaviour in farm-reared blue fox cubs in Norway was studied (Braastad 1998). The prenatal stress on female foxes, given one-minute daily handling stress in the last third of gestation, results indicated that prenatal stress to the female may enhance the postnatal adrenocortical function and a higher behavioural reactivity in novel situations of the female offspring.
The behavioural and physiological causation and pathogenesis of these abnormalities are open to discussion at present.
I would suggest that additional reasons to prevent human contact with rehabilitated animals would be on health and safety grounds – to prevent human wounding by the animal – and to prevent potential (subclinical) disease transmission from animal to human.“
Robertson, C P J; Harris, S; 1995. The Behaviour After Release of Captive-reared Fox Cubs. Animal Welfare, Volume 4, Number 4, pp. 295-306(12)
Robertson, C P J; Harris, S; 1995. The Condition and Survival Affer Release of Captive-reared Fox Cubs: Animal Welfare, Volume 4, Number 4, pp. 281-294(14)
Braastad, B.O a, Osadchuk, L.V b, Lund, G a, Bakken, M a. 1998. Effects of prenatal handling stress on adrenal weight and function and behaviour in novel situations in blue fox cubs ( Alopex lagopus). Applied Animal Behaviour Science 57(1):157-169D. J. Renney, MRCVS
Wildlife encounters deliberately set about to mislead people, especially in Southern Africa. The vast majority of wildlife encounters surveyed in Southern Africa (2018-2021) claim to protect endangered species, conserve the habitat, protect keystone species, and run anti-poaching and hunting prevention projects.
In addition, the owners of these establishments make out their premises are safe, and that all animals are well cared for. Unfortunately, that’s the the “con in conservation” which dupes many tourists.
Up until recently, lion petting farms in South Africa were making a booming trade providing tourists with an up-close predator cat encounter. Lion cubs were bred on farms in the country for tourists to pet and pose with, sadly when the cubs grew too big to be handled they were sent off to be canned hunted.
The gruesome image below demonstrates the final phase of this so-called conservation orientated big cat petting industry which touts itself as a wildlife encounter. Lion bones are exported to the Asian medicine market to produce fake tiger bone wine.
The South African petting and canned hunting industry was under a great deal of scrutiny back in 2017. Multiple investigations conducted by activists and wildlife biologists exposed widespread cruelty, animal trafficking and horrific animal welfare conditions, all of which was being funded by tourists.
Finally, on the 2nd May 2021, after years of protests, petitions and investigations the South African government banned lion breeding, and the lion canned hunting industry however, there’s still a long way to go.
While the ban is excellent news for activists there remains a number of loopholes in the law that require addressing. Back in May 2021, I reached out to an investigative criminologist in wildlife crime for further clarification concerning these loopholes. Due to legal reasons, and the potential for litigation I cannot name my source.
A South African criminologist said:
“Minister Creecy announced on the 3rd May 2021, that the High-Level Panel recommended that South Africa would no longer breed captive lions, keep lions in captivity, or use captive lions or their derivatives commercially. She has instructed her Department to put processes in place to halt:
1. The sale of captive lion derivatives, including the appropriate disposal of existing lion bone stockpiles and lion bone from euthanised lions.
2. The hunting of captive bred lions.
3. Tourist interactions with captive lions, including, so-called voluntourism, cub petting, etc.
The High-Level Panel (HLP) identified several loopholes in the existing legislation, such as NEMBA and TOPS, that they would like to see changed (see for example pp 115-118 of the HLP report).
All HLP recommendations for captive lions, supported by the majority of the panel, were approved by Cabinet in April 2021.
We have no insight as yet with regard to timelines for the implementation of these changes. However, any amendments to existing legislation and/or promulgation of new legislation will need to go through the proper legal procedures that include public participation.
The Minister was clear in her announcement that she has instructed her department to immediately begin implementing her directives (such as changing the terms of the permits) even whilst legislative promulgation is underway.”Source (redacted for legal reasons)
Unfortunately, the ban on canned hunting and breeding of lions concerns that species only. The ban does not prevent tourists from visiting South African wildlife encounters that house cheetahs, leopards, or tigers, etc. Furthermore, tourists can still legally interact with all non-lion predators at South African petting farms, lodges and game parks too.
After conducting weeks of research and liaising with investigators in Southern Africa. I located several wildlife encounters in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Zambia many of which are operating under the same banner as South African wildlife encounters.
‘LOOKS CAN BE DECEIVING’
One so-called conservation organisation that caught my eye is that of ‘Wildlife Encounter‘ located in Zimbabwe. While the name appears to be a dead give away the organisation and its affiliates do appear legitimate however, looks can be very deceiving concerning these types of businesses.
Wildlife Encounter boasts an awareness and fundraising centre for a world-first captive to wild lion rehabilitation and release program, as well as a multitude of conservation and community development initiatives.
Furthermore, the organisation is affiliated with several safari operators, national parks, safari guide schools, and the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) all of which paints a rather nondeceptive picture.
Nonetheless, the image (seen below) paints another story which the organisation does not advertise on its website. Wildlife Encounter do advertise a Roar and Snore and Lion Encounter on their website however, both activities do not involve direct human and predator cat interaction.
After studying the companies Facebook page, it soon becomes apparent that Wildlife Encounter are operating as a pseudo conservation organisation funded primarily by wildlife photographers and videographers.
Additionally, while the company ranks high on Trip Advisor negative customer feedback paints the same widespread problems regarding these establishments.
On the 4th May 2021, I emailed Wildlife Encounter asking them to furnish me with evidence regarding their conservation work, and their so-called captive to wild lion rehabilitation and release program which any competent conservation organisation can easily make available.
At the time of publishing this article, Wildlife Encounter did not reply back to my email.
On the 6th May 2021, I contacted the NSPCA in South Africa concerning Wildlife Encounters so-called captive lion and rehabilitation projects. The reason for my email was down to genuine concern.
If Wildlife Encounter are genuinely releasing captive reared predators into national parks it places tourists, native inhabitants and farm animals at risk of being attacked or even killed by a semi-wild big cat.
A chairman from the NSPCA stated the following:
“Wild animals that were born and raised in captivity would not survive if they were just released back into the wild. They may face various challenges in fending for themselves.
The risk also lies in them being humanised and, as such, seeing humans as a food source and losing the fear of humans may result in injuries to people.
Once the animal has served its purpose in the relevant part of the cycle, the animal is either used for breeding, kept in an enclosure for the rest of its life for the entertainment of the public or used for canned hunting”The National Council of SPCAs
In addition to contacting the NSPCA, I also reached out to an investigate organisation regarding my concerns. Due to legal reasons and the potential for litigation the investigators name has been redacted from my report.
On the 1st June 2021, I received the following email concerning Wildlife Encounter:
“Wildlife Encounter are not directly involved in hunting trips, although they are associated with Antelope Park and its owner who is known to have a history of hunting and breeding lions.
In addition, they exploit lions for commercial gain through petting and walking with lions activities with no proven success of rewilding lions at their sister organisation, Lion Alert (https://lionalert.org/).
We recommend having a look at the Facebook page Volunteers in Africa Beware. They keep a “Good, Bad and Ugly” list on their page where you can find a wealth of information about facilities that offer volunteer experiences (including facilities in Zimbabwe and beyond).
Unfortunately, we cannot give our thoughts on any properties in particular, but advise members of the public to ask as many questions about these facilities as possible.
For example, you should ask where they get their lion cubs from and where the adult lions go once they’ve reached their prime. If they cannot give you a satisfactory answer to those questions, or if they avoid answering them, that should raise a big red flag pointing towards unethical practices.”Source (redacted for legal reasons)
Wildlife Encounter have released a number of misleading reports regarding their so-called captive predator release programs which I forwarded to wildlife biologists in the field.
On the 24th October 2021, I contacted The Born Free Foundation regarding Wildlife Encounter’s claims concerning the release of captive reared lions into the wild.
Sarah Jefferson from Born Free, and Captivity Campaigns Information Coordinator said:
Thank you for your email
These captive breeding facilities and lion encounters in Southern Africa are racked with many animal welfare and public safety concerns. They are largely exploitative and do not hold the welfare of the animals as their top priority.
Some places claim that they are breeding lions for ‘conservation purposes’ and will, at some point in the future, return them to the wild. However, it is extremely unlikely this will happen, not least because they now see humans as a source of food and would not have sufficient fear of humans if released.
As far as we are aware, there have been no captive-bred lions that have been returned to the wild by these companies or facilities. If there were any genuine attempts to return lions to the wild, via captive-breeding programmes, then contact with humans and close interaction with tourists would not create ideal candidates.
There are many human-wildlife conflict issues in Africa, including contact with wild lions. Human deaths and the killing of livestock is a major concern, so the release of habituated lions into the wild is not likely to be met with much enthusiasm and will do nothing to promote co-existence between people and lions.
Over the years, there have been numerous human injuries and deaths in Southern Africa as a result of close contact with captive lions during petting or walk-with activities.
You can read more about the issues concerning interaction activities with captive lions on our website at www.bornfree.org.uk/big-cat-interaction.
For information about Born Free’s lion conservation work, visit www.bornfree.org.uk/lion-conservation
Please don’t hesitate to contact us again.Sarah Jefferson, Captivity Campaigns Information Coordinator, Born Free
‘WHEN WE TAKE ADVICE BUT CHOOSE TO IGNORE IT ANYWAY’
Most tourists will contemplate the advice given regarding wildlife encounters unfortunately, there are some that choose to take the advice given but ignore it anyway.
Furthermore, when it all goes wrong tourists rarely have a leg to stand on. Wildlife encounters employ the same tactics as game reserves whereby before you enter you must sign a contract of indemnity.
So simply put, if a predator mauls you inflicting life changing injuries (you were warned) but you chose to ignore that advice. This sneaky arrangement between both tourist and wildlife encounter is one of the many cons in conservation.
The image below depicts Violet D’Mello who visited Kragga Kamma Game Park with her husband near Port Elizabeth in South Africa back in 2012.
Kragga Kamma Game Park allows tourists to pet big cats for a few pounds, unfortunately, things didn’t go according to plan for husband and wife when both cats attacked Mrs. D’Mello.
Mr. and Mrs. D’Mello visited the enclosure in which the hand-reared cheetah brothers, Mark and Monty, were kept when the attack took place. Violet D’Mello was left bleeding badly after being attacked. Forced to the ground and with blood pouring from her head, this British holidaymaker had a miraculous escape after being attacked by supposedly tame cheetahs.
Other tourists tried to scare the cheetahs off as park attendants desperately fought to get them away from the injured woman. And her husband? He carried on taking photographs, saying “he did not quite realise what was happening.”
The attack took place at a wildlife park where tourists can pay £4.50 to pet cheetah brothers Mark and Monty, both hand-reared and said to be tame.
In a 2012 Facebook post, the Kragga Kamma Game Park said:
“We, as a family, and our staff – who are like family, are all terribly upset about this incident, thankfully the injured parties are well on their way to recovery. Mark And Monty will DEFINATELY not be put down and will keep their position of treasured wildlife here at KKGP. Thank you for your personal messages over this time, they are very much appreciated.”Kragga Kamma Game Park
This isn’t the first time both cheetahs have attacked tourists at the Kragga Kamma Game Park. Back in 2009, American tourist Michelle Bodenheimer was mauled by both cheetahs leaving her scratched and bleeding.
In a 2012 Daily Mail article, Mrs Bodenheimer said:
“I am heartbroken to see that Kragga Kamma did not learn from my unfortunate experience. The attacks are not the fault of the cats.
They could have been prevented. They are wild animals, which we tend to forget. People simply should not be allowed in with these beautiful, wild creatures.
In hindsight, I wish I had pushed the matter further at the time as perhaps it would have prevented this other poor woman from [being attacked].”Mrs Bodenheimer via the Daily Mail
The question is though, why did two allegedly tame cheetahs attack both tourists? Aggression in big cats especially captive cheetahs is usually motivated by, or related to:
- Social pressures
- Fear or anxiety
- Inappropriate handling
- Illness or pain
In general, most large carnivores do not want to hunt or hurt humans. Fatalities have occurred in captivity when animals that weren’t accustomed to human contact attacked people who, accidentally or intentionally, ended up in their enclosure—which is their territory.
Cheetahs do not interact well with humans, generally, furthermore, wild and captive cheetahs are territorial. Both tourists entered the cheetahs territorial space which may have contributed to a threat, hence the attack. Cheetah attacks are considered rare, as of 2017 only two fatalities have been reported.
On the 15th October 2021 I reached out to the Kragga Kamma Game Park to ascertain if there had been an investigation concerning these attacks, and what measures had been implemented to prevent any future attacks from occurring. At the time of publishing this article, the KKGP declined to comment.
While the vast majority of human and wildlife encounters occur within captive animal establishments. Shocking reports have emerged since 2014 concerning human and wildlife encounters in game reserves where dangerous animals roam freely.
The shocking image below was snapped at the Mara River in south-west Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve which is visited by some three million tourists every year. Wardens, whose job it is to police the reserve, were standing outside the Land Rovers.
They looked like they couldn’t care less. Maasai guides, in their checked tribal robes, were among the crowd, watching as camera-laden tourists edged dangerously away from the vehicles to within a few metres of wildebeest nervously waiting to make their way down to the crossing point. It looks insane; as deranged as someone casually trying to walk across a Formula 1 circuit during a race.
Whilst tourism remains beneficial for large game reserves, reports of unregulated tourism has concerned wildlife biologists and ecologists. Excessive and uncontrolled tourism development has a negative impact on the conservation of environment and wildlife.
Back in September the Narok County government re-issued a set of rules to guides that must be adhered to when taking tourists on game drives.
It comes after a group of visitors and their camp were banned from visiting the Mara indefinitely in July after a video (seen below) shared widely on social media showed a man filming a leopard cub at the open door of his car.
The rules state vehicles must be at least 25m (82ft) away from cat species and drivers must not form a circle of cars around the animals, who need to be able to assess the environment for potential danger.
This isn’t the first time the Narok County government have issued warnings to tour guides and photographic tourists. On the 3rd September 2018, the Mara Predator Conservation Programme issued an alarming report concerning the negative impacts photographic tourists are having on local cheetah abundance.
Dr. Femke Broekhuis of the Mara Predator Conservation Programme reported the following:
“MPCP has scientifically shown that there is a negative correlation between cheetah cub recruitment rate and tourism abundance.
This is one reason why more cubs are being raised in the conservancies versus the National Reserve, as the tourist vehicles in conservancies are kept at low densities.”Mara Predator Conservation Programme
Dr. Femke Broekhuis, KWT Scientific Associate wrote in her report (2018):
“Cheetahs have relatively big litters, ranging between one to six cubs. It is thought that they have such large litters to compensate for the high natural mortality of their cubs. In neighbouring Serengeti National Park, less than 5% of cubs reach independence.
Cheetah cubs can succumb to various factors including predation by other predators, abandonment, poor health, and fires. However, there are other factors, such as habitat and tourism, that are believed to also have an impact. These other factors have, until now, not been explored so my aim was to determine the effect of the following on the number of cubs that reach independence.
Between 1st June 2013 and 31st, October 2017 data was collected on how many cheetah cubs were seen and how many reached independence. At the same time, data was also collected on the number of tourists, lions, and spotted hyaenas.
The amount of open habitat and high tourist abundance both limited the number of cubs cheetahs raised to independence. More specifically, cheetahs in open habitats on average raised fewer than two cubs to independence compared to approximately three cubs for mothers residing in denser habitats such as Acacia woodland.
Similarly, females in areas with a lot of tourists on average raised one cub or less to independence compared to more than two cubs in low tourist areas. Neither lion nor spotted hyaena abundance was found to have an impact on cub recruitment.”Dr. Femke Broekhuis, KWT Scientist
Dr. Femke Broekhuis recommended the following in her report:
It is important that strict viewing guidelines are implemented and enforced. Actions that could be taken to ensure that tourists do not have a negative impact on cheetahs include:
- Allowing no more than five vehicles at a cheetah sighting
- Ensuring that no tourist vehicles are allowed near a cheetah lair (den)
- Ensuring that vehicles keep a minimum distance of 30m at a cheetah sighting
- Ensuring that noise levels and general disturbance at sightings are kept to a minimum
- Ensuring that vehicles do not separate mothers and cubs
- Cheetahs on a kill are not enclosed by vehicles so that they can detect approaching danger
Dr. Femke Broekhuis report is somewhat concerning because cheetahs have vanished from approximately 90 percent of their historic range in Africa, and are extinct in Asia except for a single isolated population of perhaps 50 individuals in central Iran. There are estimated to be only 7,100 cheetahs left in the wild, and their future remains uncertain across their range.
Unfortunately, with new recommendations in place protecting some animals a minority of tourists continue to take the more controversial “wildlife encounter” route.
As mentioned, the South African government has banned the breeding of captive lions, keeping lions in captivity, and using captive lions or their derivatives commercially. However, the ban does not cover non-lion wildlife encounters in South Africa.
On the 14th May 2021, I contacted the National Council of SPCAs regarding all wildlife encounters in South Africa, and over the border for further information to help educate tourists to stay clear of these establishments.
Keshvi Nair, SPCA Public Relations Officer said:
“Our advice is that you should not allow yourself to be lured and manipulated by animal abusers because of your love for animals.
We understand that people mean well, it is their love for animals that draw them to the places where these sentient beings are confined.
By paying for a picture with the animal, or to pet the animal, or walk with the animal, or even view the animal in an enclosure – ULTIMATELY you are contributing to the animals suffering by paying to keep them in confinement.Keshvi Nair, Public Relations Officer NSPCA
Wild animals belong in the wild, whether or not they grew up in captivity cannot guarantee your safety or theirs for that matter.”
When we learn from others we receive several benefits that cannot be gained from learning alone, some of which are:
- Leveraging prosocial motivation
- Getting different perspectives
- Processing information better
- Understanding the role of our peers
- Learning right from wrong
- Building relationships
- Better coordination of activities
- Identifying the right knowledge
- Learning from our own mistakes
Millions of photographers around the world have learned their art and homed their skills from the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, Margaret Bourke-White and David Yarrow.
However, when we learn egregious habits from others, especially those that should know better, all of the above flies straight out of the window which brings me back to David Yarrow, a man that many budding photographers look up to and learn from.
David Yarrow is the affiliated photographer for the African Conservation Charity Tusk Trust, a British organisation founded in 1990. Since November 2013, David Yarrow Photography has contributed over $1 million to help support Tusk’s programmes and projects.
Yarrow is also an Ambassador for Wild Ark, the Kevin Richardson Foundation and Best Buddies. Commercially, David Yarrow is Global Ambassador for UBS and European Ambassador for Nikon, as well as Creative Partner for Land Rover and Mantis.
David Yarrows approach to photographing wildlife is guided by Robert Capa’s assertion that “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”.
When possible, Yarrow allegedly takes his photographs of dangerous wildlife using a remote-controlled camera, acknowledging that a photographer can achieve perspective by capturing shots that look up at the animal from the ground.
Yarrow uses an innovative technique to capture his shots. One of Yarrow’s methods involves coating his camera casing in a variety of scents to lure dangerous animals towards his camera lens. These treatments have been used after research into identifying the most attractive and enticing smell for the animal in question.
Therefore, one would be led to believe that David Yarrow is far from superior concerning his knowledge about ethical wildlife photography?
Back in June 2015, David Yarrow and model Cara Delevingne visited Kevin Richardson’s Wildlife Sanctuary which was claimed to be a stunt to create awareness for endangered species.
However, it turned out to be a product advertisement shoot for TAG Heuer of which endangered species were exploited as props prompting concerns to be raised from animal welfare critics.
Kevin Richardson has been criticised by many experts in the conservation community, members of whom state that experiences which expressly bring people and lions together on “walks” are risky because of the unpredictable nature of the wild animals. Conservationists weren’t wrong either, Megan van der Zwan, 22, was mauled to death at the so-called wildlife sanctuary in 2018.
Meanwhile, the supermodel herself appeared to be caged after the jewellery brand revealed that they deliberately picked ‘the most disruptive It Girl of the moment’ for their latest campaign. The TAG Heuer photoshoot provoked an immediate backlash from wildlife biologists, and the animal rights community.
In a 2015 MailOnline article, World Animal Protection wildlife expert, Dr Neil D’Cruze said:
“Lion cubs are not photo props. Their health and well-being should not be compromised. They belong in the wild, not draped over a celebrity just to sell a designer watch.
When you look behind the scenes, advertisements like these support an industry that relies on animal cruelty. Our concern is that such high profile adverts will legitimise these cruel encounters with wild animals.
I am sure that both advertisers and consumers alike would think twice about the commercial use of wild animals if they were aware of the suffering involved behind the scenes.”Dr Neil D’Cruze World Animal Protection (WAP)
Despite criticism from wildlife biologists, animal protection charities, and the animal rights community, the CEO of TAG Heuer brushed aside peoples exasperation claiming he needed someone young and disruptive to sell his brand.
The CEO of TAG Heuer, Jean-Claude Biver told the MailOnline:
“We needed someone disruptive yet elegant like Cara to open our minds to the brashness and boldness of today’s youth.
TAG Heuer has set its sights on “it-ness”, and Cara is just the person to help us get there.”Jean-Claude Biver, CEO of TAG Heuer
Cara Delevingne apologised to her fans on Instagram stating that she had learned from her past mistakes, and that this would be a learning curve for her in the future. Unfortunately, Cara appeared in yet another photoshoot with a captive bred puma cub for the company PUMA.
In a Captive Wildlife Watchdog Post on Facebook it was said:
“Because David Yarrow markets his photographs (many of them containing Richardson’s captive lions) as being for the benefit of conservation and wildlife, and for the purpose of raising awareness about both, he has a fiduciary responsibility to both the public to whom he’s issuing those photographs, and the realm of conservation which he’s professing to represent.
Per his own statements, one of the only two ways photography can help conservation is by raising awareness with the public.
Therefore, Yarrow has a fiduciary responsibility to both the conservation industry, and the public, to act in an accountable, ethical manner. So does Kevin Richardson, whose animals are often featured in Yarrow’s “wildlife” photography.”Captive Wildlife Watchdog
When educating people, especially budding young photographers its critically important that we get it right first time, setting exemplary examples, working to high standards, and finally, to never bring the organisation that we represent into disrepute.
I reached out to the National Councils of SPCAs on the 5th May 2021 who had this to say about David Yarrow and Cara Delevingne’s photoshoot:
“The NSPCA strongly opposes animal encounters, petting farms, unnecessary animal interaction, animals used for entertainment, wild animals kept in captivity unnecessarily etc.
With that being said, it is our strong belief that the public should make the ethical choice of not supporting places or people that exploit animals.
Is a selfie with a lion really worth the suffering that lion will endure for the rest of its life?”The National Council of SPCAs
‘PUTTING THE PHOTO FIRST BEFORE OUR OWN WELFARE’
Poet Thomas Stearns Eliot once said: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
It’s no surprise that as we get older we often experiment with risky situations to understand how they affect us. We are naturally curious, so it’s not enough to simply be told that a certain activity is bad for us.
However, experimenting with dangerous unpredictable wildlife would normally be considered by some as non compos mentis, or just plain stupid!
There are two types of risk takers; those who take stupid risks, and those who take dangerous risks:
- The stupid risk taker is normally fame driven that ignores all advice, placing themselves and others in danger, and will only learn how far they can go when it’s too late. The stupid risk taker normally suffers from a personality trait such as neuroticism too
- The dangerous risk taker will weigh-up the dangers and pros and cons to minimise any potential harm. Additionally, the dangerous risk taker normally learns from their mistakes, and knows when to stop
Wildlife photographer, Shannon Benson aka (Shannon Wild) is a prime example of a stupid risk taker who doesn’t know when to stop, and will only learn how far she can go when it’s too late.
Shannon Benson is followed by many thousands of people on Facebook and Instagram. Shannon enjoys the thrill of getting up-close and personal with dangerous captive wildlife at various wildlife encounters such as the one seen below.
On the 30th January 2018, Shannon Wild and husband Russell MacLaughlin published a documentary via Red Collective covering dangerous wild predators in Asia and Africa.
The ill-thought-out documentary seen below shows Shannon Wild inches away from an adult carnivorous Komodo dragon. Furthermore, this isn’t any ordinary wildlife encounter at a captive game park, this is direct interaction with a deadly free roaming apex predator in the wild!
Red Collectives documentary is a prime example of what not to do with a camera when you’re inches away from a venomous and carnivorous reptile. Komodo dragons are known for their aggressiveness, furthermore, if their venomous bite doesn’t kill you, the dragons tail and its razor teeth will.
Apart from being utterly injudicious, Shannon Wild sets a bad example to all photographers and tourists who may try to re-enact similar scenes for their own social media viewers.
On the 6th May 2017, The Independent reported that a Singaporean photographer had been severely bitten after ignoring locals’ warnings that he should not get too close to the large lizards.
“Mr Alle was watching several of the large lizards eating pigs and goats belonging to villagers when he approached the animals to take photographs, according to local media.
He reportedly ignored repeat warnings from villagers that he should not get too close to the dangerous creatures.
“He must have been too close. A Komodo doesn’t like to be disturbed when eating,” park manager Sudiyono told The Jakarta Post.
Mr Alle was rescued by villagers and rushed to hospital on a military speed boat.”The Independent
Fortunately, Shannon Benson was not injured this time however, she was severely injured back in 2015 when a cheetah mauled her at an unidentified South African private game park.
On the 8th March 2016 in an interview with the Daily Mail online, Benson said:
“I’ve been bitten in the face by a dog, charged by elephants, lions and buffalo, bitten countless times by snakes and lizards, and mauled by a cheetah, but it doesn’t discourage me.
The way I look at it though is, you shouldn’t be a chef if you don’t ever want to get a burn from hot food and wildlife photography is the same.
I’m excited by every encounter that I have and, I am surprisingly calm in most situations, even when tracking a lion on foot.”Daily Mail
With regards to the cheetah mauling, Benson claimed:
“The attack happened in a controlled environment with an animal that is used to humans, however she had given clear body language and signs that she was hot, bothered and potentially uncooperative.”Shannon Benson
Back in May 2021, I reached out to a renowned charity and investigator that works tirelessly to combat wildlife encounters that Shannon Benson claims to be against. Due to legal reasons, and the potential for litigation the investigators name and charity has been redacted from my report:
“Just a quick Google search of her name brings up several wildlife interaction images. These images send out one main message to glorify these interactive activities, which encourages other people to do the same.
She refers to the cheetah as being human habituated, so it was not completely wild. Many attacks by cheetahs on people have been documented and not all end this well.
That is one of the reasons why interaction with habituated captive cheetahs and even the release of such animals into natural spaces is considered dangerous.
To habituate a cheetah, the cubs are taken from the mothers within hours to days of birth and hand-reared by people, often paying international volunteers, on milk formulas that are inappropriate for cheetahs.
Subsequently, they are interacted with by paying tourists up to 8-10 hrs per day, seven days a week to further the habituation process.
ANY interaction with wildlife should be seen as unethical. Wildlife should be observed in their natural habitat without the need for such close-up encounters, whether it is for pleasure or professional purposes.”Source (redacted for legal reasons)
Wildlife should be observed in their natural habitat, and not behind bars, or in private game parks, lodges, roadside zoos, sanctuaries, photography game parks, pseudo rehabs, petting farms or during predator walks.
Wildlife conservation areas and preserved natural habitats attract visitors from all over the world. Many places depend on wildlife for tourism, which makes up over 10% of the world’s GDP. Countries like Brazil, Australia, Kenya, and more are especially dependent on tourism.
However, when tourists visit wildlife encounters, the money they spend on interacting, petting and walking with predators does not contribute to wildlife conservation or the preservation of natural habitats. Instead that money buys more animals, builds more animal encounters, promotes fake voluntourism, and contributes to animal suffering and death.
Petting zoos and farms, where tourists are allowed to approach, handle and feed captive wildlife and domestic animals, have also been linked to several zoonotic outbreaks, including infections caused by Escherichia coli O157:H7, salmonellae, and Coxiella burnetii.
Finally, wildlife conservation should be an aim of wildlife photography. This means working to show animals faithfully in their natural habitats, leaving their routines and spaces undisturbed—not trying to manipulate the natural environment to get the perfect shot. That’s the key to honest ethical photography.
A national park is an area of (unfenced) countryside, or occasionally sea or fresh water, protected by the government for the enjoyment of the general public or the preservation of wildlife. National parks must not be confused with that of a game reserve, game park, wilderness area, park, zoo, animal rehab, private game reserve, wildlife conservancy, wildlife sanctuary, reserve or trust, all of which are fenced in.
There are some 6,555 listed national parks around the world however, only a few hundred are considered “genuine national parks” that are open all-year-round without limitations. Some U.S. national parks will charge an entrance fee for conservation and staff salaries however, national parks in the U.K. do not charge for entry relying solely on donations and government grants.
National parks do not have the same restrictions that wild game reserves and conservancies do where dangerous wildlife roam freely. Nonetheless, they still host some dangerous animals such as elk, bears, reptiles, snakes and elephant seals. Smaller wildlife such as squirrels and fox can bite and may carry ticks, fleas or rabies that can make you or your pet sick.
With that said, national parks are visited by millions of tourists every year opening new adventures and experiences. Well, for photographer James York, he literally went head-to-head with a wild elk in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park back in 2013.
It was alleged in the video (seen below) that James York was photographing the elk from a “safe and respectful distance” however, the video paints another story. James York decided to sit on the side of the road for reasons we’ll never truly understand.
Meanwhile, the elk decided to move closer and investigate the human, and his camera at which point James York should have been putting distance between the elk and himself. As fellow photographers and videographers looked on James York was attacked by the overcurious elk.
As interesting as the story sounds, unfortunately the ending is a sad one which could have been avoided. The U.S. National Park Service advises all tourists to give at least 50-150 feet distance between you, and the subject you’re photographing or filming.
Fortunately, James wasn’t seriously injured. Sadly, not long after this incident a local NBC news affiliate reported that the elk had to be put down:
“An elk who went viral after a close-up encounter with a photographer was euthanized Friday, Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials confirmed Friday evening.
Park officials said the elk could not be re-trained to be fearful of humans. They said the elk had been coming back to that area in search of food, and had begun associating humans with food.”WBIR via Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Vince M. Camiolo who documented the event, and photographer James York issued an official statement in response to the elk being euthanised:
“I am deeply saddened by the fate of the elk. It has certainly pulled a black cloud over this whirlwind “viral video” experience.
I spoke to the reporter who broke the story and she assured me the decision was based on a pattern of aggressive behaviour that began prior to the incident documented in this video.
The behaviour was the result of visitors feeding the elk and conditioning them to seek food from humans. This video only serves as an example of the elk’s dangerous behaviour, not an impetus to it.
Again, it brings me great sadness to learn of this beautiful animal’s demise and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding it.
I’m looking into a destination for proceeds from this video to help the NPS educate visitors on the dangers and consequences of feeding wildlife.
I also want to be clear that James, the photographer, was not complicit in a behaviour that led to the elk’s demise, but rather was made an example of the result of such behaviours.
The elk approached him from behind, likely looking for food as he was conditioned to do.”Vince M. Camiolo
“I love and respect animals and that’s why I photograph them and don’t hunt them. I am deeply hurt by the loss of such a beautiful creature that in its own way bonded with me.
I looked forward to watching him grow to a mature bull as the years passed. I’m truly heartbroken to know he is gone.”James York
In a 2013 Facebook post, Great Smoky Mountains National Park said:
“Do not feed elk! Dispose of all garbage or food scraps in wildlife-proof garbage containers or take it with you.
Keep your distance from elk. Do not approach within 50 yards (150 feet) of an elk. If an elk approaches you, it is your responsibility to back away slowly to provide space for the animal to pass.
Use binoculars, spotting scopes and cameras with telephoto lenses to enjoy wildlife.
If you see another visitor breaking these rules, please call (865) 436-1230 or stop at a Visitor Centre to report it.”Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Humans make mistakes which is perfectly normal, and at times we momentarily lose concentration which again is perfectly normal behaviour. However, incidents such as the one above are becoming all too common.
Wildlife photographers and tourists must be au courant of their surroundings at all times, especially when visiting regions where there’s an abundance of dangerous or unpredictable animals. The best relationship a photographer can have with any wild animal is a long distance one.
The popularity of selfies and capturing any moment through photographs or video is posing a new threat to wildlife and humans. Trigger-happy tourists have started to provoke animals, and in some instances alter their behaviour’s as a result.
Quietly watching from a distance can be even more rewarding than getting the perfect shot. Use your zoom or a telephoto lens, or put your camera down and take a moment to really appreciate what you see.
Unfortunately, there’s always that one asinine photographer that believes the rules don’t apply to them which brings me to Dan Milner (seen below) milliseconds away from losing his face back in 2013.
So-called professional photographer Dan Milner was only slightly injured suffering with cuts and grazes after a stag attacked him damaging his £1400 camera lens.
As expected from imbecilic stunts such as this the story made press headlines which prompted a wild backlash from members of the public and animal activists.
Writing on his blog, Dan said:
“You’d think I’d be braced for pretty much anything the weather can throw at me by now with 15 years of pro shooting in remote corners of the world tucked under my belt, but hey ho, Scotland was playing its joker when it came to photographer-bashing last week.”Dan Milner via the Daily Mail
As explained Dan Milner walked away with only a few scratches, and a broken camera lens however, Dan could have been seriously injured or even killed had the stag’s antlers punctured an artery.
Back in December of 2014, tourist Dr Kate Stone (seen below) was gorged by a stag at Lochailort near Fort William two miles away from where Dan Milner was attacked. Dr Stone was put into an induced coma for a week during which time she underwent two operations on her windpipe.
Kate Stone described how she was left fighting for her life, with injuries to her neck and spine. Her neck was pierced so deeply that the animal had to shake itself free.
Whether you have one or fifteen years of photography experience, its irrelevant. Animals will attack regardless of your experience but, animal attacks can be avoided if we adopt a common-sense approach, instead of an irresponsible one.
In Dan Milner’s case using the correct equipment such as telephoto and zoom lenses, and keeping your distance can prevent animals from attacking you.
Telephoto lenses are crucial for wildlife photography, especially in national parks and game reserves, and how long depends on how close you can get and on the size of your subject.
Birds, small and flighty need really long lenses. So do animals that are shy. For small and shy fauna using a 100-400mm or 200-600mm is a start however, these lenses are big, heavy, and not a lot of fun to lug around.
If you’re hiking try using a teleconverter on a 300mm. They’re small, light and come in different degrees of magnification, and greatly increase the reach of your lenses.
However, as with all teleconverters you’re going to lose a few stops of light. Look into third party lenses too. The reason to go with a third-party lens is if the major brands don’t make the lens you need.
When using a 1.4x teleconverter, you lose one stop of light, so for example, when using a f/2.8 lens, the widest aperture you can use the lens at is f/4. A 2x teleconverter loses two stops of light, so an f/2.8 lens drops down to a wide aperture of f/5.6.
A good example of a robust lens to use when shooting wildlife is the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 zoom lens, an excellent-all-rounder however, don’t rely on it for every project. You may need to place more distance between you and the subject.
The Canon 100-400mm, Sigma 150-600mm, and the Sony 18-200mm are must have lenses for wildlife photography too. The Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 lens is an impressive lens at its price point, and is sterling for shooting wildlife.
Coupled with the amazing glass inside this lens, it has a pretty remarkable stabilising system which allows you to shoot super sharp hand held photos as well as relatively stable footage when shooting video.
The most alluring feature of the Sigma 150-600mm is its zoom. At 600mm photographers are sure to capture some incredible close-ups of wildlife in action.
The image stabilizer is also very reliable, which helps this lengthy lens produce sharp images even when photos are taken from a handheld position. If I were visiting a national park or game reserve the 600mm would be my main choice of lens to take with the Sony A9II.
With that said, Nikons new flagship camera the Nikon D5 and the AF-S 200-500mm f/5,6 lens would by my second choice. The Sony A9 II, and the Nikon D5 are beasts when it comes to wildlife and landscape photography.
However, its always best to try-out a new lens before purchasing. Most camera and lens manufacturers now give you the option to rent lenses before buying which is excellent.
I highly recommend Drew Sproule’s photography gear blog which hosts a wealth of information concerning specialist lenses for wildlife photography. Furthermore, Lenses For Wildlife Photography by Canon is a must read too for beginners and professionals.
Long lenses also need support when hiking or otherwise traveling on foot, additionally, you must ensure the tripod you’re using will support both the camera and your new lenses, and is suitable for the project you’re working on too.
Wildlife photography is one of the most demanding from a camera’s technical perspective; therefore, speed, accuracy, and performance is critical. Below I’ve listed several key camera models, lenses, tripods and supports that are more than suitable for wildlife photography.
- Canon full frame EOS-1D X Mark III | Lenses | Tripods and Supports
- Lumix SH1 full frame | Lenses | Tripods and Supports
- Nikon D500 APS-C sensor | Lenses | Tripods and Supports
- Sony A9 II full frame | Lenses | Tripods and Supports
- Fujifilm GFX 50S medium format | Lenses | Tripods and Supports
- Olympus OMD micro four thirds mirrorless | Lenses | Tripods and Supports
- Nikon D5 full frame | Lenses | Tripods and Supports
With the correct photography equipment and knowledge you’ll be more than competent at snapping your chosen subjects at a safe distance. With that said, a small minority of photographers still don’t get it whereby they give into temptation for that all elusive image.
Back in January of 2021, David Yarrow hit the headlines again for all the wrong reasons. Professional photographer David Yarrow and his team were witnessed bating foxes in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park.
In David’s eyes using the correct kit is often irrelevant at times because he practices Robert Capa’s assertion that, “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
Outside Online reported that British photographer David Yarrow, and his colleague Tom Rosenthal were photographing red foxes paddling over a frozen lake.
Instead of using the correct telephoto lenses his colleague Tom Rosenthal stood behind, tempting and drawing the canines closer by waving a piece of cellophane wrapper from a pack of cigarettes that they might take for food.
The goal was to get a super-tight shot of wild foxes, and the tactic—though ethically dubious—worked. After an image of the incident surfaced, however, along with an eyewitness allegation that the crew had illegally fed the animals, the backlash was swift.
On the 14th April 2021, Outside Online reported:
“If he was a tourist, I would understand, says Tiffany Taxis, the photographer in Jackson, Wyoming, who captured the scene and reported the incident to the National Park Service. “But David Yarrow knows what he’s doing. He endangered the life of an animal so that he could get a good shot, and it really rubs me the wrong way.”
Yarrow and Rosenthal defended their actions, saying that they didn’t actually feed the foxes. “I don’t think they can eat cigarettes, do they?” Rosenthal told me.
Two weeks later, park rangers trapped and killed one of the foxes that was present the day of Yarrow’s shoot. Because the animal was habituated and food driven, having spent the past year accosting picnickers and thieving anglers’ trout, its fate had been sealed for months—long before Yarrow’s brush with it.
Nevertheless, criticism of Yarrow, known for his highly stylized photographs of high fashion, historical scenes, and wildlife, continued.
A Change.org petition emerged calling for his total ban from all national parks, which has garnered more than 7,500 signatures.
Those on social media who pinned the foxes’ fate on Yarrow referenced his questionable approach to wildlife photography in the past, with alleged reports of deploying animals from photography game farms and taking images that showed models in dangerously close proximity to African elephants.”Outside Online, Mike Koshmrl
On the 15th April 2021, I reached out to David Yarrow for further comment concerning his past and recent unethical behaviour. However, at the time of publishing this article David Yarrow declined to comment.
Meanwhile on the 19th April 2021, I contacted the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) to understand more about the ethics of wildlife photography in an effort to educate photographers about the importance of ethical wildlife photography.
Dr Michael Pritchard FRPS, Director for Education and Public Affairs for the Royal Photographic Society said:
“We encourage all nature photographers to follow the nature photographers code of practice.”Dr Michael Pritchard FRPS
The RPS Nature Photographers Code of Practice states:
“Photography should not be undertaken if it puts the subject at risk.
Risk to the subject, in this context, means risk of disturbance, physical damage, causing anxiety, consequential predation, and lessened reproductive success.
There is one hard and fast rule, whose spirit must be observed at all times. The welfare of the subject is more important than the photograph.”RPS Nature Photographers Code of Practice
The Nature Photographers Code of Practice goes onto state:
The photographer should be familiar with the natural history of the subject; the more complex the life-form and the rarer the species, the greater his/her knowledge must be.
He/she should also be sufficiently familiar with other natural history subjects to be able to avoid damaging their interests accidentally. Photography of uncommon creatures and plants by people who know nothing of the hazards to species and habitat is to be deplored.
- Photography may be seen as a criminal offence with relation to some species, since disturbance will be occasioned
- Many species are afforded special legal protection
- The Law as it affects nature photography must be observed. For Great Britain the main legislation is listed below and in citation links
- In other countries one should find out in advance any restrictions that apply. Apparent lax or absence of local legislation should not lead any photographer to relax his/her own high standard
LEGISLATION AND SCHEDULES U.K.
The photographer should be aware of the appropriate sections of the following, and any subsequent amendments:
- The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
- The Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985
- Protection of Badgers Act 1992
- The Butterfly Society Conservation Code
- Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) list of rare plants and Code of Conduct
- The RSPB leaflet ‘Bird Photography and the Law’
- The Conservation (Natural Habitats, etc.) Regulations 1994
- The Countryside & Rights of Way Act 2000 Natural Environment & Rural Communities Act 2006
SITES OF SPECIAL SCIENTIFIC INTEREST
When we speak about the ethics of wildlife and nature photography some people assume the code concerns fauna (animals) only. In actual fact, the ethics of wildlife and nature photography concerns all species of flora, animals, the vast majority of British Natural History sites, national parks, woodland, meadows, rivers, lakes and lochs and waterways.
Furthermore, U.K. national parks are listed as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI). However, SSSI’s and ASSI’s are often difficult to distinguish between that of non-SSSI’s because they’re rarely signposted.
To understand more about SSSI’s and ASSI’s please view the list below. Additionally, its important to note that permission may be required before commencing any form of photography or videography projects within an SSSI or ASSI:
Unfortunately, where SSSI’s are signposted a small minority of photographers, tourists and hikers chose to ignore these waymarks resulting in protected flora being trampled.
On the 13th July 2021, the BSBI News & Views reported that someone had trampled a rare X Dactyloglossum viridellum (Northern Marsh x Frog Orchid hybrid):
“The rare X Dactyloglossum viridellum (Northern Marsh x Frog Orchid hybrid) in northern England got a lot of attention from visitors whilst it was flowering.
Someone decided they needed a photo of the whole plant, from ground level upwards, and removed all of the surrounding vegetation to get it.
The images are reproduced courtesy of Dr Richard Bate, who was definitely NOT responsible for the damage shown.”BSBI News & Views
The BSBI suggested the following proposals on how to acquire the most out of plants – and your camera – without causing harm:
“I think a good rule of thumb for my photographs is that nothing dies in pursuit of them – including the subject, and any innocent bystanders.
We have both seen some truly shocking examples where it looks like somebody has taken a road roller or a strimmer to the surrounding sward.
Jon Dunn recalls seeing a well-known nature photographer, who would doubtless prefer to remain nameless, actually bringing out a pair of kitchen scissors from their camera bag in order to cut away surrounding vegetation for a ‘clean’, uncluttered image.
Pick your angle carefully. If you can’t get a clear view of the flower from a particular direction because of the sward, consider whether you would have better luck from another side. The best photos aren’t always the front-on views!
Incorporate the sward into your photo. A clean image of a single flower isn’t the only way to compose a beautiful photo. For example, the colour contrast of a purple orchid among yellow cowslips can really make the orchid shine out.
Similarly, surrounding vegetation can provide good context of the habitat in which a particular plant is found, or even generate creative ways to highlight the subject.
Before even considering taking a photo, you first need to locate and approach a plant. Damage often occurs at this stage as people wander off paths and through sensitive habitats. This doesn’t just apply to photographers, but anybody who wants a closer look at a plant.
Stay on paths where possible. Try to avoid lying down to take your images or to examine small plants, especially if the surrounding area contains other plants.
We’ve all done it, but it’s to be avoided if at all possible. Vegetation can be crushed or uprooted, and may not flower and set seed, or may be killed entirely.
And NEVER EVER step over a fence or barrier intended to protect plants from people. At the end of the day, a nature reserve is just that; a reserve for nature, not a zoo or botanical garden.”
Please click the citation link below to read the full article.BSBI News & Views: Good practice and bad habits in the pursuit of botanical beauty
A social influencer is an individual who utilises a variety of social media platforms to express their opinions on specific brands or products, consequently influencing their captive audience. In an effort to express their opinions concerning specific brands social influencers often need sensational images or videos.
However in recent years, social influencers have been making the headlines for ruining patches of protected flora in U.S. national parks for the purpose of sensational clickbait images. On the 28th March 2019, University Fox reported that social influencers had trampled swathes of California’s rare super bloom in Chino Hills State National Park.
The damage was so widespread, it left Chino Hills State National Park with no other option but to close the park to prevent social influencers from taking any-more photos. The damage (seen below) shocked many Californian residents, some of which created a vigilante name and shame site on Instagram.
In a 2019 news article, University Fox reported:
“Residents are furious because so many of them are able to go and follow regulations, but a small group has disrupted the environment and ruined it for everyone else.
People have been sharing their feelings and blaming Instagram users for the reason they can’t have nice things anymore.
The rush to the parks has caused already horrible highway traffic to become even worse. Everyone, from near and far, is heading to the parks to capture and witness these unique wildflowers.
For those who don’t want to wait in traffic or lines, however, they have chosen to get creative. A helicopter actually landed in the fields to avoid the crowds. When rangers tried to approach to take action against them, they hopped back into their helicopter and flew away.
It turns out that these California poppy flowers are actually protected and it is illegal to destroy them, punishable by fines and possibly jail time. This means that all of those Instagram models and wannabe influencers have been breaking the law just to get that perfect pic.
In the end, authorities realized that they just couldn’t keep the masses of visitors away no matter what they did. So, they put out warnings to try and keep people following the rules. For those who just got to get that pic, they told them to at least worry about their own safety, along with that of the poppies.”University Fox
The RPS Nature Photographers Code of Practice states that photographers who are working in other countries should find out in advance any restrictions that apply.
Apparent lax or absence of local legislation should not lead any photographer to relax his/her own high standard. Unfortunately, some photographers choose to ignore the code as can be seen in the video below.
THE DANGERS OF NATIONAL PARKS
As previously mentioned, national parks do not enforce the same laws and regulations that game reserves do because they’re not home to dangerous free roaming apex predators.
With that said, national parks are home to several dangerous animals such as snakes, bears, squirrels, mountain lions, elk, foxes and bison etc. Furthermore, national parks can still be just as hazardous, especially to tourists that wander off of trails or ignore safety advice.
On average, approximately 312 visitors per year die while recreating in the United States National Park System. Flash flooding, falling rocks, waterfalls, heatstroke and animal attacks are the most common cause of injury and death which makes national parks more dangerous than all Southern African game reserves!
However, the vast majority of reported injuries and deaths could have been prevented had excited tourists not taken extreme risks, for example standing on the edge of a grand canyon cliff face in windy conditions for the purpose of a single photo.
On the 29th September 2020, the Metro reported that a 43 year old photographer named as Steven Gastelum fell to his death from a cliff edge:
“Steven Gastelum, 43, was attempting to take a photo on Monday at Devil’s Cauldron of Oswald West State Park in Seaside, Oregon when he fell from the cliff ledge.
A tree limb broke, resulting in Gastelum falling about 100 feet into the Pacific Ocean, officials said. The tree the man fell from sits near a barrier warning visitors to stay away from the edge.
The Oregon Beach website has a listing that talks about proceeding with caution when near the cliffs.
‘For your safety, please use caution near the end of this trail and do not go beyond barriers,’ it said.
Another hiker died in 2017 after he lost his footing at the cliff edge of Devil’s Cauldron.”The Metro
On the 7th October 2020, Sky News reported that 25 year old Orlando Serrano-Arzola fell to his death while taking selfies at the Colorado River at the Glen Canyon Damn Overlook:
“Mr Serrano-Arzola, from Arizona’s capital Phoenix, plunged about 100ft and slid a further 150ft when the accident happened at around 9am on Sunday morning.
Park officials reached him around 30 minutes later and confirmed he had died shortly afterwards.
Jon Paxton, of the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office, which is leading the investigation, said Mr Serrano-Arzola was presumed to be climbing rocks to get a better view.
“When he tried to climb back out, evidently he lost his footing or rock hold,” he added.
Mr Serrano-Arzola fell near the city of Page in northern Arizona. The entire Glen Canyon National Recreation Area covers more than 1.25 million acres across both Arizona and Utah.
While responding to the incident, human bones were also found at the base of the overlook – but it is unclear what happened and that discovery is now also under investigation.”Sky News
On the 30th October 2018, the Guardian reported how two photographers plunged to their death from Taft Point in the Yosemite Valley of the United States:
“An Indian husband and wife who fell to their deaths from a popular overlook at Yosemite national park in California were apparently taking a selfie, the man’s brother said on Tuesday.
Park rangers recovered the bodies of Vishnu Viswanath, 29, and Meenakshi Moorthy, 30, on Thursday about 800ft (245 meters) below Taft Point, where visitors can walk to the edge of a vertigo-inducing granite ledge that doesn’t have a railing.
Viswanath – who Cisco India said was a software engineer at the company’s headquarters in San Jose, California – and Moorthy had set up their tripod near the ledge on Tuesday evening, Viswanath’s brother, Jishnu Viswanath, told the Associated Press.
Park visitors the next morning saw the camera and alerted rangers, who “used high-powered binoculars to find them and used helicopters to airlift the bodies”, he said.
In an eerie coincidence, a man who had hiked to the same spot with his girlfriend captured pictures of Moorthy before her fall, saying she accidentally appeared in the background of two of their selfie photos.
Sean Matteson said Moorthy stood out from the crowd enjoying the sunset atop Taft Point last week because her hair was dyed bright pink and that she made him a little nervous because he felt she was standing too close to the edge.”The Guardian
On the 28th November 2020, the New York Post reported that 48 year old Wesley Brandon Stedham fell to his death as he tried to take a photo in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee:
“Wesley Brandon Stedham, 48, of Warrior, fell 50 feet from the park’s Chimney Tops Overlook, WBRC reported.
Stedham was at the park with his family, and tried to climb down a steep, dirt embankment below the overlook in order to get a better photo, officials said.
Losing his footing, he suffered fatal head trauma in the fall. Park officials said it was the first time a visitor to the park had died as a result of trying to take a photograph.”New York Post
On average, 6 people die in U.S. national parks every week which equates to 312 deaths per year. In 2017, the last year for which stats are available, search-and-rescue (SAR) teams were deployed for a total of 3,453 incidents.
The National Park Service has a general photography guide encouraging visitors to check park alerts for hazards and closures, and stay on designated trails regardless of the temptation for an off-road pic:
“We get it — national parks have some pretty photogenic scenery,” the guide reads. “The views are truly magnificent. While we want you to capture all of the splendour of our amazing parks, do not put your life at risk for a picture.”
In recent years, several photographers and locals have been seriously injured and killed by wild animals in national parks too.
Back in 2007, The National Park Service reported that a 57 year old photographer named as Jim Cole was mauled by a grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. Cole was hiking alone, off-trail in prime grizzly habitat that Wednesday when he was attacked by a sow with a cub. He apparently was carrying pepper spray but whether he used it was unclear.
Cole told rangers he walked two to three miles to seek help. Cole, of Bozeman, Mont, was said to be in a fair condition that Friday at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Centre in Idaho Falls. He underwent seven hours of surgery to repair his face.
On 3rd June 2015, DIY Photography reported that a 16-year-old Taiwanese exchange student who came to the U.S. to experience a new culture found herself up-close and personal with a massive American icon. “The girl turned her back to the bison to have her picture taken when the bison lifted its head, took a couple of steps and gored her,” said a park service official.
Back in 2017, CNN Network reported that 49 year old Richard White was mauled to death while snapping a wild bear.
Photographs found in his camera revealed that White was watching the bear for at least eight minutes near a river before the attack. Wildlife officials shot and killed the animal as it was still “defending the kill site along the Toklat River as the recovery team attempted to reach White’s remains,” the park service said.
National parks aren’t just confined to the United States. Throughout the entire world there are 6,555 national parks however, there are many definitions of a national park which tends to confuse tourists.
For example there are over twenty national parks in South Africa that are actually game reserves which have been set aside as a ‘national park’ to protect flora and fauna. These game reserves host dangerous free roaming wildlife. Additionally, there are some fifteen national parks in the United Kingdom that are areas of outstanding beauty; home to protected birds, small mammals, marine fauna and flora.
All 6,555 national parks are conservation areas that have been established to help protect and preserve plants and animals. The land can be semi natural, all natural or even some developed land that can be named a park. National parks protect biodiversity. Furthermore, they provide an opportunity for tourists to experience the vast expanses of the outdoors which enhances leisure and well being.
National parks are also the largest classrooms in the world, whereby they educate millions of people every year about nature, marine biology, and volcanology etc. Finally, national parks receive millions of visitors every year generating billions of GDP.
Unfortunately, when national parks are closed down because tourists refuse to follow the rules, it doesn’t just affect tourist income for that individual park. Without income park rangers cannot protect plants and animals. Moreover, when people are injured or killed due to their own stupidity or by sheer accident because they did not follow or understand park rules, it leads to the good name of each individual park being tarnished.
We’re not just photographers, and we have a duty of responsibility to protect Mother Nature especially in protected conservation areas. Our behaviour defines our character. If our behaviour defines us as negligent people it doesn’t just tarnish us – it blackens everyone within the photography community.
Marine photography is categorized into two elements: underwater photography and marine wildlife photography.
Underwater photography is the process of taking photographs while under water of small fish, sharks, cetaceans, corals, jellyfish, crustacean, and active volcanos etc. It is usually done while scuba-diving, but can be done while diving on surface supply, snorkelling, swimming, from a submersible or remotely operated underwater vehicle, or from automated cameras lowered from the surface.
Marine wildlife photography is the process of taking photographs while above water, or on land of pinnipeds and sirenians, polar bears and sea otters, bears fishing for salmon, and marine birds such as the gannet, cormorant and albatross etc. Additionally, a marine wildlife photographer may also operate from a pier, floating rig, aircraft, drone or boat photographing the behaviour of cetaceans such as whales, dolphins, and porpoises.
Back in 2009, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) estimated that some 13 million million tourists took trips to see cetaceans in their natural habitat, as part of an industry that generated US$2.1 billion dollars (1.7 billion Euros) and employed 13,000 people in 119 countries.
Meanwhile, underwater tourism is a multi-billion-dollar industry with dive tourism estimated to be worth between US$20 billion and US$30 billion while coral reef tourism generates US$35.4 billion in global tourism value every year. However, the industry faces significant challenges moving forward.
While dive tourism and marine photography generates significant sums of money that goes back into protecting marine wildlife and habitat, both classes of tourism are also threatening wildlife and habitat due to unethical practices at sea, and on land.
Media reports concerning harassment of cetaceans and cetacean watching vessels colliding with whales, dolphins and porpoises etc are on the increase alarming marine biologists and conservation organisations.
On the 12th January 2015, Men’s Journal reported that a humpback whale collided with a whale watching boat off Maui:
“Whale watchers aboard a small boat off Maui watched with widening eyes recently as a humpback whale suddenly turned toward them, began to slap her large pectoral fin on the surface, and struck their inflatable boat with its head.
The collision with the 25-foot vessel was more of a shove than a strike, but blunt enough to “toss our boat a good five feet when she hit,” said Jennifer Nap, who videotaped the unusual incident while on the trip with her husband, Ryan.
The Naps and their group were with Ultimate Whale Watch and had been following a mother and calf “from a safe distance,” Nap said, when the mother whale suddenly turned.
The crew shut the engines down as the whale “came straight for us, I think to warn us to move,” Nap said.”Men’s Journal
On the 8th August 2017, CBC News reported that two people were injured after a whale watching boat hit a humpback whale:
“One person remains in hospital after a whale-watching boat hit a humpback whale near Victoria, B.C., on Monday.
It happened near Race Rocks Ecological Reserve, an outcropping to the south of Metchosin, around 2:45 p.m. PT. A zodiac vessel operated by Prince of Whales Whale Watching struck the humpback, after it unexpectedly surfaced right in front of the vessel.
“The animal had not been seen previous to the vessel strike,” said a company spokesperson, adding the boat’s captain had been focusing on a different group of animals prior to the collision.
A spokesperson with the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria says an inshore rescue boat was sent out to assist the tour boat after it reported the run-in.
Two tour boat passengers were sent to hospital and one is still recovering from their injuries.”CBC News
On the 4th March 2020, the Scotsman reported that selfie takers had been urged to stop taking photos too close to dolphins:
“The warning from police and conservation chiefs comes after “disturbing” encounters with dolphins and whales in Scottish waters was reported to the police.
Scotland is home to more than a dozen species of cetacean, including bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoises, Orca or minke, humpback or fin whales. But tourists flocking to see the creatures have been warned not to get close to them, as it could disturb their feeding or breeding.
Previous incidents have included a photographer in Shetland who circled a pod of killer whales too closely in a boat, splitting the group and stressing them.
On the River Tay, there have been issues with jet skiers harassing dolphins, particularly near Broughty Ferry, near Dundee.”The Scotsman
On the 5th April 2021, Royal Gazette reported how boaters and swimmers were getting too close to whales:
“Photographer Katie Roberts said that the boats were stationary and the whale was moving around.
Reckless boaters and swimmers have been trying to get close to whales putting themselves and the animals in danger, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Now the public is being urged to follow simple whale-watching guidelines to ensure their own and the whales safety.
“It is strongly recommended that members of the public do not swim with any whales, no matter how docile they may appear,” said a spokeswoman.
“With a casual slap of their tail, or even a fin, the whale could unintentionally strike a swimmer causing injury or even worse. Those tails and fins are big and heavy.
“Boaters and swimmers may not intend to be intrusive, but getting too close to the whales can actually disrupt feeding, nursing and migrating behaviours, and boats, in particular, can cause unintended injuries to the whale.”Royal Gazette
On the 21st October 2021, CBC News reported that a whale watching guide had been fined $10,000 for getting too close to a killer whale:
“A professional whale-watching guide in Campbell River has been fined $10,000 for illegally approaching a killer whale within 35 metres while touring a whale-watching group.
Nicklaus Templeman, the owner and operator of Campbell River Whale and Bear Excursions, was found to be in violations under the Species At Risk and Federal Fisheries Acts in Campbell River Provincial Court in September 2021.
According to a statement from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) on May 27, 2019, Templeman was observed approaching the killer whale, which was travelling with a pod, by two other whale watching guides near Willow Point, south of Campbell River.
Fishery officer Geoff Thorburn said the whale breached suddenly, prompting the other vessels to shut down immediately.
“That’s the appropriate move to do when something like that happens,” said Thorburn, adding that Templeman disclosed over the radio that he had seen the whale pod.
“He went up and around ahead of the whales and parked himself so that he would have an advantageous position for his clients, so that the whale would pass right in front of him. But in doing so, he got between the whales and the shore and that is their hunting grounds.”CBC News
The majority of incidents at sea regarding cetacean harassment and boat collisions concerns unregulated and unlicensed tour operators. However, avoiding them is easier said than done as Vanessa Williams-Grey of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Organisation (WDC) explained to me in an email on the 26th July 2021.
I asked the WDC how many cetacean watching businesses are currently in operation around the world, and whether operators have to be licensed or not? Vanessa Williams-Grey said:
“I don’t think anyone has quantified this, but certainly there are several thousand operators around the world and some countries do not offer a licensing system; whilst others are not particularly diligent in ensuring that ALL operators are registered/licensed etc.
Sorry if that sounds a bit vague but many of those taking people out to watch whales and dolphins do so opportunistically and therefore their businesses pass “under the radar”.
However, there’s far more effort these days to ensure that operators are trained, licensed and monitored to ensure basic standards and responsible boat handling – although, again, standards vary sharply from region to region.”Vanessa Williams-Grey (WDC)
I also asked Vanessa Williams-Grey if there were any concerns regarding the growing number of cetacean watching businesses, and whether there is a responsible cetacean watching guide for photo-tourists?
“There are concerns around too many operators in one small area (over crowding inevitably causes unnecessary stress upon the whale or dolphin populations targeted).
Cetaceans may respond to boat traffic by changing their daily routine (changing their normal foraging, resting or socialising behaviour for example); or by moving from the area completely to avoid high levels of boat disturbance.
Again, this applies to boat traffic generally, not just whale watch vessels.”
I would suggest using the basic principles listed in our guide to responsible whale watching, attached which provides generic advice applicable to all situations, as well as information about whale watching in specific regions.”Vanessa Williams-Grey (WDC)
No one is calling for an all-out ban on whale watching or diving however, tourists need to choose trips carefully, says Dr Lusseau of the WDC.
Organised whale watching – typically going out in boats to see them swim – started in the US in the 1950s and is now done in 120 countries worldwide. The industry is still growing, with countries in Asia and Latin America getting more involved.
But the size of the industry has increased concern about its impact on whales. A series of measures to control badly managed whale watching was discussed (2011) by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) at a meeting in Jersey. So does it harm the mammals?
The BBC reported that whale watching can have an impact on their natural behaviour, including their ability to feed, rest and rear their young. This can cause problems in the short and long term, say those working in the field of marine biology. Boats can also collide with the whales, putting everyone at risk.
“In the short term a boat interacting with whales can disrupt their activities, like stopping them foraging for food or resting,” says Dr David Lusseau, from the Institute of Biological and Environmental Science (BES) at the University of Aberdeen.
“This can be no big deal once or twice, but problems start if this is repeated again and again over time. Whale watching is a big industry – in some places boats can go out 10 times a day.
“In the long term this can have an impact of the whales’ vital rates. Females can even stop producing enough milk for their calves, which can decrease the survival rate of their young. Ultimately the viability of a pod can be threatened.”
Research has also shown that boat-related sound can drown out or “mask” cetacean vocalisations. This could result in animals either being unable to communicate (which could include prevention of biologically important communication related to mating or danger) or the animals having to increase the volume of their vocalizations, which may entail an additional energetic cost.
The effect of noise from whale-watching traffic and its population-level impacts are issues that require more quantification and attention.
Disturbance has also been linked to cetaceans temporarily or permanently abandoning areas. In addition to the energetic costs of moving to a new location and potentially establishing a new territory, animals may be displaced to less than optimal habitats—perhaps areas with higher predation, lower quality, or more difficulty in accessing prey species. (Lori Marino 2012)
Another type of tourism involving marine mammals is “provisioning” or feeding wild cetaceans—which most famously occurs in Monkey Mia in Australia seen in the image above and below. There are many concerns about the impact of this activity on the target species, as well as the risk to humans. (Lori Marino 2012)
On the 28th October 2019, Dr Valeria Senigaglia of the Aquatic Megafauna Research Unit (AMRU), Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Ecosystems, at the Murdoch University wrote in her report:
“Food-provisioning of wildlife can facilitate reliable up-close encounters desirable by tourists and, consequently, tour operators.
Food-provisioning can alter the natural behaviour of an animal, encouraging adverse behaviour (e.g. begging for food handouts), and affect the reproductive success and the viability of a population.
Studies linking food-provisioning to reproductive success are limited due to the lack of long-term datasets available, especially for long-lived species such as marine mammals.
In Bunbury, Western Australia, a state-licensed food-provisioning program offers fish handouts to a limited number of free-ranging bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus).
Coupled with long-term historical data, this small (<200 individuals), resident dolphin population has been extensively studied for over ten years, offering an opportunity to examine the effect of food-provisioning on the reproductive success of females (ntotal = 63; nprovisioned females = 8).
Female reproductive success was estimated as the number of weaned calves produced per reproductive years and calf survival at year one and three years old was investigated.
The mean reproductive success of provisioned and non-provisioned females was compared using Bayes factor. We also used generalized linear models (GLMs) to examine female reproductive success in relation to the occurrence of food-provisioning, begging behaviour and location (within the study area).
Furthermore, we examined the influence of these variables and birth order and climatic fluctuations (e.g. El Niño Southern Oscillation) on calf survival.
Bayes factor analyses (Bayes factor = 6.12) and results from the best fitting GLMs showed that female reproductive success and calf survival were negatively influenced by food-provisioning.
The negative effects of food-provisioning, although only affecting a small proportion of the adult females’ population (13.2%), are of concern, especially given previous work showing that this population is declining.”Dr Valeria Senigaglia
Whilst there’s various concerns surrounding the watching of cetaceans above water, there are equally just as many concerns regarding underwater photography practices too, all of which are rarely spoken about in camera clubs, and in online photography forums.
“DO NO HARM & DON’T TOUCH”
Most underwater photographers are concerned to protect the environment in which they take their pictures and to avoid stressing marine creatures when they are taking their images. This is good for the marine environment and leads to better photographs.
To prevent inadvertent damage to the underwater world, photographers need to not only develop superior diving skills, but also the ability to research, observe and understand how marine life behaves. This has the added advantage of allowing a subjects behaviour to be predicted accurately, allowing the photographer to be in the “right” place at the right time.
Returning to those dive skills for a moment, if the photographer cannot capture the image without damaging the environment, then the image should not be taken, and no harm should be undertaken to obtain that image. No photo is ever “worth” damaging fragile reefs, wildlife, or precarious ecosystems.
The job of an underwater photographer is to use one’s photographic skills to record and interpret what he/she sees underwater. Certainly, we should use our artistic skills to create beautiful or striking pictures of the undersea world, but capturing images that do not represent what is naturally occurring is fundamentally dishonest and is hence unethical.
Photographers who persist in questionable practices will often try to justify their actions with that of other photographers, filmmakers or even fisherman. They will say that their actions are “less” bad than those of others. Fundamentally, this belief is flawed and we should be judged by our own actions, not justify them by pointing out that others do “worse” things.
“IF A BEHAVIOUR SEEMS UNBELIEVABLE, IT PROBABLY IS”
It is good to know that the harassment of creatures is rightly considered unacceptable by the majority of underwater photographers.
Physically moving or repositioning animals in order to obtain a better image, showing them doing things they would not naturally do and changing the marine environment to create a more pleasing image are not only ethically wrong but are also fundamentally dishonest.
To misrepresent any image and the circumstances of its capture is morally questionable, in the case of manipulated subjects, those that do so are rarely willing to admit that they have done so.
As examples, octopuses rarely venture up into the water column (see image above), preferring to stay close to the reef. On the rare occasions that they do so, they are actively swimming, so if the image depicts “waving” tentacles, it is highly likely that the animal has been picked up and dropped in order to obtain it. Octopuses do not naturally “ride” on turtles either (see image below).
Boxer crabs live and hide in reef rubble, so an image of one out in the open is likely to have been captured by physically placing it there which is considered cruel (see image below).
Underwater photography has reached a new era. Gone are the days of vintage photography equipment—physical flashbulbs and rolls of film—that limit the number of photos you can take during a dive. They have been replaced by a never-ending, always-improving line of digital camera equipment, which now includes waterproof compact cameras that can photograph even the smallest of subjects.
Add to that the rise of social media, and now you can find magazine-quality photographs everywhere on Facebook and Instagram, many of them shot by amateurs who are just shooting for fun.
This seems great when it comes to inspiring new photographers, showing new or non-divers what other animals are out there, and also helping “critter hunters” with up-to-date locations of rare animals. However, there is also a downside to the emergence of digital equipment and social media—some divers and photographers are putting the image above respect for the environment.
With the abundance of great photographs on social media, it seems like there is a competition mentality—who can get the most likes or shares? There are photographers with compact cameras attempting to reproduce photos taken by a semi-professional with a setup worth thousands of dollars, and also photographers trying to force a shot or behavior in order to one-up a previously well-received photograph of the same subject.
As a consequence, the must-have tool for macro photography, the muck stick, which was mainly designed as a buoyancy aid when there’s current, is now sometimes used to herd creatures into unnatural positions for a photograph.
“CORAL REEFS ARE HOME TO THOUSANDS OF SPECIES OF FISH”
Coral reefs are living museums that are home to thousands of species of fish, lobsters, crabs, clams, seahorses, sea turtles, sponges, and reef sharks etc. The image above depicts dive tourists sat on a live coral reef waiting for a thresher shark at Malapascua in the Philippines.
Sitting, standing or using any heavy equipment on coral reefs can cause irreparable damage to the reef bed resulting in marine creatures being displaced and/or dying due to habitat destruction and predation.
In a 2001 experimental study of the impacts of underwater photographers on coral reef dive sites, Anthony B Rouphael and Graeme J Inglis wrote:
“Thirty-two out of 214 divers (15%) damaged or broke corals, mostly by fin kicks (95%). Impacts were most likely to be caused by male divers, in the first 10 min of the dive, at sites with a large abundance of branching corals.
Specialist underwater photographers caused more damage on average (1.6 breaks per 10 min) than divers without cameras (0.3 breaks per 10 min). To explore the effects of gender and use of a camera further, we issued single-use underwater cameras to 31 randomly chosen divers and compared their behaviour to a control group.
Use of a camera had no influence on the rate or amount of damage caused by these naïve photographers, but male divers were more likely to break corals and caused significantly more damage, on average, (1.4 breaks per 15 min) than female divers (0.3 breaks per 15 min).
Variability in the amount of damage caused by divers in our sample reflected the very different underwater behaviours exhibited by specialist and non-specialist photographers, and male and female divers.”Science Direct
Marine Biologists estimate that by 2050 ninety percent of the planets coral reefs will die, with a loss of some 6000-8000 species of fish that live within the planets coral reef ecosystems. While diving is not one of the top five main causes of coral reef destruction, its certainly adding extra pressure to the reef and its eco-system.
Furthermore, dive operators and whale watching guides continue to throw anchors overboard damaging fragile eco-systems and protected coral reef. Given the fact that anchor damage to coral reef has been recognized for decades (e.g. Davis, 1977) it is surprising that, still today, many tour guides choose to throw anchors on a regular basis instead of using mooring balls.
French humanist photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson once said:
“Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.”Henri Cartier-Bresson
The vast majority of professional and non-professional photographers will understand Henri Cartier-Bresson’s message, in that, things do continually vanish therefore its paramount that we, as photographers, do not contribute and accelerate that process with regards to wildlife and nature.
The shocking image below is an example of things that are continually vanishing, and I’m not speaking about the inhumane tourists and photographers either. Heartless tourists flocked to the Costa Rican Ostional Wildlife Refuge to capture images of the olive ridley and kemps sea turtles.
On the 9th September 2015, the Union of Workers of the Ministry of Environment and Energy said:
“Crowds swarmed the Ostional Wildlife Refuge, in north-western Guanacaste, and disrupted the nesting ritual for a number of olive ridley sea turtles, which are listed as a vulnerable or critically endangered species.
As they gathered in the hundreds, the visitors stood in the turtles’ way as they swam ashore and even placed children on top of them to snap keepsake photos, causing many of the creatures to return to the sea without laying their eggs.
Although the turtles arrive in large numbers almost every month, September and October are peak times, and tour operators have tried to cash in by offering additional tours to watch the turtles lay their eggs.
Other tourists touched the turtles, stood on top of their nests and snapped photos with flash cameras.
Refuge administrator Carlos Hernandez said he had never seen that many people at the beach, and that some visitors had entered through unauthorised access points.
The report suggested park rangers were overwhelmed by the number of tourists and unable to control the massive crowd on the four-mile stretch of beach, with only two guards on duty as they received help from three national police officers.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, Ostional Wildlife Refuge is one of the two most important areas in the world for olive ridley sea turtle nesting.
Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles generally arrive once a month and remain for three to five days at the beach, the WWF said.”Tico Times & Daily Mail
Since the 2015 incident stricter measures have been enforced by the Asociación de Guias, a Costa Rican charitable organisation founded by volunteers in 2009 to keep tourists under control during the arribadas.
“GOOD CHARACTER GOING BAD IS LIKE A BEAST ESCAPING ITS CAGE; IT WILL BE HARD TO CAPTURE IT AGAIN”
Conservation photographers shoot photography that empowers or enables conservation. According to the photographer, Joel Sartore, “the typical nature photograph shows a butterfly on a pretty flower. The conservation photograph shows the same thing, but with a bulldozer coming at it in the background.”
The image above was shot by underwater conservation photographer Juan Oliphant who claims to be passionate about shark and ocean conservation.
Juan’s goal is to get people to care about sharks and inspire change in the way people view sharks and our ocean, which is all very good and well until you see images like the one above, or the one below of which Juan’s partner, Ocean Ramsey is seen swimming and touching dangerous aquatic mega-fauna.
The message in these two images is as clear as day: “It’s okay to touch and swim with wild sharks.”
Apart from being reckless, this specific type of photography sets a poor example to others. When the good character of any photographer turns bad it creates a type of trickle down effect whereby others may copy the behaviour of Juan and his partner Ocean Ramsey.
‘THE IMPORTANCE OF WRITTEN CONTEXT IN CONSERVATION PHOTOGRAPHY’
After reviewing Ocean Ramsey and Juan Oliphant’s photography portfolios I was left horrified at the lack of, if any, written context concerning the swimming and touching of dangerous mega-fauna.
What many photographers don’t often consider when taking a picture is the issue of written context. If the viewer doesn’t know the context, what is happening, why its happening, and whether this is safe or not. The viewer is left in a state of limbo.
Whilst the majority of photographers can convey what is happening in their images without having to explain themselves to the viewer, images such as the one above need written context.
Written context can alter the meaning of a photograph. A photograph, especially with kids or nudity, depending on how those images are represented, can have very powerful and disturbing meanings.
When we’re talking about politics and journalism, context is even more important because of how an image is presented. Who presents the image? Where was it taken? You have to always remain critical. We cannot consume images aesthetically on their own anymore because we know that we can be manipulated.
However, written context isn’t always needed with every image we shoot, for example the image below conveys its own story without context. The image shows Laith Majid who was photographed crying and clutching his children after they almost drowned on the voyage to Kos.
With that said, images such as the one below need written context — unethical or ethical, we’re viewing a woman with a camera swimming with a dangerous apex predator which raises various questions — Is this okay? Can I do this? What’s happening? I thought sharks were dangerous? Without written context images such as Juan Oliphant’s communicates the message that its okay to swim with sharks.
On the 10th May 2020, Marine Biologist, Dr Alex Rose had this to say about Ocean Ramsey in a webinar she hosted concerning the Ethics of Underwater Photography:
“You’ve got images like this, where she is actively touching the shark. Now this is where I sort of personally felt differently about this image compared to the first one.
I don’t think its wrong that she necessarily interacted with the animal in this way, but you have to keep in mind this is someone that spends lots of time in the water with these sharks.
She knows the sharks individually, she’s spent tonnes of time in the water with sharks, she’s a marine biologist, she’s studied their behaviour, she knows its safe for her to do this at this point in time.
The problem being when you release images like this it makes everyone think they can do this, everyone thinks this is an okay way to interact with a shark, and I will tell you now, not everyone should be doing this.
The vast majority of people in the world should not be interacting with a great white shark in this manner because they do not have the expertise and experience that she does being in the water with them.
This image turned in to a bit of mess all over Facebook because people were posting comments such as: “this is horrible, I can’t believe anyone could do this” and other people were saying: “this is wonderful I’m so glad these images are out there.”
So like I said, its a mixed spectrum, much of a grey area, much of which depends on what you feel is right, and depending on what your motivation was for taking the photo or what you’re planning on doing with it, determines or not whether this qualifies as ethical conservation photography.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you whether I think this is good or not ethically. However, I probably would have stopped at the last photo.”Alex Rose, Marine Biologist – Ethics of Underwater Photography.
Whilst I agree with some of the concerns raised by Dr Rose, she didn’t outright condemn Ocean Ramsey’s behaviour! Dr Rose focused primarily on one image alone while hosting a webinar about the “ethics of underwater photography”.
Dr Rose never focused on the photographer either but more the model in front of the camera. Dr Rose then went on to state “I don’t think its wrong that she necessarily interacted with the animal in this way.” When in actual fact, its very wrong, condemned by the vast majority of expert marine biologists.
Dr Michael Domeier and Dr David Shiffman hit out at Ocean Ramsey’s antics for appearing in the viral shark interaction video, and in numerous online images depicting Ramsey handling sharks on Facebook and Twitter.
On the 18th January 2019, Dr Michael Domeier, the founding director of the non-profit Marine Conservation Science Institute (MCSI) had this to say about Ocean Ramsey’s antics:
“The number 1 rule of legitimate shark diving operators is DON’T TOUCH THE SHARKS! This is not shark advocacy, it is selfish, self-promotion.”Michael Domeier
Dr David Shiffman, a marine conservation biologist who studies sharks, told The Washington Post:
“I can’t believe that ‘please don’t grab the 18-foot long wild predator’ is something that needs to be explicitly said out loud, but here we are.
There is absolutely no reason for this person to grab and attempt to ride a free-swimming animal. It doesn’t show that sharks aren’t dangerous, it shows that some humans make bad choices.”David Shiffman
Meanwhile, members of the underwater photography community were quick to express their concerns too:
“I’d appreciate your work far more if you didn’t keep touching them, it’s such a bad example to set.” – Alison Smith
“You seem to be more about seeking glory, bringing attention to yourself and your business than to shark conservation. You are not a scientist, you are a poor example and you lead others to do the same.” – Chris Neal
“Guess it’s cool to ride wild creatures now…. anything for a couple “likes” for the Instagram generation.” – Curtis Snaper
“Another example of a false narrative that you can go out and pet a shark in the middle of the ocean.” – Fred Siddall
“This is really shameful, especially for someone that claims to be a marine biologist working toward shark conservation. Showing such carelessness is fine if you want to take on the personal risk and know the animal’s behaviour. However, publicly showing the dive and touching (i.e., harassing) the shark with the message that they are just gentle giants that are unlikely to hurt you is irresponsible. The received message, intended or not, is that the public can take similar risks and not cause stress for the animal nor instigate injury to the diver. Worse, the location is publicized. It is not professional or responsible.” – Laura Todd
“She has done this numerous times and she financially benefits from the coverage. Mexico has deemed that it is ILLEGAL to swim outside the cage at Guadalupe Island. She broke the law, end of argument. All this stunt did was give some idiots an idea to try some stunt next summer. You know, those pictures and videos that make we shark advocates pissed. I have done plenty of shark diving and at times I did have to establish my space by redirecting a tiger or lemon. It happens. She knowingly went out of her way to swim with and touch the GW. Everyone knows the rules and she broke them.” – Brian ArnoneOcean Ramsey, Facebook
On the 17th January 2019, Ocean Ramsey issued a statement to the public via her Facebook page regarding the controversial video where she is filmed and photographed handling and swimming with a great white shark:
Ocean Ramsey said:
“I try not to touch them unless they are extremely close or if there is a purpose.
Its incredible and I feel honoured and it fuels my constant desire to help save them.
Thanks to all those helping change perspectives, and gaining support for marine conservation.”Ocean Ramsey.
Baiting sharks for photography/videography has long term effects too. Some operators bait sharks by throwing fresh fish and fish scraps into the water, a controversial practice known as ‘chumming’ or baiting. Chumming attracts more than sharks though which underwater photographers love.
On the 24th January 2020, Torben Lonne, chief editor of DIVEIN said:
“Shark baiting is dangerous because it allows sharks to begin associating humans with food and makes them more aggressive to humans.
If sharks are being routinely fed in a particular area, it’s not surprising when they turn up in low waters and attack people.
They can smell humans and blood from approximately a mile away, and if they come close hoping to get fed and there’s no food, they can become quite angry and can attack surfers, divers and other innocent bystanders.”Torben Lonne
Director of the Florida Program for Shark Research (FPSR), Dr George Burgess, connected the scarcity of sharks with the practice of baiting:
“Dive tourism, which aims to please (meaning they want to make money) puts food in the water, which results in increased visitations from the sharks in that area. In some species, this leads to higher population numbers in the area
Burgess argued that baiting can negatively impact the shark population by teaching them learned behaviour.
Feeding of sharks has the effect that it can get rid of that natural concern between the shark and human, or, in some cases, teach them to equate the human with free food.
In a broader sense, altering the behaviour of the sharks can have impacts throughout the ecosystem.
There can be a negative effect as well: entrainment of animals, alteration of natural behaviour, and alteration of the ecology of the area. It’s going to alter the feeding dynamics of the whole food web, and it’s a change of natural behaviour.
There are examples of sharks in shallower water learning to respond to the sound of the boat’s motor, according to Burgess.
The animal will appear in the area before the food hits the water, when it even hears the motor of the boat, in the classic Pavlovian scenario where you ring a bell and the animal starts salivating.”Florida Program for Shark Research (FPSR)
The ocean is the foundation of all life, an extraordinary and largely unexplored place, teeming with fascinatingly diverse plants and animals which, together with currents and natural systems, shape our planet. The ocean provides us with food and facilitates pleasure, as well as livelihoods for millions, if not billions of people.
But the ocean is not just a commodity. The ocean is restorative. It calms and connects us. The positive impact it can have on our wellbeing is immense.
Right from the word go, we rely to the ocean to just breath. 50-85% of life-giving oxygen comes from the ocean. Tiny plankton and the ocean’s plants absorb CO2 and through a process called photosynthesis and release O2 back into the atmosphere.
So every time we breathe, over fifty percent of the oxygen we inhale has come from the ocean – so we literally need it to survive.
Its widely accepted now that we’re living through the sixth massive extinction. The fifth one was 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs vanished. Today we’re losing biodiversity at a similar rate. And if one species disappears it affects the whole food chain and the whole food web. So extinction of one species might cause extinctions of 10 other species with time.
Cetaceans are one of the most well-known groups of marine animals. There are around 89 living species in this group including whales, porpoises, and dolphins. Cetaceans are marine mammals that are widely distributed, finned, and carnivorous in nature.
Unfortunately, many species of cetaceans are in great danger of extinction due to human activities and interference in their environment. Many have also been hunted to near extinction. The loss of these cetaceans means damage to the ecological balance of marine ecosystems. Since most of the cetacean species are apex predators in their habitat, removal of the species creates an ecological imbalance.
The sei whale, blue whale, fin whale, hectors dolphin, North Atlantic right whale, North Pacific right whale, South Asian river dolphin, vaquita, and the baiji are all nearing extinction. In addition, more than a third of shark and ray species are directly threatened by extinction too.
Non-visible effects are also very difficult to monitor, particularly in wild cetacean populations. However, they include increased levels of the stress hormones cortisol and aldosterone, which were measured in dolphins that were encircled by capture nets.
Prolonged or cumulative stress is known to be linked to disease and lower rates of survival in marine mammals, and as such should not be taken lightly.
The noise from boat engines also has the potential to mask communication between whales and dolphins, or to force them to vocalize more loudly and more frequently.
A study that modelled the effects of vessel noise on killer whales indicated that 30-50 minutes of exposure to vessel noise at a distance of up to 450m could cause a temporary shift in hearing threshold, and that prolonged exposure to the superimposed sounds of several boats that many whales endure was likely to cause permanent shifts in hearing.
This is potentially devastating for a species that relies heavily on sound and echolocation for both feeding and maintaining social bonds. The disruption of communication and hearing is likely to affect the most vulnerable members of groups, such as dependent calves and their mothers.
The most comprehensive survey ever undertaken of sharks and rays found that 37% of 1,200 species evaluated now fall into one of three categories: “vulnerable,” “endangered,” or “critically endangered.”
The IUCN blamed overfishing for the threat — roughly 800,000 tons of shark is caught each year — intentionally or opportunistically, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Other research suggests the true figure is up to four times greater.
Up to half of the world’s coral reefs have already been lost or severely damaged too. And the negative development continues. Scientists predict that all corals will be threatened by 2050 and that 75 percent will face high to critical threat levels. Should we lose 75% of the worlds coral, millions of sea creatures that live within the coral will be threatened too.
Photography is not considered a ‘global threat’ to Mother Nature, however, our behaviour shows the world the person we really are. Destroying coral, harassing turtles and cetaceans, baiting sharks, and harming marine creatures just for a photo is considered a threat which must be deplored by all good ethical wildlife photographers and tourists.
Drone photography is the capture of still images by a remotely-operated or autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), also known as an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or, more commonly, as a drone. Drone photography allows images to be captured that might not be otherwise possible for human photographers.
Before affordable consumer drones were introduced into the consumer market, photographers and videographers had to rely on light aircraft such as helicopters, gyroplanes, paramotorings and microlights.
The first recorded use of a camera drone was back in `1896 by Alfred Nobel, famous for the invention of dynamite, Nobel launched a rocket with a camera on it. Nobel’s experiment marks the first time cameras were placed on an unmanned system. From 1896 to 2004 the vast majority of drones in operation were used for military purposes.
Come 2006 Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI) entered the market selling gimbals, flight controllers, propulsion systems and robotics for drone and camera manufactures. DJI finally released its flagship consumer drone the DJI Phantom 1 in 2013. The consumer drone market was officially born and Da-Jiang Innovations took the lead too.
The majority of today’s aerial photographers prefer to use consumer drones rather than light aircraft because its cheaper, safer, and more convenient. In addition, camera drones can be packed away in a small bag and taken just about anywhere.
Photographers enjoy todays era of camera drones because they give photos a unique and interesting perspective. Furthermore, they help you access hard-to-reach areas, they’re great for business, they take amazing shots, and they inspire creativity and innovation.
Asia is expected to continue being the biggest consumer of drones. It’s predicted that by 2025, $17 billion of the industry’s revenue will come from the continent. China and Japan are currently the biggest markets for drones and will most likely drive the continent’s contribution to the industry’s growth.
North America is forecasted to be the second-most popular drone region in the world by 2025, with nearly $12 billion worth of revenue coming from the drone industry alone. This will come as no surprise, as major technological and defence companies have invested heavily in drone technology, to the point where federal regulations on drones were even relaxed in 2020.
Europe will be the third-biggest region for drones in 2025, with $9.86 billion worth of revenue coming from the industry. Mirroring North America’s sentiments, the European Union has also acknowledged that drones will be a key part of development within businesses and society. As a result, the opportunity for the wider integration of drones into society has been aided through the establishment of particular EU commissions to see how to adopt drones safely within the continent.
Africa, South America and Oceania are forecasted to share just $3.28 billion of the global drone market by 2025, as the infrastructure in place in these locations is not as developed as in other parts of the world. However, with these continents having some of the fastest-growing economies worldwide, its anticipated that these locations will adopt drone technology faster than places such as Europe. (Charlie Barton July 2021)
“LACK OF REGULATION AND ETHICS”
There’s absolutely no denying that in recent years camera drones have become quite popular with photographers and videographers. However, there remains a lack of drone regulation and ethics concerning wildlife which is worrying several conservation and animal welfare charities. Furthermore, while drone sales increase so too are reports regarding wildlife harassment.
On the 27th August 2015, CBC news reported that a drone operator was fined more than $1000 for allegedly flying his drone too close to an orca pod:
“An American drone operator and photographer have been slapped with hefty fines for allegedly getting too close to a pod of orcas in Washington state.
The footage captured in the Haro Strait, just east of Vancouver Island, is incredible but one of the operators is facing a fine of more than $1,000.
U.S. authorities say the pair’s drones were within nine metres of the whales while the regulation requires all vessels should be at least approximately 183 metres back.”CBC News
Andrew Trites, the director of UBC’s marine mammal research unit, says whales detect sounds in the water but not what is overhead.
“So it’s not clear if they can hear that sort of sound,” he said. “They do perceive boat engines in the water but for the most part, drones are producing mostly low pitch sounds.
On the 20th February 2018, SUAS News reported that a tourist was given a life ban for flying his drone in the Kruger National Park (KNP):
“The flying of drones is illegal in national parks, as they are legislated protected areas with restricted airspace and therefore a no-fly zone for all unauthorised aircraft systems.
Currently, the applicable legislation is the South African National Environmental Management Act’s (NEMA) Protected Areas Act, which prohibits the flying of any machine at less than 2000 metres above any national park.
Flying such aircraft, getting out of vehicles on undesignated areas, interfering in sightings, and disturbing and stalking animals is illegal within the park and will bear consequences.
We would like to inform wrongdoers and other drone users that, should they be found flying them in the park at any time, they will be arrested on the spot and their equipment will be seized,” said Phaahla.”SUAS News
On the 31st August 2018, the BBC reported that wildlife experts are becoming “increasingly concerned” at the number of cases of protected wildlife being disturbed by drones:
“They say some drones are being flown dangerously close to breeding birds and animals at sites in Scotland. Seals have reportedly been chased into the sea at protected haul-out sites, which risks their pups being crushed.
Concerns are also being raised about nesting birds becoming panicked and plummeting off cliffs into the sea.
Andy Turner, wildlife crime officer with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), said: “There have been several incidents involving drones disturbing seals at designated haul-out sites. Likewise, there have been anecdotal reports of drones being used to film seabird colonies and raptors.
“While the footage from drones in these circumstances can be very spectacular, the operator must be mindful of the effect on wildlife.
“Birds of prey in particular can see drones as a threat and act aggressively towards them, causing both injury to themselves and damage to the drone.
“We would encourage anyone wishing to film wildlife with a drone to contact SNH for advice and, if necessary, apply for a licence.”
Birds like the golden eagle and mammals like dolphins and whales are protected from disturbance all year round, while others are given additional protection during the breeding season.
RSPB Scotland said birds like guillemots and razorbills in particular could be panicked by drones close to cliffs and that the implications could be “almost catastrophic”.
The charity uses drones itself for habitat and vegetation surveys and said they can be used positively.
Head of Investigations Ian Thomson said: “Watch the animals. You will get a sign if you are causing them any stress, you’ll see from their behaviour.
“You might see birds take flight or suddenly lift their heads and run off or walk off.”
If the birds start altering their behaviour, that shows that you are disturbing them and then it is time to move a drone away.”BBC News
On the 5th June 2021, the Guardian reported that protected elegant terns had abandoned 3000 eggs after drones were illegally flown over the Bolsa Chica ecological reserve sparking global outrage:
“About 3,000 elegant tern eggs were abandoned at a southern California nesting island after a drone crashed and scared off the birds, a newspaper reported Friday.
Two drones were flown illegally over the Bolsa Chica ecological reserve in Huntington Beach in May and one of them went down in the wetlands, the Orange County Register said.
Fearing an attack from a predator, several thousand terns abandoned their ground nests, according to the state department of fish and wildlife.
Now, during the month when the birds would be overseeing their eggs as they begin to hatch, the sand is littered with egg shells.
It’s one of the largest-scale abandonments of eggs ever at the coastal site about 100 miles (160 km) north of San Diego, according to the reserve manager, Melissa Loebl.
With the pandemic driving more and more people to outdoor spaces, last year saw about 100,000 visitors to the Bolsa Chica reserve – up from about 60,000 the previous year, Loebl said.
That’s contributed not only to increased drone activity, but also to more dogs and bicycles on the trails – all of which are prohibited.”The Guardian
A 2015 Elsevier study on brown bears showed how the sheer presence of a flying drone, and its close proximity can initiate extreme panic in brown bears.
Researchers placed a heart rate monitor on a brown bear and then flew a drone nearby. The bear did not exhibit typical avoidance or stress responses such as swatting or running away.
In fact the bear simply watched the drone. To the casual observer it may have seemed that the bear was unaffected by the drone’s presence. However, when the researchers analysed the data from the heart monitor, it showed that the bear’s heart rate had increased by 400% during the encounter.
To minimise the negative impacts drones have onto wildlife, some studies have recommended codes of practice until more research can be conducted to enable more comprehensive standards to be developed.
Key aspects contained in the suggested codes are summarised below:
- Obey civil aviation rules
- Seek approval from institutional ethics committees before using drones for research purposes near animals
- Anyone using drones should exercise caution to minimise disturbance of wildlife, particularly where endangered species or ecologically sensitive habitats are involved – ideally have experienced pilots fly near wildlife to minimise risk and flight time required
- Utilise drones with low noise production and size
- Launch and land drones at least 100m from animals and fly at a reasonable altitude and distance from animals at all times
- Avoid moving directly toward the animal as it may mimic a predator’s movements – lawn mower patterns have been found to have minimal disturbance effects
- Where ever possible, expert advice should be obtained if there is no research available for a given species’ response to drones and thus what is a reasonable distance to fly from the animal to minimise potential disturbance
- Monitor animal responses to the drone and cease flying if they become excessively disturbed
- When conducting studies around animals with drones, the exact flight practices such as altitude and distance from animals and the responses of the animals should be reported as part of the study to assist future research and regulations
Perception of drones by wildlife is related to their habitat, species type, and type of drones and method of its operation. Large, noisy drones may instigate a fight-or-flight response in wildlife, especially if the drone approaches wildlife directly and at high speeds.
Studies have shown that birds are most impacted by drone use, and herd species tend to respond more dramatically to approaching drones (Mulero-Pazmany et al. 2017). However, more research is necessary on how wildlife is affected by drones.
Its our responsibility as ethical and responsible drone users and wildlife caretakers to limit the effects we have on the animals around us. Many locations recognise drone flight around wildlife as harassment and as such, have implemented laws and regulations for the prohibition of drone use in many places.
The more people who abuse the privilege of getting to fly recreational drones, the more limitations everyone will have in using drones.
Setting a good example for ourselves and others can help to limit these regulations by being responsible drone owners and users. However, this is easier said than done.
Drone manufactures need to do more too, for example, educating the drone community about the negative impacts drones have onto wildlife via social media is a start.
In addition, the implementation of a drone photography/videography wildlife code of practice is critically important to help minimise wildlife disturbance, harassment, and death in some species.
Back in November 2018, a distressing video emerged on Viral Hog depicting what appears to be an adult grizzly bear trying to rescue its cub from what we now know was a drone flown by Dr Dmitry Kedrov in the Magadan Region, Russia.
Biologists who watched the video stated they saw the work of an irresponsible drone operator who, in trying to film and photograph the bears, drove them into a dangerous situation that almost cost the cub its life. “I found it really hard to watch,” says Sophie Gilbert, an ecologist at the University of Idaho who studies, among other things, how drones affect wildlife.
“It showed a pretty stark lack of understanding from the drone operator of the effects that his actions were having on the bears.”Dr Sophie Gilbert
Dr Clayton Lamb echoed the concerns of Dr Gilbert too:
“The setting of the video is already suspicious. With a cub that small and vulnerable, it’s very unlikely that a mother bear would opt to traverse such a steep and slippery slope.
There’s no reason a female would normally accept that risk, unless they were forced into it.
It doesn’t matter how far away it was, because I can tell from the bears’ behaviour that it was too close.”Dr Clayton Lamb University of Alberta
Throughout the video, Dr Lamb notes, the mother is constantly looking up at the drone and is clearly bothered by its presence. At some point, the footage zooms in, probably because the drone itself was swooping closer.
That, Lamb says, explains why the mother unexpectedly swats at the cub, causing it to fall. She probably read the drone’s approach as a kind of attack and was trying to push her cub away.
She may, as some biologists have suggested, have parsed it as an eagle (and indeed, the shadow of a bird of prey can be seen in the video clip above). But Lamb suspects that her concern was more straightforward: A strange, loud object was closing in.
“Many people think that drones are silent, like a soaring bird or a paper airplane,” he says, but at close range, they can be very loud.”Dr Clayton Lamb
DRONES & WILDFIRES
In recent years, there have been a number of cases of drone crashes that started wildfires, particularly in dry, high wildfire-risk areas such as Arizona or Oregon. So how does a crash lead to setting off a fire?
In many cases, it appears to be battery initiated. If the battery shorts out, or is overheated when the drone lands (whether the battery malfunction causes a crash landing, or the drone is landed intentionally), the overheated battery can cause dry grasses, pine needles or other easily combustible natural materials to ignite. If this occurs in a drought-ridden or generally arid area, it could lead to a widespread wildfire (see image below).
In some cases the cause of overheating and combustion does not appear to originate from the battery, but rather from the ESC’s or motors. An improperly functioning motor could generate enough heat to ignite dry combustible material in the same way, or could even send off sparks.
In most of the reported cases of drones unintentionally initiating wildfires, the drone in question was a racing drone. This is likely the case for a number of reasons.
One reason may be that the motors and batteries of racing drones are more exposed and less enclosed than they typically are in more standard off-the-shelf models. Any issues such as overheating or sparking are more likely to cause problems when less contained.
Also, racing drones generally don’t have legs to land on, and would be in more direct contact with potentially combustible materials upon landing than a drone that has landing gear, so to speak.
The risk of fire from drones is not limited to outdoor settings. LiPo batteries are known for their instability and risk of combustion too.
On the 26th June 2018, Pamplin Media reported that a drone had crashed into dry grass in a national park causing a small wildfire:
“Scappoose Fire District personnel on Tuesday, June 26, responded to a 20-by-10 grass fire caused by a downed drone near Scappoose Industrial Airpark.
Several individuals were flying a drone in Federal Aviation Administration-restricted airspace on Wagner Court, just off of West Lane Road in Scappoose, when it had a malfunction, landed in dry grass and sparked a fire, according to a June 29 press release from the fire district.
The drone operators attempted to stomp out the fire but were unsuccessful. They called 911 at roughly 5:49 p.m.
The drone went down in a vacant field with no nearby structures, the release notes.
Firefighters responded with one engine, one brush truck, three support vehicles and nine personnel. The fire was limited to roughly a quarter-acre of dry grass.
The drone was slightly damaged and its operators, who are not identified in the press release, were issued a verbal warning for using it in restricted airspace.”Pamplin Media
On the 1st September 2020 the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) found the presence of flying drones can trigger fear in water birds, geese, swans, and ducks causing them to flee.
Disturbances caused by drones could affect rare and protected species, causing them to waste energy and reduce time spent in winter feeding grounds experts fear.
BTO scientists flew a commercially available quadcopter drone towards water bird flocks in coastal, freshwater and arable crop farmland habitats.
While one researcher flew the drone at a standard speed and height towards the flock, another watched through a telescope to record any responses to the drone as it approached, including alarm calls, signs of heightened alertness and taking flight.
The experiment revealed larger flocks were more likely to take flight than smaller flocks, and large flocks also took flight at a greater distance from the drone than smaller flocks. Habitat also had a significant impact on the reaction of birds, as well as group size.
Birds at inland lochs, areas with lots of other human activity and noise, were unlikely to respond to the presence of a drone. However, birds at coastal sites were more likely to respond, possibly due to being accustomed to lower noise levels.
Birds in arable farmland were particularly sensitive, the scientists found, likely a result of the need to be on the lookout for predators in the exposed area.
The report complied by the British Trust for Ornithology went onto state:
“The mass proliferation of drones and the increasingly likelihood of commercial and recreational drone use taking place close to wildlife creates a new and potentially significant source of disturbance to wild birds.
Such disturbance, which could affect rare and protected species, causes birds to waste energy and reduces their feeding time.
In extreme cases, birds might stop using an area altogether, and be forced to feed elsewhere, where feeding opportunities may be poorer or the risk of predation higher.
This could be particularly harmful during the cold winter months, when vast numbers of water birds come to Britain from the Arctic to feed up before the breeding season.”Dr David Jarrett, (BTO)
The lead researcher, Dr David Jarrett said:
“While we expected that the drone would cause large flocks to flush, we were surprised that birds hardly seemed to respond to the drone at all at those inland lochs where there was already lots of human activity taking place.
Hopefully this research can be used to help inform guidance and regulations on drone use in proximity to wild birds.”Dr David Jarrett, (BTO)
THE WRONG TOOL FOR WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY
The camera drone is the wrong tool for most wildlife photography projects. Of all of challenges of wildlife photography, perhaps the most difficult to master is appropriate distance: We want to get as close as possible to get great shots, while staying far enough away to keep subjects from becoming stressed, behaving unnaturally, or fleeing.
In between those extremes is a grey area of extremely subtle ethical considerations, when an animal is aware of a photographers presence yet not showing any overt signs of being bothered.
This is why serious photographers invest much money and time into extending their “reach” with super telephoto lenses, blinds, and other equipment and techniques to get closer—but not too close.
High-quality camera drones have added a new dimension to this careful calculus over the last decade, dangling the tantalizing promise of smashing this dichotomy and getting photographers closer, with new angles, less disturbance, and at a lower cost. Unfortunately, however, this is a false promise.
The reality is that current drone technology actually puts photos much farther away while introducing new, less predictable risks to birds and other wildlife. You don’t see professional bird photographers using drones for good reason: They are a lose-lose scenario for both photographers and animals.
To take adequately detailed photos of birds and other wildlife for example, you generally need to get closer than drones safely can. While drones are tiny and autonomous, they are also noisy, conspicuous, and unfamiliar to most animals, especially to wild birds.
And for many accessible wild animals living in close proximity to people, drones can be even more frightening than we are. This is especially true for wild birds that respond to drones as they would to threatening predators. This is why drones should never be flown over nesting birds for photography.
While it is now well established (from studies) that drones can easily disturb wildlife, for wildlife management (unlike photography), it is a question of degree. If, for example, checking an Osprey nest with a drone can be less disruptive than throwing a ladder up to the nest, than the calculus of whether it is a worthwhile activity may be different for that of a photographer.
The end result of these studies suggested that the minimum safe distance for drones was 200 feet. The animals became more alert at 150 feet. And below 120 feet, the disturbance was noticeably extreme. However, it must be empathised, that each species of animal behaves differently. As such further detailed studies are required.
The fact that a drone doesn’t get you closer to subjects is made worse because small, consumer drones only carry the tiniest, specialised cameras (usually a sports-action camera like a GoPro). While these cameras are amazing in their own right, they are the opposite of what wildlife photographers want.
Drone photography is a magnificent, stunning, modern art form. It just has little value in wildlife photography with exception of extreme aerial distance shots (like an overhead shot of a flock of birds that is so large the shape of the flock becomes the subject) taken with an ultra-wide angle lens.
Evolving camera technology is one of the most hopeful potential developments for ethical wildlife photography. Imagine a new generation of super telephoto lenses which would allow us to take the same photo we can today at twice the distance.
Or a new ultra-high resolution sensor which would allow us to crop images more tightly with greater quality. Unfortunately, drones, as currently conceived and manufactured, are not the technological step forward that most wildlife photographers need.
Camera drones when used correctly provide stunning images or video footage of landscapes, seascapes and architecture. In addition, several charities use drones to map forests, monitor wildlife at a safe distance, or close distances to minimise human species conflict and poaching attacks.
Furthermore, most consumer and industrial drones are equipped with ultrasonic sensors that emit high frequency sounds that are audible to some animals. However, further studies are required to determine whether ultrasonic sensor noise can interfere or disturb specific sensitive species of animals such as birds, bats, cetaceans and rodents.
Photography baiting remains a controversial subject. On the one hand, it can remove the fear of humans from rare and protected species, putting them at risk. On the other, how is it any different to putting out a feeder for wild birds in your garden? Then there’s also the chance that the humans can put themselves and others at risk as more dangerous species lose their fear of people.
“Is baiting animals for wildlife photography worth the shot, and is it considered ethical?”
Photography baiting is considered unethical by the majority of wildlife photographers because it carries various risks ranging from habitation, spread of diseases, injury and death. Reversing the habituation process is almost impossible too of which animals can become dependant on humans for free food, rather than that of their natural habitat.
In addition to habitation, some photography setups are also considered hazardous and unethical to animals too. The image below depicts a tank setup which to the casual onlooker may seem relatively harmless. However, if the protected schedule one kingfisher were to approach the tank from the side, the bird could mistake the transparent tank for water resulting in the bird hitting the side of the tank at speed leading to injury, or even death.
Meanwhile, the image viewer does not discern the photographer luring or bating with respect to the staged photos. Instead, the viewer is deceived into a false narrative that the subject has been photographed behaving naturally, hunting or foraging for its own food.
Intrinsically this creates a demand for said photos, and sets a bad example to others who may choose to copy the same photography projects by enrolling in photography courses that practice tanking, and other unethical wildlife photography activities.
Furthermore, photographers that practice these types of hazardous baiting projects will only learn about their mistakes when sickness, habituation, injury or death of an animal transpires. Unfortunately, by that time its often too late, and the damage has been done of which the photographer rarely avows to their preconceived and wilful transgressions.
Some photographers will try to justify their actions by minimising harm or disturbance as seen in the image below. The photographers have concealed and cushioned the sides of the tank therefore reducing the likelihood of a bird injury. Furthermore, to avoid disturbance, the photographers have positioned their cameras on a stand where they operate each camera from an infrared, motion sensor (PIR), or wired remote silent shutter-release.
However, what the photographers fail to grasp is that habituation and disturbance can still eventuate, and while there has been some attempt made to reduce harm and disturbance, its not fool-proof.
When photographers begin justifying their behaviour by minimising any potential harm with respect to a wildlife photography project, its normally a good idea to step-back, and contemplate whether this is really a good idea or not?
The majority of voracious wildlife photographers choose not to bait, modify their surroundings, or disrupt the natural behaviours of their living subjects, instead they prefer to sit-it-out in all weather conditions, using the correct photography equipment which can be challenging but rewarding in the long-run, especially for competitive or documentary photography.
Instead of using bait to lure wildlife closer, most professional photographers will use a dedicated hide to camouflage themselves from sensitive species of wildlife such as birds, deer, foxes and big cats. As an added bonus, many hides will also offer rain protection too, and with the correct telephoto lenses, most photographers prefer patience over impatience.
Where a portable photography hide, or static blind has been setup without implementing lures such as live or dead bait, this is considered good-practice and ethical. However, when using live or dead bait near-to the hide, the hide is nothing more than an inefficacious tool, and serves no purpose concerning bona fide wildlife photography.
Occasionally, some photographers will operate from a blind that’s adjoined to a reflective pool such as the one seen in the image below. Reflective pools are an excellent accompaniment to any hide because they attract all sorts of feathered birds, and land mammals.
However, if bait is added to frequently lure animals into the pool time-after-time, there’s always that possibility that some species of animals could become dependant on humans as a free food source.
In addition, where total habitation has occurred due to baiting, some animals are known to migrate into human populated areas in search of food. When habituated animals migrate into urbanised areas they face other risks too such as predation, vehicle strikes or deliberate persecution.
In conclusion, baiting wildlife for photography is viewed as unethical by the majority of wildlife photographers, and is not worth the shot due to several identified risks that are associated with photography baiting projects.
“How is baiting raptors any different to feeding garden birds seed and millet?”
Hide operators and wildlife photographers that support bird baiting will often try to justify their actions by comparing the feeding of garden birds to that of birds of prey. And while both behaviours are somewhat identical, there remains a significantly big difference between the two that requires a more meticulous comparison.
The growing accessibility of camera equipment, paired with a remerging appreciation for nature, means that more and more photographers are seeking the perfect wildlife shot.
An owl swooping down after prey can be visually striking, and also a rare moment for a photographer relying on timing and patience to get a picture. However, the urge to compete with one another, especially on social media is enticing more and more photographers to take the impatient route.
Raptors are a common species of bird that wildlife photographers enjoy photographing, however, within the last decade ornithologists have voiced their concerns regarding the use of live and dead rodents for bird baiting photography. These concerns primarily relate to the use of rodenticide.
When baited raptors are fed poisoned rodents, the raptor will suffer the same fate as the rodent. Furthermore, when the raptor dies, animals that scavenge off of the dead raptor carcass will die too.
As with the kingfisher shot, some photographers will try to justify their behaviour by minimising harm and disturbance of which they may purchase live or dead rodents from a pet store. Additionally, some photographers may trap and kill rodents with non-baited traps too which is seen as cost effective.
Some photographers have also been known to collect dead birds to use as raptor bait, however, all of this comes at a price in the long-run, especially if those dead birds have died as a result of poisoning, salmonella or other diseases.
Birds of prey should hunt for their own food because it’s part of their healthy behavioural patterns. When they’re fed by photographers and others seeking to get a closer look, it can disrupt their lives, which isn’t good for the longevity of the species.
While raptor baiting may seem relatively harmless, it comes with many problems which can lead to the following:
- Causing wild animals to lose their fear of humans
- Encourages birds to fly into roadways and toward cars
- Raptors may be fed food that is not normally in their diet
- Possible introduction of pathogens, such as salmonella and parasites to the population
- Inconsistent food source
- Baited hides can attract high numbers of raptors which could lead to the displacement of smaller birds and animals in the food chain to habitats that are unsuitable for them
- Dead birds used for raptor prey could potentially have been poisoned which can pass onto the raptor, and its young
As indicted above, baiting birds of prey is no different to that of feeding garden birds, in that its the same behaviour. Feeding garden birds has been a tradition in the United Kingdom since the 6th century when monk Saint Serf of Fife tamed a pigeon by feeding it.
The industry is now worth over £11 million. During the harsh winter of 1890–1891 in the United Kingdom national newspapers asked people to put out food for birds to maintain the longevity of their survival during the cold wintery months.
While most people don’t associate bird feeders with live food, some feeders do dispense wriggling meals in the form of mealworms. They are an important source of protein for several species of birds, and research has shown feeding to be beneficial.
Careful data collection by people running bluebird trails in the Americas affirmed that during harsh springs, bluebird survival improved with artificial feeding—an important consideration in efforts to restore bluebird numbers to historical highs.
These bluebird aficionados developed feeders designed for small cavity-dwellers, and like birds visiting traditional bird feeders and feeding stations, bluebirds learned to associate the feeders, not people, with their meals.
Two other groups regularly provide live meals for birds: Raptor researchers and photographers. But setting out live or dead rodents to lure raptors differs from traditional bird feeding in a fundamental way.
With the latter, it’s the feeding station and birds already present that attract new birds, not the humans providing the food. There is no rodent dispenser that raptors can visit whenever they want. As intelligent, adaptable predators, birds of prey lured by mice learn to associate people with food.
Researchers have always called their practice of offering mice to owls “baiting.” As with setting mousetraps, baiting hooks to lure fish, and other uses of the term, baiting attracts an animal for an immediate purpose.
Scientists and rehabbers bait owls for banding, relocating away from airports and other dangerous sites, and rehabilitation of injured birds. Baiting is the safest way to lure an owl for these purposes, and even if it gets the reward of a meal, the process of being trapped and handled is a negative experience, making that bird less, not more, likely to approach people in the future.
Photography, on the other hand, creates a positive association with bait and so habituates birds to a situation that can be harmful. Even when photographers conscientiously bait far from roadsides, if a bird of prey learns to associate their presence with food, it will be drawn to roads as that’s where people are most often found.
UNREGULATED PHOTOGRAPHY HIDES
Contrary to popular belief, photography baiting is quite common all around the world. Photographers that practice baiting at competitive levels rarely confess to doing so because most photography organisations prohibit any means of baiting. Furthermore, baiting is viewed as unethical, with some photographers left feeling cheated by those that do bait.
In addition, the small minority of hide operators that run baiting activities for amateur and professional photographers are only interested in generating considerable sums of money by exploiting local wildlife for profit, fame and social media attention, rather than being a genuine and ethical wildlife photographer.
With that said, the majority of hide operators are genuine photographers themselves that practice and teach ethical photography using the correct equipment in the right locations. Several U.K wildlife organisations also permit photographers to shoot on their land using hides and reflective pools too, however, baiting and luring is normally prohibited by most wildlife and national trust charities.
Unfortunately, a small minority of photographers don’t practice good ethics whereby they repeatedly bend the rules and laws to suit them, and their modus operandi. Furthermore, some hides in the U.K. are not fit for purpose placing both photographers and animals in danger too.
In recent years, the growing number of private wildlife photography hides has skyrocketed in the United Kingdom, many of which are not regulated or even registered companies.
Scottish Photography Hides, owned by Alan McFadyen is one of many hundreds of unregulated hides that has been criticised in the past by several renowned photographers, and members of the public.
Complaints regarding Scottish Photography Hides range, from cruelly tanking schedule one kingfishers as seen in image below from ITV Border Life who interviewed McFadyen regarding his so-called nature photography.
Concerns about the spread of diseases, habituation and disturbance of protected fauna have also been raised by a number of wildlife photographers regarding daily and persistent baiting of birds, and land mammals at McFadyen’s hides.
Furthermore, between 2016-2017, a number of complaints were lodged with the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) regarding the type of bait used at McFadyen’s hides to lure birds of prey.
These allegations focused on the use of live or dead bait, some of which was photographed nailed to posts at McFadyen’s hides, as seen in the image below snapped by Gary Jones, a regular visitor to Scottish Photography Hides.
After researching Alan McFadyen’s website, and social media pages, I came across a substantial amount of baiting from various hides up and down the country which raises several concerns about habitation, imprinting, behavioural change and disturbance.
McFadyen baits a wide genera of birds ranging from owls, sparrow hawks and cuckoos to name but a few. McFadyen’s hides also attract unusually high numbers of mixed wildlife too, attracting photographers from all over the United Kingdom.
In addition to birds, McFadyen lures and baits smaller animals to reflective pools ranging from red squirrels, badgers, foxes, otters and mink. Whilst there’s no clear evidence of wildlife crimes being committed at Alan’s hides, some of McFadyen’s social media posts are concerning and suspicious.
On the 1st November 2016, McFadyen posted images of dead birds onto his Facebook page which he claimed were legally sourced from cat owners and bird breeders which McFadyen, and visiting photographers use to bait raptors.
McFadyen stated on that Facebook post seen here:
“I have a good supply of dead birds that are from cat owners, and cage bird breeders so I will be using these for the next few weeks. Looks much better in the shot. Book while stocks last.”Alan McFadyen
Whilst using dead birds from cat owners and bird breeders is not illegal. The abundance of dead birds at McFadyen’s hides that are used to bait birds of prey concerned wildlife photographers, which McFadyen claimed had made a complaint to the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA).
On the 11th December 2017, McFadyen claimed on his Facebook page that the (SSPCA) had visited Scottish Photography Hides to carry out an inspection.
After the inspection, McFadyen stated:
“Had a visit from the SSPCA today as someone was worried that I couldn’t possibly source the number of birds that I sometimes put out for the sparrow hawk.
The SSPCA were invited to go through my chest freezer which they did, and of course everything was well above board. I have a lot of dead birds in the freezer that are all from legitimate sources which I proved straight away.
I must say that they were absolutely brilliant in the way they treated me, and couldn’t have been nicer. These dead birds I obtain instead of going to waste provide a nice meal for the sparrow hawk, and in turn save a living bird from being killed.
I would suspect it was reported by one of the ethic brigade who have no idea how I operate. These saddos are just wasting valuable time of people that have more important things to do. Nice try but again you fail. PLEASE SHARE in the hope that they see it.
Thanks Alan”Alan McFadyen
As mentioned, the use of dead bait to lure birds of prey for a more natural looking photograph is not considered illegal. However, the abundance of so many dead birds from so-called “cat owners and bird breeders” stored in a chest freezer is somewhat unusual to see at wildlife hides where bait is used regularly.
The risk of communicating infectious diseases to raptors from any dead animal is also a concern. Furthermore, baited raptors are placed at a significantly high risk of unintentional/intentional poisoning by photographers that use dead animals that’s cause of death is unknown.
On the 2nd May 2021, I reached out to the SSPCA for further information concerning their so-called inspection at Scottish Photography Hides, however, under the Data Protection Act 2018 the SSPCA could not provide any insight into what they inspected and why.
“If it’s good enough for them, its good for me.”
From April to December 2021, I questioned several well-known bird baiters that own photography blinds/hides throughout the United Kingdom. A small minority of baiters agreed that habituation and disturbance can eventuate from photography baiting however, the baiters also pointed to the RSPB that use bird baited images to raise donations, sell merchandise, and to create awareness concerning animal welfare.
On the 1st May 2016, Alan McFadyen claimed that the RSPBs vice president, Chris Packham was in support of bird baiting too despite the RSPB informing me they did not recommend feeding or luring birds for the purpose of photography.
The majority of baiters I questioned concerning the RSPB showcasing their images stated, “if its good enough for them, its good enough for me.” After researching the RSPB websites, social media pages, and known affiliates, I came across a substantial amount of baited wildlife photography which would likely explain the grey areas of debate that emerge in some wildlife forums concerning those that are for, and against photography baiting.
Additionally, its also understood the RSPB’s vice president, Chris Packham is somewhat of a regular visitor to Scottish Photography Hides too, where birds and land mammals are baited for photography.
On the 21st May 2021, I reached out to Chris Packham via email, on Facebook and on Twitter for an explanation concerning the baiting of birds and land mammals. However, at the time of publishing this article, Chris Packham refused to comment.
Back in May 2021, I reached out to the RSPB concerning their position on luring and baiting birds for photography. The RSPB’s reply contradicts what I came across on their website, social media pages, and from known affiliates that represent the RSPB.
On the 7th May 2021, the RSPB replied to my email stating:
“Good afternoon Jon, thank you for your message.
Apologies for the lack of reply to your email, we currently have a long waiting period due to the volume of emails. I have found it.
We do not recommend luring birds for photographs, whether that’s with food or call playback. However, we do recommend feeding because supplementary feeding can be very helpful for wild birds, especially when there is a shortage of natural food.
The feeding is meant to be to help birds rather than purely for our enjoyment or capturing a photo. Taking a look at your email, there is no set distance to keep away from nests or birds, but rather people and photographers should watch out for signs of disturbance such as sharp alarm calls or flying away from nest or difficulty flying back to the nest.
Every bird is different so photographers must be alert and aware of changes in behaviour due to their presence. I hope this answers your query.”RSPB
On the 13th May 2021, I forwarded the same question to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) concerning their position on luring and baiting birds for photography.
The BTOs Head of Communications stated:
Thank you for getting in touch with us through Facebook and for asking about our position on the luring and baiting of birds for photography.
Although we do not have a position statement on this – because it is not something that is directly related to our work or core charitable activities – there are two areas where the ethics of wildlife photography does overlap with what we do or what we have done.
The first of these is through the images that we use in our publications, most of which have been donated for our use by a small number of wildlife photographers with whom we have developed relationships.
Ethics is something that has come up in discussions with some of these photographers, though this has been as part of wider conversations about wildlife photography rather than in relation to the images they have donated for our use.
We would not want to use images that had been captured through unethical practices, such as ‘live-baiting’.
The second area is in relation to Bird Photographer of the Year, a competition with which BTO was involved over several years. As part of our input to the competition, we worked with the wider team on the ethical considerations of such competitions.
We felt that it was important that the competition should have a clear statement on ethics and that the rules should include rules relating to the ethics of capturing an image (which covered things like ‘live baiting’ and disturbance).
Although we are no longer involved in the competition, it looks like the current rules still include the components on ethical considerations (including the prohibition of live baiting).
Just as our scientific research and monitoring activities are governed by legislative and ethical principles, designed to protect the birds and other wildlife that we study, we would hope that bird photographers, and indeed birdwatchers, follow a similar approach when participating in their own, independent activities.
I hope that helps. If you have not seen it, you might find Audubon’s ethics guide useful.”
With best wishes
Head of Communications
British Trust for Ornithology
The Nunnery, Thetford, Norfolk IP24 2PUBritish Trust for Ornithology
As it stands, there is insufficient regulation governing what photographers can and cannot do at privately owned photography hides in the United Kingdom. Fortunately, wildlife in the U.K. is offered year-round protection, however, until stringent regulations are enforced concerning unregulated hides, unscrupulous photographers will continue bending and breaking current British wildlife laws.
As mentioned, there are many hundreds of regulated and unregulated photography hides/blinds throughout the United Kingdom. While many appear to be genuine hides that focus more on the welfare of the subject, others focus more on the importance of the photo.
The fundamental rule of ethical wildlife photography is that the welfare of the subject is more important than the photo, however, when that rule is broken, so-called wildlife photographers cross into another divide, whereby they focus purely on themselves rather than the natural beauty that is in front of them.
Habituation is an extremely simple form of learning, in which an animal, after a period of exposure to a stimulus, stops responding. The most interesting thing about habituation is that it can occur at different levels in the nervous system.
Animals always survey their surroundings for potential threats. Sometimes the threat is real, and other times, there’s nothing for them to worry about. Many times, the perceived threat is a friendly human in their environment. The animals then become habituated to the perceived threat and continue to live as normal.
In addition to habitation, when a stimulus is added time-and-time again such as food, the animals begin to associate humans with food therefore losing their natural hunting and foraging behaviours.
This is especially concerning when young animals such as fledglings and their parents have become totally reliant on humans as a food source. Moreover, if the stimulus ceases for whatever reason and the humans move on, it often results in animals dying from starvation or following humans back to their habitat looking for food.
Examples of habitation range from:
- Prairie dogs retreat into their holes at the sound of approaching human footsteps. When this occurs many times and the prairie dogs know the footsteps are not a threat, they no longer retreat at the sound of footsteps
- Ducks in a small pond at a park are scared of people and fly away when approached. They become used to humans over time as they interact with them, and as people feed them, causing them to realize that the humans are not a threat
- A newly-purchased pet bird is initially scared of its owners hand, and backs away or bites when its owner attempts to take it out of its cage. After a few days, the bird becomes used to the owner and readily hops onto his/her hand, realizing the owner does not pose a threat
Canadian Geologist and Natural Heritage Education Specialist at Algonquin Provincial Park, Dr David Legros, believes the bad behaviour of photographers can be attributed to the widespread use of social media platforms. Before the likes of Facebook and Twitter came along, photographers relished in shooting, processing and showcasing their images in galleries and magazines.
Nowadays, the majority of photographers are competing with each other for awards, likes, shares and online fame which can pressurize some photographers into taking risks, or being impatient.
Back in June 2021, Canadian Geologist, Dr David Legros had this to say about baiting and habituation, and why photographers should avoid it:
“Baiting causes habituation, “rewarding” an animal for abnormal behaviour. Habituation happens when an animal is exposed to a stimulus so many times, it loses sensitivity or stops viewing the stimulus as a threat.
Therefore, habituated animals may become aggressive toward humans in the future, or become more inclined to spend time closer to roads, where it’s more likely they could be struck by a vehicle and killed.
Ethical and responsible photography is a great hobby and an amazing way to get close with nature. I believe the bad behaviour of photographers can be attributed to the widespread use of social media platforms.
I think a lot of it is driven by increases in the accessibility of digital photography, and social media, because everyone is showing their pictures and everyone else wants to get great pictures too.
Animals rarely pose for our pictures. Stellar wildlife photography is often the result of luck, patience and experience. It’s important to remember: Ethical photographers never get too close to the animal!”Dr David Legros
Although wildlife baiting and habituation is not viewed as a direct global threat to birds and mammals, baiting and habitation does impact wildlife at a global level. After analysing the status of all 557 raptor species (2018), biologists discovered that 18 percent of these birds are threatened with extinction, and 52 percent have declining global populations, making them more threatened than all birds as a whole.
Comparatively, 40 percent of the world’s 11,000 bird species are in decline, according to an April 2018 report from BirdLife International. Populations of UK native birds are 11 per cent lower than they were in 1970, with 2019 seeing a continued trend of year-on-year decline, according to a new government report.
Farmland bird populations have fallen by 57 percent since the 1970s too. This includes species such as the grey partridge, turtle dove, starling, tree sparrow and corn bunting.
When challenged, wildlife photographers that use bait to lure animals closer often protest that they’re ecologically orientated individuals, and that adding bait is of a conservation value whereby its safeguarding the species they’re photographing.
In addition, a small minority of hardcore wildlife photographers masquerade under the banner of conservation in which they try to suppress raised concerns and grey area debate concerning baiting.
Throughout my study, I found no evidence to back the baiters claims up that baiting for a photo safeguards birds and land mammals. On the 26th May 2021, I emailed Charlie Heap, Director of the National Centre for Birds of Prey based in Duncombe Park, Helmsley to understand more about baiting and habituation of raptors.
Charlie Heap said:
I am not a fan of baiting in any way.
At the very least it habituates a wild bird to human contact and inevitably makes the bird more reliant on the bait food source.
Most wild animals are only just surviving – we must not forget the effort that is expended by the bird may be its last energy reserves that would have been better invested in hunting proper quarry.
I suspect it may even be illegal under animal welfare legislation to use live bait – it is most certainly unethical.
Whilst there are instances of the feeding of wild raptors being of real conservation benefit – for example “vulture restaurants”, I don’t feel that a mouse on a post in front of a hide can really be compared with an international conservation effort to save a species!
I don’t know of any instances where a wild raptor’s death can be attributed to having eaten a photographer’s bait – the risks are a bit more subtle and hard to see.
The majority of birds of prey in the UK are diurnal. However even owls can be seen in daylight – the Short Eared Owl is a diurnal species. Nocturnal owls can often be seen during the day at this time of year as they need extra time to hunt enough food for dependant chicks.
I hope this helps!”Director of the National Centre for Birds of Prey
Back in 2017, American professional nature photographer Michael Furtman wrote a rather disturbing report about the practice of baiting owls with mice. In his report Michael writes of the risks, stating:
“The risk to the owl takes several forms. One concern is that pet shop mice frequently carry the salmonella bacteria and have been the focus of alerts and recalls by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centre for Disease Control.
No studies have been done on the impact of this disease on owls, but it is known that salmonella causes severe diarrhoea in infected animals and weakens their resistance to other diseases.
There is no good reason to subject these owls to illness and death simply for the sake of a photograph.
Some photographers have begun raising “wild” mice for their own use or to sell to other photographers, claiming these mice from wild stock are “better for the owl.”
But a small percentage (about 1-2%) of wild mice carry this bacterium as well.
When raised in confinement, the bacteria can be passed quickly through faeces to the other mice, meaning that most or all the “wild” mice raised by photographers could also be infected with salmonella.
In the wild, the odds are low of an owl eating an infected wild mouse. When fed by photographers, the probability of infection increases.”Michael Furtman
Michael Furtman also posted a video onto YouTube showing the unethical practices of owl baiting. In that video report, Michael Furtman wrote:
“This video was shot a few winters ago of two unethical photographers baiting a Great Grey Owl, as well as teasing it.
The videographer had nothing to do with the event, but just happened to come across these idiots.
Pay attention to three things: one, how helpless the owl is at the sight of a mouse; how it totally lacks any sense of self preservation because of the presence of the mouse; and three, at the end there’s a replay in slow motion of the mouse being snatched away from the owl.”Michael Furtman
JEAN KEENE ‘AKA’ THE EAGLE LADY
As indicated above, a minority of hardcore wildlife photographers masquerade under the banner of conservation whereby they claim feeding wild birds does not lead to habitation, which brings me to Jean Keene.
Jean Keene, commonly known as the Eagle Lady became the subject of national attention due to her feeding of wild bald eagles on the Homer Spit in Homer, Alaska.
However, once Jean became the centre of media attention, wildlife photographers from far and wide descended onto the Homer Spit in Homer, Alaska to snap images of bald eagles. Although Jean had many supporters for the feedings, she was also criticised for drawing a large population of eagles to the area.
On the 28th June 2006, ABC News reported that the Homer Council had officially banned the feeding of bald eagles however, Homer Council had to temporarily lift the ban for Jean Keene because the eagles began suffering from starvation.
Jean Keene was then given 90 days to gradually ween the eagles off of the fish she was feeding them, unfortunately, the damage had already been done of which many bald eagles had become totally habituated to the presence of Jean, and visiting photographers that had also been feeding the birds too.
Keene and visiting photographers had altered the feeding habits of bald eagles. A species almost driven to extinction because of habitat destruction and degradation, illegal shooting, and the contamination of its food source, due to use of the pesticide DDT, which almost decimated the eagle population.
After Jeans death in 2009, the City Council of Homer passed a second ordinance order prohibiting the feeding of bald eagles, crows, ravens, and other predatory and scavenger birds by any person, effective March 19th, 2009.
However, when Jean passed, and the second ordinance was implemented the problem didn’t go away. Despite Jeans attempts at weening the birds off of the fish she had been feeding the bald eagles, it had no effect. Homer City Council at 9:23 p.m. AST on the 27th March 2009 unanimously approved yet another emergency ordinance extending eagle feeding by Jean Keene’s friend, Steve Tarola and/or his designated assistance.
On an average day, Keene was feeding 200 eagles a day for photographs. Many of her images featured online, and in magazines. Keene fed them an estimated 500 pounds (227 kg) of fish per day, about 50,000 pounds (22,680 kg) per year. Crows and gulls were also attracted to the area.
Her fish supply included surplus and freezer-burned fish from fish processing facilities still on the Spit, her own purchases using her limited funds from Social Security or retirement benefits, or fish contributed by her supporters.
Visitors could come and watch the eagles Keene fed on the Spit at no cost but were asked to stay in their cars for their own safety and for the safety of the eagles.
It was also suggested by environmentalists and ecologists that Keene’s actions had led to eco-system impacts by displacing smaller species of birds, however, there was never any hard-hitting evidence to back that claim up.
Wild animals should have a fear of humans, however when wild animals are perpetually exposed to the same stimuli (humans and bait) they lose their fear of humans and stop acting naturally around us.
When wild animals no longer see humans as a threat, they allow humans to come very close to them, or the animal will approach a human. The video above was recorded at Gigrin Farm in Wales that shows Chris Powell feeding red kites lumps of butchers meat at a so-called feeding station. Coincidently, Gigrin Farm also caters for photographers that pay to photograph the feeding of red kites via several hides at the farm.
In the United Kingdom, red kites almost suffered the same fate as that of the American bald eagle in Alaska. Fortunately, the Alaskan Homer Council stepped in just in time, however, it still took several attempts to ween the birds off of the fish Jean Keene and visitors had been feeding them.
Reversing the process of human and animal habituation is incredibly arduous, and at times impossible, even-more so when hundreds of animals have become totally reliant on humans as a source of food. While some species of animals may benefit from seasonal supplementary feed for their survival during cold wintery months, they most certainly don’t benefit from year round feeding for the purpose of human entertainment.
Animals produce sounds for various purposes such as attraction of mate, warning signals, defence of territories, attracting prey, and orientation. Most of the sound produced by animals are species specific, highly distinct and can be heard at long distances in highly obstructed habitats.
Wildlife biologists use sound emissions of animals in many biodiversity assessment and monitoring studies. However, using sound in avifaunal study must be used with extreme caution and careful attention; because bird sounds vary from species to species and often a single species can produce a variety of calls and songs. Furthermore, there are some species that mimics the calls and song of other species. These make avifaunal studies using bioacoustics difficult and complicated.
At times wildlife photographers may use bird playback too. In addition, photo-tog baiters are known for using playback to lure birds and mammals closer to hides and reflective pools. While bird playbacks may seem an innocent activity to lure an animal closer for a photograph, playbacks are known to stress and confuse animals, especially birds.
On the 31st January 2020, wild-bird enthusiast and photojournalist, Melissa Mayntz wrote a column about the use of bird recordings in the online Spruce magazine, stating:
“When a bird hears a recording, it cannot tell that the sound is recorded. Because many birds use songs to claim territory, hearing another song may make the bird believe its territory has been invaded by a competitor, and it will seek out that competitor to challenge it.
When a bird responds to a recording, it is no longer foraging, caring for eggs or chicks, preening, resting, or otherwise doing the activities it needs to survive. Instead, the agitated bird is now chasing a fake bird.
Constantly chasing competitors stresses a bird, and unlimited recording use can dramatically impact its well-being.
While no studies have yet proven conclusively how much harm recordings do to birds, some results have shown that males may lose dominance in the eyes of their mates because of recordings, which can impact whether those birds can breed successfully.
Without more proof of ongoing harm to birds, however, the ethics of bird calls to attract birds remains controversial.”The Spruce
On the 24th May 2021, I reached out to the RSPB for further advice about the use of bird playback, and whether the use of tape-lures could be a contravention of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and the Protection of Birds Act 1954.
The RSPB replied to my email stating:
“Playing a recording of calls to encourage a bird to respond can divert a territorial bird from other important duties. Most birds are more sensitive to calls during the breeding season as they can be looking for mates and defending territories.
When a bird responds to a recording, it can take time from activities such as foraging, preening, raising young, etc. We do not recommend playing bird calls to attract them for a photograph.
It is important what the purpose of the call is for. For example, swift calls and such are OK. Swift numbers in the UK have been falling by 3% per year since 1995, partly because we are no longer leaving space for them in our buildings.
If you have a swift nest box, you can help the swifts find their new home by broadcasting a welcome, which is a recording of their calls. They are very social birds so it can alert them to the new site, instead of instigating a territorial defence that will distract from their activities.
It is advised to play them near your nest site when the birds will be prospecting. Legally, certain birds that are more prone to disturbance have extra protection. Making it an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb any wild bird listed on Schedule 1 while it is nest building, or at a nest containing eggs or young, or disturb the dependent young of such a bird. I hope this clarifies our position.“
As birdwatching has grown and digital photography has boomed, drawing out the birds to get a picture has been increasing too. The misuse of playbacks in the past few years has alarmed authorities, conservationists, birders and guides alike, prompting growing conversations on ethics and studies to evaluate how much damage is inflicted onto birds during playback luring.
There is no denying that wildlife photography has been an effective tool for conservation, up to a limit. Wildlife photography, in the intrusive ways it is practised today, can safely be termed a menace.
The boom in social media has also seen an increase in several unethical practices that wildlife photographers deploy to get those ‘magical’ shots of their subjects, and one such practice when it comes to shooting birds is ‘playback’.
Birdsong playback has had several advantages: it has helped ornithologists discover, record and describe bird species, their ranges and distributions. Birds that are skulkers by nature are impossible to observe without this ‘deception’.
However, ever since playback has landed in the hands of photographers and bird tour operators, this tool has been nothing but a tool for peril to birdlife. Bird photographers have mindlessly been exposing birds to the risks that come with playback: an unnecessary expenditure of the bird’s energy, and exposing itself to its predators.
Many birdwatchers and even scientists who are now conducting bird photo tours are guilty of propagating the use of playback, and the practice now goes unchecked in many popular birding hotspots around the world.
Unfortunately, some of our rarest and most endangered birds are also found in these hotspots. Birds are frequently harassed, disturbed, and driven out of cover, all for the sake of a great close-up photo of a bird in action.
In a 2018 case, in West Bengal, a Hooded Pitta (the bird seen in the cartoon above) was forced to abandon its nest after being hounded by playback-photographers in Bengal.
Ecologists and wildlife biologists with a permit for research should be the only people permitted to to use playback for honest research. The current rampancy of playback and the sheer number of people using it today has made the situation something of an emergency in countries such as India, Pakistan and Nepal.
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
The importance of patience in natural photography is indispensable. Its now a cliché that our society is super fast paced. There’s no time to relax. There’s no time for reading an article longer than 1000 words, however, if you’ve managed to get this far you have the patience to be an adept and successful photographer.
This attitude of go, go, go will not serve you well in landscape, nature or wildlife photography. While there are times you may need to bolt out of bed and hit the trail running before the sun rises, shooting natural scenes requires patience. It is something the young or inexperienced often lack and it is a lesson most of us typically learn on our own.
Patience is important in natural photography because you are likely not in control of the scene. You have a say in where you stand and point your camera, but often the scene is unfolding at its own pace, which is different than yours. This difference is what causes impatience in most of us. And when we’re impatient, unintentional mistakes are bound to happen, or we deliberately break the rules to suit our agenda, and that’s not what wildlife photography is about.
What can you do about increasing patience for natural photography? It takes the effort to introduce patience into your life in general to have it available for shooting photos. There’s no quick cure other than slowing down a bit, getting used to the quiet times in your life when the TV isn’t on and you’re not madly clicking from link to link on the internet, looking to be entertained.
Meditation helps some people while others like breathing exercises. Reading at least 20 pages of a good book is also good exercise as it trains your brain to stay on one topic for an extended period of time.
When I were a young child, I used to make my own AirFix models which required precision patience. I can still vividly remember laying all the parts out on the floor, reading the diagram, setting up my cutting tools, tweezers, glues and paints. From there on I would often spend days, and occasionally months to a few years building each model.
Each model I made by hand was built in parts, however, at times I would often find myself rushing some projects, and as such mistakes were made because I was too impatient. Occasionally, I hurried my builds because I was often working in stress positions, or the light was fading. Again, it all boiled down to impatience, and not finding the correct working time and location to suit me.
However, once each model was constructed, painted under a magnifying glass, and secured to its stand, I felt like I had achieved yet another mission in life. And this is how I envisage photography today when I am out shooting. As Bruce Lee once said, patience is not passive, on the contrary, it is concentrated strength which is how wildlife photography should be adopted by all.
It can be said that in all categories of photography, the photographer is involved in determining frame, focus, shutter speed, depth of field, artificial lighting and positioning of subjects, which is considered staged.
Photography staging is traditionally adopted by photographers that shoot portraits, fashion, lifestyle, flora, product and boudoir etc. Staging is also common in some categories of competitive photography of which the photographer portrays specific stories, messages, scenarios or enactment.
Stage photographers do not feel required to follow a specific rule and sometimes use special techniques such as manipulating camera settings, photomontage or different lighting adjustments for staged photography, all of which can be manipulated further in post process.
Staged photography usually uses something like a storyboard in a cinema, whereupon the photographer draws the idea he/she has in mind entirely on paper to better understand the final design, after which it may take several times and repeating a photo to get the result you want (as seen in the video below).
The four main sub-categories of staged photography are:
- Designed self-portraits, in which the artists themselves play various roles (such as the works of Florence Knight, Jeff Koons, Pierre and Gilles, Cindy Sherman and Charda Sikima)
- Narrative paintings, in which live models or mannequins with photographic staging play roles inspired by social life, myth, and imagination (such as the works of Bernard Foucault, Joe Gantz, Nick Nicosia, Ian Sudek, Sandy Sagland, William Walkman, and Joel Peter Witkin)
- Miniature plays, which are similar to narrative paintings, but are depicted on a small scale with puppets, toys, and other miniature displays (such as Ellen Brooks, James Casper, Alan Fleischer, David Leventhal, Joachim Mugara, and Arthur Fear)
- Installations and photographs of sculptures, that are carefully arranged large-scale photographs of objects (such as Ariel Bunsen, Tom Draus, Fishley and Weiss, Jen Grover, and Pascal Kern)
However, there remains a murky world surrounding staged photography, that for some reason, has either gone unnoticed or blended into various sub-categories of landscape, nature and wildlife camerawork. Both wildlife model photography and macro-nature photography are considered staged too, but to what extent?
Wildlife model photography exists purely on captive photography game farms, where captive wildlife are bred and trained to perform for photographers and videographers. The majority of these animals are often caged for hours on end, with reports of animals being physically abused, neglected and exploited purely for a picture or video.
In addition, macro nature photography combines both genuine wildlife and nature camerawork, however, a minority of macro-togs involve themselves in the cruel manipulation and exploitation of small fauna to which they claim is necessary for the purpose of focus stacking. In this section of my study I focus primarily on wildlife model and macro photography.
PHOTOGRAPHY GAME FARMS
Similar to the game farms that offer captive wild animals for hunting, photography game farms offer captive wild animals for photos, the majority of which can be located in America and Southern Africa. Such farms are controversial, posing questions about both the integrity of the photography and the welfare of the animals involved. But they are also convenient tools of the trade for commercial photographers, whose images—in ads, documentaries, viral animal pictures, and even wildlife photography competitions—you’ve probably seen and maybe even shared, unaware of their origin.
Photography game farms are visited each year by many thousands of photographers from all four corners of the globe. Unfortunately, because such farms are controversial and considered private companies, official statistics regarding visiting numbers is often difficult, if not impossible to obtain.
Prices vary per farm ranging from £100 to £300 per hour to which photographers can snap images of one animal per shoot. Species of animal range from bears, wolfs, cougars, coyote, fox, beaver, bobcat, lynx, badger, fisher, weasel, or deer. While other workshops offer photographers the chance to get up-close and personal to mink, skunk, opossum, woodchuck, raccoon, or porcupine.
Some photography game farms offer two day workshops that vary in price from £740 to £1500, of which photographers and videographers have the opportunity to photograph or film a number of mixed species, such as predator cats, bears, and new born cubs for wildlife documentaries, front page magazine covers and advertisements etc.
Public records show that the most well-known US game farms don’t have great track records in animal welfare and security. In 2012, an animal trainer employed by a game farm called Animals of Montana was mauled and killed by a bear. Another Montana game farm, Triple D Ranch, was found by the USDA to have illegally de-clawed a two-month old tiger cub in 2013.
Back in 2017, Tom Littlejohns, a retired British hobbyist from Guilford, captured photographs of a grizzly bear fighting a pack of wolves over a deer carcass on the snow. News stories accompanying the photos, which were published online by The Sun and The Daily Mail, say the scene was spotted near “the Rocky Mountains of Montana,” but do not mention the fact that the animals were trained captives, or that the dead deer was actually placed there to stage a fight at Animals of Montana, says Quartz.
Some of the biggest and well-known names in the photography industry have also been seen to exploit animals for staged photography too. David Yarrow, who is arguably the most scorned person in conservation photography regularly takes advantage of captive mammals in this genre of camerawork. The image above (one of many hundreds) shot by David Yarrow, depicts a very real trained bear leaning up against a bar in a so-called ghost town in Montana.
However, what the viewer does not envision is how the bear was trained to behave like this. From a young age bear cubs are removed from their mother of which they’re repeatedly bullied and deprived. Bear cubs are chained by their necks and tethered to a wall (as seen in the image below). This forces them to remain upright, sometimes for hours on end, in order to train them to walk on their hind legs for human entertainment.
Whilst there’s no evidence to prove the bear in David Yarrows image has been brutally abused from a young age to perform for photographers. In recent years, animal welfare charities have conducted investigations concerning the cruel training of bears in Asia, America and Europe for human entertainment of which these methods of training were observed.
Furthermore, the bear in Yarrows image had been rented out from Animals of Montana, a photography game farm that was recently closed down due to multiple reports of animal abuse, exploitation, trafficking and poor animal husbandry.
Animals of Montana had a somewhat sordid history of recorded animal abuse stretching as far back as 2004 when Troy Hyde (seen below), owner of Animals of Montana, was convicted of illegally trafficking tigers and grizzly bears. Which begs the question, why did David Yarrow, a so-called animal lover, rent animals from a convicted trafficker and animal abuser? Allegedly, David Yarrow and Troy Hyde are “good friends.”
David Yarrow, whose black and white pictures of animals including elephants and lions fetch between £25,000 and £75,000, has no qualms about using trained wolves, bears and cheetahs despite coming under fierce criticism from fellow photographers, and wildlife protection organisations.
He argues that how we perceive these manipulations depends on whether or not a picture is framed as wildlife photography or art. “I am an artist. I make pictures rather than take them,” he says. “Nothing crosses the line in the art world. You can superimpose Krakatoa erupting in the background and Darth Vader coming over the hill.”
While David Yarrow claims to be an artist, critics on the other hand state quite the contrary. Several wildlife photographers and wildlife protection organisations allege that David’s work depicts very real captive animals, that have been trained to perform for the camera, often for hours on end. Critics also allege that David Yarrow, and his colleagues have baited and chased threatened species of wildlife for the sheer sake of a closeup image.
On the 12th October, 2021, I emailed David Yarrow asking him why he feels its necessary to exploit animals for staged photography. Furthermore, I also sought an answer regarding his relationship with convicted animal trafficker, Troy Hyde. At the time of publishing this study article, David Yarrow declined to comment. However, on the 24th November, 2020, David did make a joint statement with Saving the Wild where he declared: “And should I ever photograph a wild animal in the United States again, it will be a wild animal in the wild.”
David Yarrow works on the same principles to that of photojournalist Robert Capa, who eloquently once said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” However, Robert Capa was a war photographer, and not a wildlife cameraman. Addationally, Capa was able to communicate with his subjects and understood the boundaries and restrictions concerning his work, or so it was believed. On the 25th May, 1954, Robert Capa was killed when he stepped on a landmine during the first Indochina war. His passion for working within dangerous environments eventually got the better of him.
Animals are incapable of communicating with humans, they cannot tell us if they’re spooked, exhausted, intimidated, or if they’ve been brutally abused from a tender age to perform for humans. Furthermore, some animals have unpredictable behaviours of which close proximity photography or videography could trigger a captive animal to lash out. Hence why wildlife photography must be shot from a safe distance to avoid disturbance and a flight or fight response.
The consequences of fakery can be even more grim for insects, small reptiles and amphibians. “People do quite terrible things to small creatures, like putting them in the freezer [to slow their movement], supergluing them in place or attaching them to wires,” says US photographer Clay Bolt, The Guardian (2018).
It is not hard to find forums offering tips on keeping spiders and earwigs in one place by surrounding them with a smear of Vicks VapoRub, or temporarily immobilising dragonflies and ants by popping them in the freezer for 20 minutes.
To the untrained eye, the image that went viral in 2015 of a frog “riding” a beetle rodeo-style is eye-catching and whimsical. The photographer said his picture had been taken in a “natural but controlled environment – this shot was not prepared at all”. But for some conservationists, the image suggested cruelty: the frog is nocturnal, they pointed out, and its open mouth indicates extreme distress.
In recent years, macro photography has come under the spotlight concerning the exploitation and abuse of reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. When conducting my investigative study into this genera of photography, I was left feeling disconcerted at the lack of, if any, regulation regarding this category of camerawork.
Macro photography or (photomacrography) was proposed in 1899 by W. H. Walmsley for close-up images with less than 10 diameters magnification, to distinguish from true photo-micrographs. One of the earliest pioneers of macro photography was Percy Smith, born in 1880.
The first thing to learn about the history of macro photography is the definition of the genre. Macro photography is anything that is 10 times magnification and lower. Anything above 10 times magnification (usually captured through a microscope) is referred to as photomicrography. Why do I explain this? Because the history of these two types of work are inseparably intertwined and in fact, the development of the photo-micrograph led to the development of macro photography.
In the earliest years of macro photography and photomicrography, it was purely a scientific pursuit, one that allowed researchers to document things too small to see with the human eye so that they could be studied at length later on. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that macro photography started to become an art and even then, it was an art that served a largely educational purpose.
The interesting thing about macro photography is that early equipment did not look much different from the equipment that we use today, although a few advancements have been made and there are a few more pieces of gear that we can use nowadays.
Photomicrography was simplistic. It relied on a small camera that could be attached to a microscope. Once a slide was placed under the microscope, the photographer could take the photograph.
Macro photography relied on equipment that we still use today, namely macro bellows and extension tubes. There were no true macro lenses for the first century or so of this genre, so photographers effectively modified the focal distance of the lenses they already had simply by increasing the distance between the lens element and the film.
In this way, photographers could focus at distances much closer to the front of the lens than they could without the use of bellows or tubes and they could also magnify the images, capturing detail that most people had never seen before.
“WHAT’S THE FASCINATION WITH MACRO-PHOTOGRAPHY?”
Small things such as waterdrops often go unnoticed or are taken for granted but freezing that moment in time can create spectacular images. When you start doing macro photography a whole new creative world is opened up providing a whole new range of subjects that were under your nose the whole time.
Macro images change our perspective of a subject to focus on the hidden details – taking magnification to another level. Macro photography can often introduce colours and textures not picked up with other types of shots. Taking extreme closeup photos of small subjects requires special techniques, tricks and equipment to get the best results, hence why so many photographers are intrigued about this genera of camerawork.
The vast majority of macro photographers utilize professional cameras, tripods, specialist lights, portable mini photography studios, diffusers, reversing rings, extension tubes, shooting tables, macro lenses, focus rails and focus stacking software, all of which can range from hundreds to thousands of pounds.
So, one would be led to believe that shooting closeup images of magnified subjects is somewhat straightforward? If only that were closer to the truth. Wildlife biologists and photography critics have voiced their concern regarding macro images that appear to portray small fauna staged in unnatural poses, while many other images clearly show distressed and exploited animals.
THE IMPORTANCE OF ETHICS IN MACRO PHOTOGRAPHY
The rules concerning photography ethics apply to macro photographers too, in that, the subject is more important than the photo. Macro photographers must abstain from disturbing, handling, displacing and collecting species of flora or fauna for the purpose of a photograph.
While the jury is still out concerning the use of flashes, strobes and LED lights. Photographers must seek advice from professionals concerning sensitive fauna that could be easily harmed by bright or flashing lights. Bright LED lights with white and bluish hues are capable of affecting local wildlife “as much as the midday sun,” scientists have warned, and are leaving some species especially vulnerable.
A (2018) Journal of Experimental Zoology Part A: Ecological and Integrative Physiology study has found that the light emitted from LED bulbs with white and bluish hues are three times more disruptive to local wildlife than LED bulbs with other hues such as amber, green and yellow. Nocturnal animals and migrating birds that have their predatory or breeding behaviour affected by these lights could now be protected as a result of the research.
The vast majority of macro photographers I conveyed with from (2021-2022) are quite contented shooting macro images of flowers, fungi, fauna and inanimate objects. However, there remains a large minority of nature and wildlife macro-togs that appear to work in another realm where anything goes.
The macro image above was shot by photographer, Peter Dransfield, back in May 2021. Peter claims he didn’t intend to illtreat the spider, instead, he tried slowing the spiders metabolism down by placing the invertebrate in the freezer for a few minutes. A process that’s known as chilling or (freezing), adopted by a minority of so-called macro photographers to temporarily immobilize a living subject during the process of focus-stacking.
One of the biggest drawbacks macro photographers experience when shooting live fauna is the inability to predict whether an animal is going to move during the process of the shot. While the majority of macro photographers prefer to sit-it-out and wait. A minority of impatient macro-togs have adopted several crude and barbaric techniques to immobilize living subjects (in the field or at home) during the process of their work in order to achieve that perfect still shot.
These techniques range from clamping, gluing, pinning, chilling and anaesthetizing to name but a few. Some macro photographers even go as far as buying dead or fake spiders and insects for general and competitive photography.
A small number of techniques adopted by macro-togs to immobilize spiders and insects are normally reserved for entomologists, that follow a strict code of ethics concerning their work. Furthermore, insects and spiders aren’t the only species that suffer at the hands of unethical macro photographers.
Reptiles, amphibians and rodents also share the same fate too. Amphibians and reptiles are often viewed in macro pictures striking unnatural poses similar to that of humans. Addationally, live rodents are used as bait to create fake viral-trending nature photographs (as seen in the image below).
Moreover, macro images of snakes illustrated in defensive or striking postures attract the likes of wildlife organisations, big tech, advertising companies, car manufactures, fashion, design, and the cosmetic industry etc, to which said images are used for educational purposes, and the promotion of major consumer brands.
However, several acclaimed photographers have cast doubt on the ethical approaches regarding how a number of these images are captured, of which its been claimed that snakes are routinely harassed and beaten with sticks in order to force them into coiled, aggressive or striking postures for the camera. In addition, captive and wild snakes are often overfed by macro photographers that are trying to accomplish an easier shot.
Snakes are one of the most commonly symbolised creatures throughout human history; and also across various cultures. Snakes are viewed as a status symbol too. In many cases, serpents are viewed as a symbol of healing, medicine, and even power. In others, they are the symbol of death, evil, and all of the dark assumptions one would likely make regarding snakes representing things in human life.
Snakes (like many animals) are used quite often in advertising and are very effective. They make an instant emotional connection with us as they remind us of ourselves and our pets. They offer warm relationships and empathy internationally.
Animals in advertising offer a huge advantage because they can appeal to all people unlike a particular ethnicity or demographic of humans. They are a great way to surround a brand with positive emotions and associations other than how much a product costs. Additionally, they evoke many different emotions in the viewer and can impact people to start making positive choices in their life.
With that said, extreme closeup images of snakes make a small fortune, all the more so when snakes are illustrated in an aggressive or defensive posture. The video (seen below) was captured by wildlife photographer, Kennie Pan, back in 2015 that illustrates two South East Asian photographers harassing and provoking a deadly pit viper.
“This was not the original perch the snake was on. Both photographers intentionally shifted the snake to an open branch as shown for an easier photo. During which, they were poking it just to get it into a position they wanted. As shown, the pit viper was tense and ready to strike out. This video only shows part of the umpteen times they physically disturb and poked the snake.” says Kennie Pan.
Apart from being utterly reckless to which the group of photographers showed a complete lack of respect towards their subject, the pit viper could have lashed out biting either one of them. Pit viper venom is highly hemotoxic, and when it’s injected into the bloodstream it causes tissue and blood cell damage which leads to internal haemorrhaging, organ damage, and eventually death if left untreated.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SMALLER THAN US CREATURES, AND WHY ETHICS IS PARAMOUNT IN MACRO
Contrary to popular opinion, smaller than us creatures are critically important for the survival of the human and animal race hence the importance of ethics in all aspects of wildlife and nature camerawork.
The most important role of insects is in pollination. Flowering plants are the main source of food and moisture for many of the planets insects. Whilst they are feeding they pick up pollen on their bodies and legs. When they move to the next flower they deposit that pollen and pollination occurs.
Predaceous insects and insectivorous vertebrates provide important environmental regulation mechanisms of various organisms, which include pest species. Often under-appreciated and viewed by some as a nuisance, insects are “lever pullers of the world”. According to National Geographic, there are about 1.4 billion insects for every human on Earth, and all of them play a crucial role in the ecosystem.
John Losey and Mace Vaughan, ecologists, based in the US, researched the economic contribution of insects in the United States and found it to be about $57 billion, not including the pollination. The value came mainly from wildlife, which is typically serviced by insects and forms an essential part of the food chain for birds, mammals and fish.
Insects are responsible for biological pest control that also accounts for an additional half-billion in value in the U.S. economy. Experts agree that the economic value derived from insects is, in some cases, unquantifiable. For example, it is difficult to calculate how much it costs to decompose plant life and dead bodies in the environment.
Moreover, frogs and toads play a vital role in ecosystems worldwide, as they form an integral part of the food chain, prevent disease transmission by feeding on potential carriers, and keep waterways clean. They also act as bioindicators for researchers and offer potential advancements in the medical industry.
Amphibious fauna are often heard and not seen, giving the impression that these little creatures fade into the background of our ecosystems. But, amphibious fauna are incredibly important to animals and humans worldwide. Their existence and continuation assist global health and balance in numerous ways.
Reptiles play an important role in the environment too. Controlling pests is one of the crucial roles that is played by reptiles. Most of the pests, including insects and rats, mice, and other rodents, are prey to reptiles. If the population of pests goes unchecked, then we are likely to have a severe infestation, which would mostly destabilise the food web due to the depletion of food at the bottom of the food chain.
To keep the aquatic ecosystem balanced and super healthy, the marine food chain must be appropriately balanced too. That’s the role that crocodiles and other reptiles in the wetlands play. They prey on fish, and this controls the fish population from overgrowing. If the fish population grows out of control, then it would deplete organisms they prey on, of which would eventually lead to fish starving to death. That would collapse the entire food chain in the long run.
Amphibians, reptiles, insects and spiders are also under threat, in a similar manner to most species of birds, mammals and marine life. Around half of amphibian and reptile species are in decline, while a third are already threatened with extinction. Habitat loss and degradation is one of the greatest threats to amphibian and reptile populations and occurs from a variety of sources, including urban/suburban development, aquatic habitat alteration from water withdrawals and stream diversions, water pollution, and off-road vehicle use in terrestrial habitats.
Meanwhile, insects and spiders are declining in forests and grasslands around the world, according to new research. Scientists have described the findings as “alarming”, saying the losses are driven by intensive agriculture, climate change, soil erosion and pollution to name but a handful of threats; hence the importance of ethics in macro photography.
“But they don’t feel pain, do they?”
Up until recently, it was widely believed that smaller than us creatures could not feel, or in some cases experience pain. Fortunately, advances in zoological studies have proven otherwise.
Many vets and scientists agree, there is little doubt that amphibians “experience pain and should, therefore, be treated with analgesics for situations that would be considered painful in mammals.” (Posner et al, 2013).
According to Varner (2012), frogs feel pain because they have:
- A Brain linked to nociceptors
- Nociceptors which send pain signals to the spinal cord and the brain
- Endogenous opioids that can create chemicals to dull pain or act as anaesthetics
Frogs also respond to pain killing medications, and exhibit a reflex action to avoid pain-inducing stimuli in the same way as human beings. Frogs possess the biological make-up necessary for pain transmission. For instance, frogs have sensory receptors and opioid receptors. They also exhibit protective reactions and learn to avoid noxious stimuli.
Some people still believe that reptiles cannot perceive pain. Unfortunately, it is more often that we do not perceive that they are in pain because the signs they show are often subtle and unlike mammals. Several scientific studies have shown that reptiles have all of the necessary neurotransmitters and anatomy to feel pain. It is likely that they have simply evolved to hide their pain to avoid predation in the wild.
The jury is still out regarding our eight-legged predatory spider friends. Unfortunately, there’s no scientific evidence that demonstrates whether spiders can experience pain and emotions. Interestingly, spiders can sense danger.
The rule of ethics still applies to spiders regardless of whether they can or cannot experience pain and emotions. Spiders help control the populations on many other household pests such as grasshoppers, aphids, cockroaches and mosquitoes. Spiders also help aid the decomposition of dead plants and animals by eating insects that prohibit the process of decomposition which helps to create fertile soil.
A 2013 journal of experimental biology study has shown that crustaceans can experience and feel pain too. The study revealed that the shore crab, a close relative of the species we use for food, responds to electric shocks and then goes on to avoid them.
Previous research has shown that prawns and hermit crabs also react to painful situations. On the 19th November, 2021, the British Government recognised lobsters, octopus and crabs as sentient beings of which they were included into The Animal Sentience Bill that was introduced on 11th May, 2021. The new bill replaces EU legislation which legally recognised that animals can feel pain and experience emotions.
New research conducted in 2019 has also revealed that insects can feel and experience pain too. A new study in the journal Science Advances shows pain lingers throughout the insects’ short lives well after an injury has healed.
A 2019 Smithsonian report stated:
“Over 15 years ago, researchers found that insects, and fruit flies in particular, feel something akin to acute pain called “nociception.”
When they encounter extreme heat, cold or physically harmful stimuli, they react, much in the same way humans react to pain.
Now, scientists have found that the nervous systems of insects can also experience chronic pain. A new study in the journal Science Advances shows pain lingers throughout the insects’ short lives well after an injury has healed.
Acute pain is generally short lived—like the pain from cutting your finger, which may last for days but eventually recedes.
Chronic pain, however, lingers long after an injury has healed and may even last the rest of an injured person’s life.
According to a press release, it generally comes in two forms, inflammatory pain and neuropathic pain, the type of electric shooting pain caused by overactive nerves.”Science Advances 10 Jul 2019
The image above shows the brain and ventral nerve cord (resembling the spinal cord in a human) of an uninjured fly showing nociceptive sensory neurons (green), stained with anti-GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter (red) and neuronal synaptic marker nc82 (blue).
Ed Cara for Science Advances concluded:
“To understand whether insects also experience this long-lasting version of pain, researchers damaged one leg in a group of fruit flies, an injury which can cause chronic nerve pain.
After the insects were allowed to heal, the researchers then placed them in a hot room to see if the flies were more responsive to stimuli.
After the leg injuries, the flies would try to leave the room at lower temperatures, unable to withstand the heat as much.
In other words, the flies’ legs had become hypersensitive. “After the animal is hurt once badly, they are hypersensitive and try to protect themselves for the rest of their lives,” co-author Greg Neely of the University of Sydney says in the release. “That’s kind of cool and intuitive.”
To understand this sensitization, the team then examined how the process works on a genomic level.
The flies, they found, receive pain messages via sensory neurons in their ventral nerve cord, the insect equivalent of a spinal cord.
Along this nerve cord are inhibitory neurons that act as gatekeepers, allowing pain signals through or blocking them based on context.
With a catastrophic injury, like the severing of a nerve in the leg, the injured nerve floods the ventral cord with pain signals, overwhelming those gatekeeper neurons and changing the pain threshold permanently, a process known as central disinhibition. From then on, the insects are hypersensitive to pain.
It’s likely that a similar process causes chronic pain in humans as well. “Now that we know central disinhibition is a critical and core cause for neuropathic pain across phyla, we can start to develop therapies that target the underlying cause and not just the symptoms,” Neely writes on Twitter. “
This will lead to non-addictive pain management that our society desperately needs.”Smithsonian & Gizmodo
THE DARK SIDE OF MACRO PHOTOGRAPHY
Throughout my investigative study, I analysed thousands of macro images depicting exploitation and mistreatment of small fauna for the purpose of a photograph. Numerous images depicted frogs, toads and reptiles manipulated into unnatural positions often mimicking human behaviour. Furthermore, live rodents were seen to be trapped in stress positions inches away from their predator that had an unfair advantage over its prey.
In other images, dragonflies, moths and praying mantis etc, were seen to be either chilled or frozen, while spiders and beetles were visibly dead. Live and dead species of the Lepidoptera and Formicidae family were clearly clamped, pinned, chilled or glued ont