The Ethics of Wildlife Photography

  I was about 30 meters away from this elk cow when I took the photo, and there were several other photographers present. But we were all quiet and well-behaved, and we gave her the space she needed and deserved.

I was about 30 meters away from this elk cow when I took the photo, and there were several other photographers present. But we were all quiet and well-behaved, and we gave her the space she needed and deserved.

It’s hard for me to overstate how much I love wildlife photography. But I would never prioritize photography over the wellbeing of an animal. While it's great to get pretty, awe-inspiring shots of wild animals, it's extremely important to be sure that we're not bothering the animal when we photograph them – or worse, putting them in any sort of danger.  A true nature lover's first priority is always the wellbeing of the environment and all that live there.

Here are some of the Dos and Do-nots of wildlife photography, so you can make sure that you’re being a responsible wildlife photographer:

DO NOT:

  These people are WAY too close to the black bears. This is extremely dangerous for both the people and the bears! Image from  NPS .

These people are WAY too close to the black bears. This is extremely dangerous for both the people and the bears! Image from NPS.

  • NEVER feed or bait wild animals. Human food (and pet food) can be harmful to them, and they can become accustomed to people, and sometimes become aggressive in pursuit of "easy" meals. They’re also tempted closer to dangerous areas like roads. This has been a big problem with bears in the American west!
  • Don't get close to wild animals. For large non-predators and small animals, try to maintain a distance of 25 meters/75 feet if possible. For large predators, stay at least 100 meters/300 feet away, and try to keep downwind.
  • Don’t underestimate “harmless” animals! Even “gentle” creatures like deer will defend themselves or their young if cornered or seriously threatened.
  • Don't get in between a mother and her young, or try to get close to babies.
  • Be sure that you're not cutting off an animal's escape route (e.g. into the water), or that your group isn't surrounding an animal. 
  • Don't disturb nests or dens, even if you think they're empty.
  • Don't mimic bird calls, or play pre-recorded bird calls. Birds might think that there’s a predator or a competitor in the area, which throws off their natural behavior and stresses them out.
  • Don't harass animals, e.g. by throwing things or making loud noises at them. Seriously, that’s just a jerk move.
  • Avoid changing the environment or staging photo setups. This includes building rock piles (cairns) around streams, which can badly disrupt the life cycles of freshwater creatures.
  • Don't use a flash, unless you have a good light diffuser and you know what you're doing with it. An uncovered flash can startle and temporarily blind an animal, especially at night.
  • Don't pick or cut plants or fungi, unless you know for sure that they're invasive and harmful in that environment. They’re crucial parts of food webs!
  • Don't support businesses that capture or mistreat wild animals.
  • If you're snorkeling or scuba diving, don't touch the coral, and keep away from large marine animals, especially if they're accompanied by their young.
  Don't be an ignorant jerk like these snorkelers harassing a sea turtle. By  For the Sea Productions.

Don't be an ignorant jerk like these snorkelers harassing a sea turtle. By For the Sea Productions.

DO:

  • Pay close attention to the animal's behavior. If they become stressed or nervous, LEAVE.
  • Learn how to recognize signs of a potential attack, and how to react if the animal charges (although an animal generally won't attack unless provoked, or it's used to human food)
  • Make sure you take everything with you, including trash, when you leave.
  • Use extra caution when driving through natural areas, especially at dawn and dusk, which is when a lot of animals are active.
  • Lead by example! If other photographers or tourists see you approaching, harassing, or feeding an animal, they’ll probably think it’s okay for them to do it too.
  • If you have kids with you, keep them under control. You definitely don’t want a small child to go try to “pet the big kitty” when you’re on a safari! Some adults might need similar reminders…
  • If you’re in a national park or some other protected area, obey their rules and regulations, and listen to the rangers if they give you instructions.
  • Support conservation organizations like national parks, wildlife reserves, and environmentally responsible zoos. Research organizations that you’re not familiar with!
  • Be environmentally responsible in other parts of your life - recycle, use public transportation, buy sustainable products, and keep your pets under control.
  • Enjoy the experience! If your pictures aren't turning out how you want, forget about photographing and just watch the animal. I guarantee that your memories of seeing an animal doing something really cool will be way better than some bad photos and a lot of frustration.
  Some of these people in Yellowstone are taking photos, but most are just watching through scopes and binoculars. About a kilometer away, there's a grizzly bear and two wolves. Everyone here is acting responsibly, and enjoying their opportunity to see some amazing animals.

Some of these people in Yellowstone are taking photos, but most are just watching through scopes and binoculars. About a kilometer away, there's a grizzly bear and two wolves. Everyone here is acting responsibly, and enjoying their opportunity to see some amazing animals.

Say you follow all of these guidelines to a T, but you see someone else acting irresponsibly. What can you do to stop them? First, call them out on it, but be polite to start. Assume that they don’t know better. Explain why their behavior is wrong, and what they can do instead. A lot of people will stop once they know they’re being watched. Unfortunately, there’s also a good chance that they’ll ignore you and keep doing what they’re doing. At that point, contact local authorities if they’re available. In national parks, that’ll be rangers. Elsewhere, it’ll probably be the police. Take a photo or a video of them acting badly, and if possible, get a picture of their car that shows the license plate.

  This curious New Zealand robin (or toutouwai) approached me on Ulva Island, off the south coast of the South Island. It was fascinated with my bootlaces!

This curious New Zealand robin (or toutouwai) approached me on Ulva Island, off the south coast of the South Island. It was fascinated with my bootlaces!

There’s a lot of stuff here that boils down to “keep your distance and leave them alone,” but what if a wild animal approaches you? If it’s a small animal or a non-predator, keep still and quiet, take your photos, and consider yourself very, very lucky. Don’t try to touch it! If it’s a large predator, back away slowly, or make noise and try to look big (e.g. wave your arms, flap your coat around) to try and scare it off. DO NOT try to run away, as that could activate a predator’s chasing instincts.

There are a lot of things here to remember, and you may not be able to recall every single thing when you’re out in the field. So a good, basic rule of thumb to remember is that old adage: “Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures.”

Stay safe, and help keep the animals safe and wild. Happy photographing!