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26-May-2021
Stop! That's not the way to shoot! - Ethics of Wildlife Photography

"I will not harm my subject!”


Every photographer should happily follow this simple rule – even when no one else is watching.


This is not a hard job for anyone, and for those with a true love, nature is always priority for them. Unfortunately, thanks to the huge numbers of photographers who now own professional photography gears, and are perpetually on the look out for nature subjects to capture and instant satisfaction after uploading the images on social media and there are examples of photographers damaging wildlife or habitats in chase of the perfect shot, which has been alarmingly common. Many of it is due to a lack of awareness and knowledge.


Whatever it might be, one thing is sure, if right-minded nature photographers get together, we can stamp out the danger of unethical photography to a large extent and it will also help the beginner generation to learn ethics. Self-regulation is the best regulation, so make sure to follow all the rules before you step into widlife.


Then, now and will


One of the most shocking chapters in the history of wildlife photography in India is the bird nest photography trend that outspread like wildfire in the early 1990s. Battling to other photographers, many photographers skilled a level of harshness and insensitivity that was terrifying. Their practice was a bit simple: they would watch around, or offer money to the locals, for finding the active nests for them. Once the nest of a wanted species was located, the photographer would go and do some gardening – a substitute for removing branches or leaves to get a proper view of the nest. With the obstacles out of the way, nesting activity would be captured from all the angles, sometimes using external flashes placed around the nest. Once the photographer was satisfied with their results, they would leave, exposing nest open to predators. Some photographers even destroyed the nest (or eggs or chicks) so that others could not take capture the image they have.


This battle was in trend for few years, until there was strong stricture from photographers and nature conservationists with a moral sense. The harmful practice finally end when nest images were banned from competitions.


Back then there were very less nature photographers in India, so any harm caused by a few unethical photographers was very less. Since there is no entry exam or test for newcomers, the annual increase in the number of wildlife photographers was tremendous. Cameras and lenses was very expensive due to custom tax duties. It was very hard to see a photographer with a 300mm lens. Film and printing was costly too. And not every photographer had a car to take off in the outskirts on weekends. The kind of budget needed to follow this costly hobby was largely limited to very few people.


But all that was transformed with economic reforms and the technology upgrade. Suddenly, beginners were able to get five-figure salary jobs straight after graduation. At the same time, custom tax dropped down, camera manufacturers started setting up dealerships in India, social media started becoming a trend, and wildlife documentaries on TV and internet lighted an tremendous thirst for travel and photography. Nature photography as a hobby increased like a boom.


While its not a crime with enjoying nature and capture wildlife, how one does it that matters. Enjoyment must always be baked with responsibility. Unfortunately in India, the two rarely go hand in hand. You will mostly see an educated person who’s the wrongdoer rather than some uneducated. And there are millions of educated people with high sound cars, but with utterly no sense of road rule and then there are thousands of educated people with the best cameras and lenses, but very less love towards nature.


Unethical photography? What’s that?


Many photographers likely don’t even think about their impact on nature and wildlife, and may take animals simply as models that exist for capturing pleasure. They don't even think that their actions can cause stress to an animal. Simply becoming aware of the issues might make any photographer good and helpful. And those who are decent and can think properly on their next outing, and change their behaviour appropriately will be a great help.


For example if we consider one of one of the world’s rarest birds, the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard. This large bird, which is found in grasslands, is extremely shy of human interaction. When it spots a intruder even hundreds of metres away, its reaction is to hold whatever it is doing and fix its eye on the intruder. As long as it feels threatened, the bird will not feed, court or mate. As a result of the disturbing activity caused by some few photographers, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) was forced to issue a circular restricting photography of the bustard during its mating season.


Damage to habitats can be big too, when many people and their vehicles are found on a particular location. For example, the Hesaraghatta grasslands on outskirts of Bangalore suffered high damages as a result of insensitive weekend bird photographers. Luckily, thanks to the problem being highlighted and talked about on social media and photographers, there has been a change for the better in some areas.


While it’s impossible to measure or list every type of unethical behaviour of every unethical person; awareness, knowledge and common sense are the best guides for every photographer out there. If you think that something you are doing, or are planning to do, may cause harm to your subject or habitat, back it off. It’s that simple.



The way forward


Like it or not, the craze for wildlife photography seems to be growing like anything in India. So it’s better that we work together to decrease the negative impacts. Well as of now we don't have any ‘All-India Association of Nature Photographers’ to set rules and regulations and supervise behaviour, how do we go about controlling the practice of nature photography by every nature lover in our country? There isn’t any one way of practising it, but that doesn’t mean we should give up our responsibility to protect the nature.


The best and most important factor in changing behaviour of the coming generation might be to set a good example or inspiration. Good inspiration or role models are important in every field, and wildlife photography is not different. If you are a experienced photographer, try to be a good role model for your audience, and lead by example. If newbies are following you and have questionable practices, they will learn and assume that this is how wildlife photography is to be done, and imitate you. If you are seen having respect for nature and wildlife, not only will your respect go up, but your attitude may also put a good impact on others.


After you are experienced, you will definetely also have a lot of followers on social media platforms. Reach out to the professionals once in a week with messages about ethics in wildlife photography. Also try to share the tips with your fellow followers as well as it will make a strong belief on those who are still not aware about the ethics in field.


If you are conducting wildlife photography workshops, start and end each workshops with a strong appeal for ethical behavior when capturing nature. Make your audience take a honest pledge towards ethics. This will definitely impact those who have less knowledge or are less aware. As for those who simply don’t care about nature and wildlife, they will be automatically change their behavior when more and more photographers become humble towards nature and intolerant of unethics.


To multiply your positive effect among the younger generation, the most important thing is not to be distrustful about your knowledge to bring about optimistic behavioural change in other photographers. Here’s an example of something that all have seen in our surroundings: when a area or road is kept clean due to the efforts of some of its locals, others think before littering the place. Even if they do, there are eyes to criticise or shame them, making sure that they don’t litter again, that's how you bringing everyone into line. In the same way, you can clean up unethical wildlife photography, if we practice together and learn what’s right.





Examples of unethical practices and how to curtail them

While it’s not possible all the time to specify ‘unethical’ in black and white terms, or point out every example.


Please note that some of these activity, in addition to being unethical, are illegal and violate various wildlife and environmental laws. If reported, they could draw in strong penalties and legal action.


Issue 1: Crowding

Too many visitors or safari jeeps gathering around an wild animal in National Park or Wildlife sanctuary, or purposely going too close to provoke a growl or a attack.


Impact:

Causes high stress, and breaks the wild animal’s natural behaviour, such as courtship, hunting and feeeding. In the case of big animals like big cats or elephants, regularly being close to them can be dangerous.



Remedy:

When you sight a wild animal, always keep a safe distance between the safari and wild animal. When you see other safari coming, take a few photographs and leave that spot. If you see any officials, drivers or photographers breaking the rules, carefully take a picture or video of this and report it to someone in authority.


Issue 2: Nest or den photography

Capturing images of mammals at their dens orbirds at their nests.


Impact:

This causes disturbance and stress in animals and they can abandon the nest or den. In the case of big cats, it forces the parents to move their juveniles to another den, which can be dangerous for them. This can also attract other unethical photographers and poachers too.


Remedy:

Avoid capturing images of nest or den. Stay away from newborns or juveniles. This also includes manipulating nest or nest area. Publishers and competitions should be very strict about accepting nesting and den photographs.


Issue 3: Playback of birdcalls to attract birds


Impact:

Wildlife survey have shown that this can cause stress to birds. The available study material advice that replying to call-playback may effect in bird energy, disturbs their territory and can lead to pair break-ups. Playing bird sounds during their mating season can confuse adults from more crucial tasks like mating, guarding the nest, and defending their territories.


Remedy:

Refrain from use of bird calls, particularly for rare and endangered birds.



Issue 4: Handling amphibians and reptiles for photography


Impact:

To start this, picking up and handling wild animals is illegal. It also causes them terrible stress. If a snake is feeding on something, the first response to handling will be to vomiting its food.

Amphibians can be infected with bacteria from your hands, which can be fatal to the individual and sometimes to the whole species in the area. Taking them out of their habitat will cause their body or skin to dry up, and can be tough to survive. Some photographers refrigerate fast-moving reptiles and amphibians in order to slow their activity for capturing images. This is extremely damaging to their body and may even cause death, not in front but after you have moved on from the spot.


Remedy:

Capture images of reptiles and amphibians in their natural habitats without handling or moving them. Work with an ethical herpetologist or guide to ensure that no harm comes to wildlife.



Issue 5: Speeding in wildlife habitats


Impact:

Driving fast to sight a animal or to exit the national park before the gate shuts, not only frightens animals but can lead in animals getting run over. Although speeding is strictly not allowed in wildlife areas, it is quite common to see.


Remedy:

Follow the speed limits. If there is no speed limit mentioned, try to keep low speeds (20 kmph) to make sure that there is decent time to stop the vehicle if an animal suddenly crosses your path. File complaints against drivers who speeds the vehicle.


Responsibility from publishers & editors

We think that it is a responsibility of publishers and editors of wildlife and photography magazines or books, as well as social media pages and Facebook groups, to ensure that their audience meet ethical standards before publishing their images. Photos that are problematic should not be accepted.


Conclusion

We believe that following these rules and sharing them with every wildlife and nature photographers will improve the well being of wildlife and natural habitats. In this field, a photographer must have a good mind and, when in doubt, nature and wildlife should always get the profit of doubt.


Let’s enjoy nature responsibly!

 
 
 
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