Our wonderful planet is filled with so many amazing species and special places. And as wildlife photographers, we want to see and capture every special moment. But if we’re not careful, we can end up doing more harm than good in pursuit of a photograph.
Now, more than ever before, the wild is disappearing. Habitat destruction, illegal poaching, and climate change are all contributing to the ongoing 6th mass extinction. With more and more people interested in nature and wildlife photography, there are more pressures on the remaining wildlife and wild places we have left. With this pressure, things can quickly get out of hand — the internet after all is flooded with egregious examples of unethical wildlife viewing. Too often, wildlife ends up paying for the costs of bad human behavior.
But here’s the amazing thing — you can have incredible moments of connection with wild animals, as long as it’s on their terms. And that’s the important point, we must behave in ways that puts the welfare of the wild first.
How do you do that? Well, we put together the following guidelines to help you make the right ethical choices when you’re in the field.
Do No Harm
This is our number one guiding principle and applies to all situations. More specifically, it means:
- Do not damage or alter habitat to get a better shot.
- Do not do anything that’s going to cause a wild animal to give you a dirty look (more on this below)
Imagine the wild as a home that you’re visiting. If you’re a guest in someone else’s home, you wouldn’t trash it, steal something, or hurt the people who live there, would you?
Leave No Trace
This follows directly from the above. Go out and experience nature, but leave it as you found it. What you bring in, bring out, even if it’s garbage. Stay on designated trails. Little disturbances can turn into big problems. So be a good steward and don’t disturb the habitat.
Don’t Bee Line
Bee line means to go quickly in a straight direct course, so named after the flight path of bees. In other words, do not walk straight toward your wildlife subject. It’s likely going to turn a passive interaction into a sudden aggressive one, which will cause your subject to either have to flee or to challenge you. Just imagine the opposite scenario, say you’re watching a big bear in the distance and then suddenly it’s running right at you — how would you feel?
So instead adopt a cautious approach. If you do try to get closer, use zig zag or circular movements, or try getting down low, where you’ll look much less imposing. If you can see that your behavior is causing stress, it’s time to back away.
Don’t Force It
It’s important to remember that nature operates at its own rhythm and flow. As much as you may want a wild animal to move or act in a certain way, it isn’t up to you. This unpredictability is what makes being in nature so special because there is no guarantee what’s going to happen next. Trying to force the situation and get the shot at all costs is a slippery slope once you start going down it, which can lead to some pretty shady behavior. Nature cannot be forced. Not all field outings result in the money shot, in fact, very few do. And no shot is worth putting yourself, others, or wild animals at risk. So it’s important to accept this rhythm and flow, and know when it’s just not in the cards for the day, which may mean backing away and leaving an animal alone if it’s clearly stressed. You’ll know if you’ve gone too far if the animal gives you a dirty look.
The Rules Apply To You
It’s important to follow all the rules and regulations in the places that you’re visiting. They were put in place for your safety and for the safety and welfare of wildlife. It’s especially important to follow the rules, even when no one is watching.
Do Not Bait
There’s an often repeated saying “a fed bear is a dead bear.” Baiting and food conditioning a wild animal for a shot often results in the animal being euthanized. It may seen innocuous but it’s well known that once a wild animals becomes food conditioned, it will start to seek out more opportunities for easy meals, which in turn often leads to more bold and aggressive behavior. All too often it leads to the same predictable outcome where the animal pays the price for human baiting with its life.
Baiting is mostly black and white, with a few shades of grey.
You should never bait a predator. Full stop. Black and white.
But now here’s some grey. For example what about bird feeders? It is feeding a wild animal, but most people would not consider it the same as a predator. Sharks are another grey area. For most shark photography, chum (cut up pieces of fish scattered into the water) are commonly used to attract sharks. Is this acceptable or not? You can read more about this controversial practice in this NatGeo article.
Say No To Game Farms
Have you ever seen beautiful up close portraits of snow leopards or mountain lions? Chances are they were taken at a game farm. Game farms typically have a poor reputation, largely because there have been cases where animals have being kept in squalid conditions solely for human enjoyment. Netflix’s the Tiger King is but one example of the shady and criminal acts that have been documented at these establishments.
If you’re ever considering visiting a zoo, animal sanctuary, rehabilitation centre, or game farm. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) allows you to check whether the location meets its accreditation standards. Similarly, if you’re interested in visiting a zoo, you can check to see if it meets the accredited standards of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
If you are photographing an animal at an accredited rehabilitated centre or zoo, be truthful in your caption. Tell their story and explain how you were able to be so close. Don’t pretend it’s a completely wild animal, unaided by humans.
Forget the Drone
Drones for most wildlife are the equivalent of giant mosquitoes in the sky to you and us. They are annoying, disturbing, and often cause wildlife to flee (we would certainly leave an area with giant mosquitoes!). For most cases, it’s best to leave the drone at home. The exception would be in situations where there is clear scientific guidance and permits in place for you to use your giant mosquito in the sky.
Value Your Reputation
In this era of social media, word travels fast in the wildlife photography community. Cases of baiting, dishonesty and other harmful practices are readily exposed and criticized. Don’t be a bad example.
We hope these guidelines are useful to you and that they help you to have most amazing shared moments with wildlife, on their terms. For additional guidance, please see the following:
- Principles of Ethical Field Practices by the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA)
- Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography and Videography by The National Audubon Society
- The Nature Photographers’ Code of Practice by The Royal Photographic Society (RPS)
- How to Photograph Wildlife Ethically by National Geographic
As always, we would love to hear your thoughts about ethics in wildlife photography. Let us know in the comments section below.