Film-makers and photographers can be a competitive bunch—as the world gets saturated with traditional wildlife photography, people are pushing the boundaries to get the next great shot. They are manipulating nature quite widely, getting closer than ever to their subjects and using new technology to capture unique angles and behaviours. It’s an exciting time for photography. But where do we draw the line? It is important for photographers to think about these questions before they are caught up in the pressure and excitement of the moment.
There are the purists who prefer to give wildlife a wide berth, they don’t feel comfortable playing recorded bird calls to attract a shy species, feeding and baiting is off the table—they are showing absolute regard for putting nature first and photography second. Then there are those who ask: “What’s the harm of getting a little closer? Of manipulating animal behaviour?” After all, photos can be a powerful tool for conservation.
I thought that it would be interesting to examine some grey areas and the pros and cons of many trends in wildlife photography, even to fine tune the ethics of our own workshops and recommended lodges. What do you think of these practices? We’d like to hear from you and will write more in this vein in the future.
Too close for comfort
I have heard wildlife photographers say how they get into position, then wait for lions to see them – lying on the ground, in water, or behind a vehicle – in order to create that special eye contact or expression. I have heard photographers whistle, rev engines and reposition the vehicles to get an animal’s attention or change the course of their path. Some photographers take to the sky in helicopters and get amazing photos of animals thundering across the landscape—that those animals are running scared and possibly wasting precious energy is often overlooked by the end viewer. And what about off-road driving? Is it worth creating new vehicle tracks and potentially smashing a few plants and bugs to get a closer look? Is it wrong to interfere with behaviour? Often we can’t help it—a leopard might wake from its nap when it hears an engine start, small animals scurry out of the way of an approaching vehicle. But surely we shouldn’t go out of our way to ‘harass’ animals.
I think that being on foot is the ultimate experience for photographers and for all wildlife enthusiasts. Having a guide that allows you to lie down and take low angle images of a herd of elephants or even a bug on the ground is a winning experience. It’s not permitted in all areas and safety is the first consideration. Still, people get too close on foot sometimes too.
I remember as a newbie journalist for Getaway in 1995 looking for desert elephants in Namibia’s Hoanib River. When we eventually tracked them down, I treated them like “normal” elephants. But the desert elephants are stressed in their environment, and one bull came closer and closer and closer until it was standing right above me, its massive tusks inches from my face. I was far from my vehicle and very exposed. I lay still as could be, terrified, until the elephant moved off. Elephant expert Garth Owen-Smith rightly gave me a dressing down and told me that I’d risked the life of myself and the elephant.
I am older and more experienced, and on my photo workshops, we do still get down and dirty from time to time and photograph elephants from close up, but it’s always done with extreme caution, with care for the animals’ personal spaces and with due regard for the elephants’ state of mind. In South Luangwa, which is home of the walking safari, I have photographed wild dogs, lions and giraffe on foot. But always with consideration for the safety of ourselves and the well-being of the animals. Ideally it’s best never to be seen at all.
Off road driving
Although off road driving is not permitted in many reserves, including the Mara, people seem to turn a blind eye to the rules. I remember seeing 50 vehicles far off road, crowded around a pair of black rhino. When the parks officials appeared over a rise they dispersed faster than an impala seeing a crocodile. One or two of the stragglers were snapped up and faced heavy fines. Photographers chasing “the shot” do put enormous pressure on guides. And guides put enormous pressure on themselves to deliver the goods to their guests. The benefit of visiting private conservation areas bordering national parks and game reserves is that the rules are generally less strictly enforced and off-road driving is permitted. We do need to acknowledge the rules.
On a recent trip to Chobe, our guide did not hesitate in throwing a fish for a fish eagle, and the predictable arc of the bird’s strike made for a stunning shot. Perhaps he was doing it to please us and make a better tip, but it turned out, he was in contravention of local rules. Just about every picture you have ever seen of a swooping fish eagle has been taken by baiting the bird with a fish — and it’s a shot that photographers want to go for. I spoke to one photographer who had thrown seven fish for the fish eagle. Maybe it does not affect their behaviour, but I sense that it’s not right, and it’s definitely not right in areas where it’s prohibited. Feeding birds is illegal in many areas, including Chobe, and it’s important that we do not put pressure on guides in our pursuit for the perfect shot.
Night photography in the spotlight
Spot-lighting lions and leopards can create award winning images. We have done it on workshops from time to time, and it’s a great opportunity for learning. Switch off the lights of your vehicle, adjust to manual settings and use a light from another vehicle to create interesting back-lighting effects. There is no doubt that photography of predators at night with tungsten spotlights interferes with their hunting ability. In some areas, leopards learn to use the sounds of vehicles as cover so that they are able to get closer to their prey. Spotlighting is not permitted in many areas and, even where spotlighting is permitted, it should be done with great caution, for a short period of time, and never when predators are actively hunting.
Feeding and watering
Where do we draw the line? There are unspeakably great opportunities to take images of birds and elephants from hides. Without these hides, game viewing and photography would not be possible in these areas, but we cannot ignore the impact that waterholes have on pristine environments. Just look at the area surrounding any waterhole and especially in Hwange, where elephant populations are burgeoning and vegetation is denuded. Then again, close the water holes now, and some animals might die. The dancing red-crowned cranes of Japan are photographed precisely at a certain time when food is left out for them. Were it not for the attention of nature lovers and photographers who wait patiently for the daily feeding, the survival of this creature would be in jeopardy. Snow monkeys are also fed by rangers, so this practice too is somewhat contrived. It is generally acceptable to photograph breaching great white sharks by leaving chum and by towing decoys that fool the animals into thinking that they are attacking a seal. Each of the reputable boat operators claim that they have scientists on board and are doing research. Certainly the fact that sharks are now studied and appreciated by people has greatly helped their conservation. I have heard stories where photographers have used bait to attract the attention of cubs and create curiosity and “interesting” images, but can we really justify such practices? Recently I visited Tiger Canyon where film maker John Varty has created a sanctuary for breeding tigers in the Karoo. He sees this as a collaboration between wildlife and photographers because they are each dependent upon one another. He has created artificial environments for his tigers and the animals do get fed… often to create good situations for wildlife viewing. Again this is a private sanctuary and saving tigers is their stated goal.
Generally it’s fine to remove a twig or some dust spots without making any justification about what has been done to the image. However, all competitions and magazines have different standards and many will require the original RAW image to ensure its absolute authenticity. Many photographers also draw a line between what is acceptable for art that might hang on a gallery wall, and what is okay for more documentary type work as is highlighted in the recent debate about National Geographic photographer, Steve McCurry. I love his work and I love the changes that he made to them, but for some people who want to get results in camera the removal of image clutter, including people, may be unacceptable.
In their prestigious competition, the judges of the 2010 BBC wildlife awards demoted Jose Luis Rodriguez of the winning image of a wolf jumping over a fence because the photographer did not reveal that this was a tame “model” wolf that was hired for the shoot. Mr Rodriguez strongly denied it was a model. Years ago, as a photographer, I was looking for a great picture of a spotted necked otter to discuss the fact trout farmers were killing otters in their dams to prevent them plundering their fishing stocks. I found Nimrod in the Drakensberg and got a great shot of him, which made it to the cover of the magazine. Nimrod had been habituated, and it was impossible keeping him out of my frame. Did the fact that this was a story about conservation make this photograph OK?
The jury is also split over drones. Some say drones are noisy, invasive and can make enemies fast. I agree, but I am also amazed by the images that they can create. If you haven’t yet seen the footage of false killer whales chasing and capturing a juvenile shark in Sydney Harbour then do look at this link. There is increasingly tight legislation about the use of drones (in South Africa you now need to get a licence that can cost up to R20 000), and they are certainly not allowed in any national parks — and thank goodness for that. I have also heard of situations in the Mara where the herds of wildebeest have been stopped in their tracks because someone launched a drone. In reserves dedicated to photography, drones can be used, but they also can affect the enjoyment of other photographers as I experienced recently on a trip to a private photographic reserve.
Similar to drones, photographers have started using cameras mounted on remote control cars to get striking, low-angle shots and inquisitive close-ups of all kinds of species. But the animals’ startled faces beg the question, is this okay? What is the influence on their behaviour? What if everyone brought a remote control camera car on their next safari? Once again perhaps it’s OK as long the laws of the area are respected as well as the rights of the animals and of other people.
Where to draw the line?
Do we go by the law? Do go by what feels right? Clear rights and wrongs are tough to define and might depend on the particular place and species. For example, some argue that baiting or photographing tame animals is wrong. “It would be like towing a piece of wildlife through the Kruger National Park,” they might argue. But is the bird feeder in your garden any different?
Perhaps it’s a good idea to look at the rules of the BBC Wildlife Photo Competition for their take on where to draw the line: They request the background story; exact location; if any bait was used, and if so, of what nature. They say that submissions should not portray captive or restrained animals, animal models, and/or any other animal being exploited for profit unless for the purposes of reporting on a specific issue regarding the treatment of animals by a third party. Getting the photograph should not include cruelty or the use of live bait. Entrants are required to report on the natural world in a way that is both creative and honest: entries must not deceive the viewer or attempt to disguise and/or misrepresent the reality of nature. Entrants are responsible for ensuring full compliance with the law and for securing any relevant permits (which, in the case of human portraits and recordings, will include the subject’s permission). And perhaps the most important, entrants must not do anything to injure or distress any animals or destroy their habitat in an attempt to secure an image.
Hopefully the good sides of photography will outweigh the bad and photographers using drones, beetle cams and other innovations trying to get that special moment will do so with caution, both for the animals they’re photographing and for other people who want to visit the area in the future. It’s also up to the guides and lodges out there to lay out the rules and make sure that their guests do not push the boundaries and they do not interfere with the experiences of other guests who want a more pristine wilderness experience.
Similarly, in publishing, posting or sharing photos, we need to make some statements about what is wild, what is tame and what is just photoshopped. We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.