Putting wildlife first in wildlife photography

Photos of wildlife.

We see them every day especially in the image-rich world of social media. The best of these images will captivate and astound viewers while some photographers of wildlife will often go to extraordinary lengths in the pursuit of capturing the images.

Unfortunately there’s a very ugly side to the beautiful images of wildlife that so many of us love to capture and view.

The dark side of wildlife tourism

We might think of a wildlife photographer as someone with specialized camera equipment. Perhaps a DSLR or mirrorless camera and mostly certainly a long telephoto lens. The latter is needed because wildlife is often far away or it should be far away because it may be dangerous to get too close to some animals. That big lens allows you to get close in your images without actually getting physically close.

Yet anyone with a smartphone camera or even a disposable camera can get closeup shots of animals as dangerous as a tiger. How is this possible? Such animals might often be chained down, drugged, declawed, or worse. Sadly this is but one example of the horrible and disgusting expoitation of animals for the purpose of taking photos of them. Or with them. For the most likely supporter of a business that does this to an animal is the person seeking the dreaded wildlife selfie, such as the “tiger selfie,” that for a while was, and perhaps still is, popular in online dating profiles. Mostly men trying to impress women. In June 2019, National Geographic published a story about this and many other disgusting practices that inhabit the dark side of wildlife tourism. You can read the article right here. If you care about animals you’ll be utterly disgusted, and perhaps moved to tears, or even to anger.

The National Geographic story focuses mostly on wildlife photo opportunities that are capitalized on by people with smartphone cameras or any camera with a short lens.

Surely a photographer with a big lens, a more serious wildlife photographer, would never utilize such cruel practices to get their photos?

The dark side of wildlife photography

It’s true that more serious wildlife photographers would never utilise such practices. For one thing, they’re not typically capturing selfies or images with even other people in the photos. The more serious wildlife photographers typically try to get photos of wildlife in natural environments without buildings, people, or anything else that would spoil the ideal of a wild animal roaming free.

But there are many other practices that the more serious wildlife photographers utilize that are questionable at best, and exploitative at the worst. These are practices that even many professional wildlife photographers have taken advantage of.

Baiting

One practice for getting close to animals is to bait them with food. This is a practice that in many cases will alter the natural behavior of the animals and this could lead to the animal coming to harm especially if the animal associates people with an easy meal. One photographer in Canada runs workshops for photographing snowy owls. In response to being asked how photographers at his workshop get close to the owls, he described how he uses “live feeding mice” and goes through buckets of mice a day. This is done for six weeks leading up to the workshop so that the animals are habituated to the practice by the time the photographers turn up.

There are some wildlife photography workshops where the baiting is done before the workshop but not during the workshop. This makes it possible to say that no baiting took place when the photos were taken.

Whenever you see photos of a snowy owl or another owl flying down low towards the camera, there is a reasonable probability it was taken in this way.

Herding

There are plenty of other techniques utilized by some wildlife photographers. Another technique, and one that is sometimes used with animals found in wide open spaces, is herding. In this arctic, some wildlife guides will use a person driving on a skidoo or snowmobile to “gently coax” a polar bear towards a photographer or group of photographers. If the bear tries to move away they will keep circle it from different angles to push it towards the photographers so they can certain types of bears such as those of the bear coming towards the camera.

Game farms

Even worse, there are game farms where animals are captive, and sometimes bred in captivity, kept for the sole purpose of being used in film and TV productions, or for photographic opportunities. You can visit these places and the handlers will have the animal perform a behavior on command. Do you want an incredible photo of a snow leopard, or perhaps a bear and some wolves fighting over food? No need to search in the wilderness for such extremely rare photographic opportunities for they can be setup with relative ease at a game farm.

Pressuring wildlife

For many wildlife photographers, Africa is a dream destination. “Target-rich” as some photographers describe it. The typical way to find the animals and get close to them is to drive around. During such game drives, when certain popular animals are found, a number of questions arise. How close should the vehicle get to the animal? When there are multiple vehicles surrounding the anima, how many vehicles is too many? If the animal moves, is it okay if the vehicles keep following it? If so, for how long, and how close can they get?

It’s not the goal of this article to describe all the various techniques that are utilized by wildlife photographers, tour guides, and others. For there are many. In the best case, these shortcuts to “success” are used until it appears the animal is in stress and then they cease the practice and let the animal go on its way. In the worst case, they don’t care. Whatever it takes to get the shot. After all, when someone sees the photo, who would know the difference?

The good news is that a great many photographers abhor such techniques and will stay far away from them. They will often talk about the need to have “ethics” as they conduct themselves in the activities of wildlife photography.

Fake wildlife sanctuaries

Before we get to the happier part of this article, there is one more thing that needs to be covered and that is the “wildlife sanctuaries” where you can visit animals that while captive, have in theory, been rescued or are being rehabilitated. There are indeed real sanctuaries where their goal is to release any animal that comes to the sanctuary. Unfortunately this is not always possible as some animals would never survive in the wild. Perhaps they have been injured or perhaps they are too habituated to people. For those that can be released, it’s important to limit human contact and take other steps so that the animal will have the best chance in the wild.

In the “fake sanctuaries” there is not only no release planned for the animals but the worst ones breed the animals in captivity. This is sometimes done with endangered species with the claim that they are undertaking conservation work and increasing the population. However the animals will never be released. In the worse cases they are actually selling the animals for the “canned hunting” industry or worse. In many of these fake sanctuaries they sell “interactions” where you can sit next to the animal, and perhaps even cuddle the animal, and you can take, yes you guessed it, a selfie.

Real sanctuaries that really care about the welfare of the animals do not allow interactions, don’t breed animals, don’t sell animals, and make best efforts to return animals to the wild.

The irony of it all

The irony is that when many of these practices are used, not only can they detrimentally affect the animals, but it can affect the photos. Those shots where the animal has its ears back, perhaps its teeth bared or its tail down or its hackles up, are not typically great shots.

For those who rely on such techniques to get their photos, what is the story that they tell when asked how they got the shot?

The good part

Like many things it is not always entirely black and white when it comes to the various techniques employed to find animals, get close enough to them, and capture interesting behaviors. For sure there are some practices that a majority of people will agree should not be used but there are some, that especially when used in moderation, will produce divide opinions as to whether they are acceptable or not. There are even cases when it can be argued that a technique like baiting can be beneficial to the animals. One example is where animals are increasingly coming into situations where they are in conflict with humans due to loss of their habitat. This conflict may be farmers losing livestock to the animals or simply people coming to personal harm from a dangerous animal. If a nearby lodge with wildlife viewing activities regularly baits the animals and this helps to keep them away from the populated area and reduce the conflict with people, is the baiting good or bad?

Regardless of where one stands with regard to these or any other practices, the principle of putting the wildlife first is one that can guide wildlife photographers down a better path. With this in mind, the welfare of the animals and of the species always takes precedence over any shot, no matter how awesome that photo might potentially be. They can take their photos not only in good conscience, but also with the knowledge that they are making the world a better place for the animals.