Ethics of Wildlife Photography: Are there any these days?

Jul 26, 2012 Safari Prep
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There is no doubt that the digital age has revolutionised bird photography and it is not unusual anymore to see fanatical birders with a SLR and zoom lens added to their standard gear arsenal of binoculars and field guides. It is also clear  that modern digital cameras have proved an incredible tool to document far more about unusual and rare mammals and birds, their distribution patterns and their behaviour than ever before.

What grinds me though are the extremes that some photographers go to, to get that perfect defining moment or ‘winning shot’. In South Africa there have been recent shocking accounts of a Victorin’s warbler nest tied back only to have the chicks predated a week later as the nest was no longer adequately concealed, or the photographer that staked out a Cape rockjumper nest on a cold wintry day, repeatedly capturing images of the incoming parents while the chicks froze to death…

While ‘pruning’ of nests and its negative effects is not new, the surge in digital photography means that there are a lot more people likely to try and get those kinds of shots than the days of film/slide photography. Also linked in with the modern digital era  is the whole issue of using playback to lure birds within a more acceptable focal range, stressing the living daylights out of the hapless bird as it expends way too much energy looking for the ‘intruder’ in its territory. The idea of using attractants to bait wildlife is another controversial subject that I will not even try get into here. What’s the fun in employing these techniques? Where is one’s environmental ethics?   For me it is far more satisfying to stalk and follow birds taking advantage of natural cover without them being aware of your presence and get natural shots of them going about their day-to-day behaviour like foraging and courting. I keep well back from nests, nesting colonies and roosts and if photographing these sites try to use a man-made blind  and minimise the use of artificial light.

On the subject of wildlife photography how many of us have tried to do what I like to call “forcing the action”? In our rushed modern lives we are far more impatient and rarely just want to sit and wait for something to happen. Driving around Namibia’s Etosha National Park recently I was dumbstruck at the idiotic ‘vocalisations’ made by some tourists that were making deliberate noises to startle wildlife and make them look at the camera. Animal ‘comfort zones’ are also often simply ignored. We have to remember that we are the visitors to national parks and wildlife areas.

We have the responsibility to view and photograph all forms of wildlife responsibly. Be aware that the ecosystem you visit may be fragile, so tread gently and practice “leave no trace” principles. Guides have the responsibility to impose standard protocol in this regard and inform guests why this is necessary.

Let’s hope that stupid photographer behaviour does not lead to the permanent demise of certain species! Surely the wildlife subject at the end of the day is more important than the photograph itself? Let’s hope so.

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By Martin Benadie

Martin is our birding expert and shares his wealth of avian knowledge with us, as well as tips on photography, safari optics and environmental news.

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