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Nature Watch: How To Photograph Wildlife Ethically

By Melissa Groo   Monday August 19, 2019


The full version of this edited article originally appeared at National Geographic.


Photographers have unprecedented tools, opportunities, and reach to find their animal subjects.

At the same time, wild animals are facing unprecedented threats to their survival. Habitat loss, climate change, the illegal wildlife trade, overfishing, and pollution have caused the catastrophic decline of birds, insects, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians over the last few decades. A recent United Nations report found that one in four species faces extinction

Wildlife photography has the power to turn people on to the wonder of nature. It’s an essential tool to inspire the desire to protect wildlife and spark real change. Photos can go viral on social media in mere minutes, bringing much-needed attention to wildlife in the throes of crisis.

At the same time, social media throws together those who seek to visually capture nature in honest, careful ways with those who take shortcuts at the expense of the subject, intent only on more likes and followers. Viewers can’t tell the difference.

“The ethics of photography are the same as the ethics of life, and all revolve around respect,” says National Geographic photographer Beverly Joubert, who has spent decades photographing African wildlife. There are few one-size-fits-all rules and lots of gray areas. What is ethical to one may be unethical to another. We must be guided by compassion and conservation and put the welfare of the subject first.

Though there is no guidebook, there are a few basic principles that can help make the way clearer.

1. Do no harm

*Do not destroy or alter habitat for a better view or scene.

*Let animals go about their business. Do not seek their attention or interaction.

*Take special care at breeding season.

*Know the signs of stress of your subject species.

There’s no question we have an impact when we venture into wildlife’s territory. We seek or stumble onto their roosts and dens, their feeding and gathering places. Does that mean we shouldn’t ever get out there and raise our cameras? Absolutely not. Nature needs our stories, now more than ever. But nature also needs us to come in with a heightened level of awareness of our effects.

Young Male Grizzly Bear, Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia (Grizzly Bears), by Melissa Groo

2. Keep it wild

*Be cautious about feeding wildlife.

*Avoid habituating wild animals to humans’ presence.

The kindest thing we can do for wild animals is to honor their wildness. The quickest way to compromise that wildness is to offer food so we can get a photo. Yellowstone National Park’s website plainly states: “A fed animal is a dead animal—good or bad, the Park Service will destroy animals that are habituated to human contact and food.”

Juvenile Elephant Sleeps Against Mama, Kenya (Elephants), by Melissa Groo

So when is it OK to use food to lure photographic subjects? There’s no straight answer, but these questions can help guide you.

Is feeding this animal likely to change its behavior in harmful ways? If it lives in or migrates to an area where it’s hunted, feeding it may habituate it to humans and make it an easy target. Or it may become too bold in approaching people for food, which might lead to wildlife managers killing it.

Is the food appropriate and safely provided? For example, providing bird feeders means taking on the responsibilities of cleaning them regularly to avoid the spread of viruses and parasites, placing them at the prescribed distance from windows to avoid strikes, and keeping cats indoors.

Does feeding this animal violate any laws? It’s illegal to feed wildlife in national parks. Most states have laws prohibiting the feeding of certain wildlife, such as deer, bears, and moose in New York. Even local municipalities may have their own ordinances. Penalties range from fines to imprisonment.


3. Follow the laws

*Laws vary by location and species.

*Laws vary depending on the purpose and method of photography.

It’s crucial to learn and heed laws and regulations in local, state, and national parks, such as how much distance to keep between us and particular species. These exist to keep us and the wildlife safe. There’s no shortage of news stories about tourists who ignored national parks’ rules on distance and got injured. In many cases, the animal must be put down.

In any park or other protected area, if we plan on making commercial photography, guiding workshops, or deploying camera traps, we’re required to obtain the necessary permits. This includes marine protected areas.

Giraffe and Kob Mother and Calf, Murchison Falls, Uganda (Rothschild's Giraffes), by Melissa Groo

Use of drones around wildlife is a controversial topic, and laws vary widely. They're not allowed in U.S. national parks, wilderness areas, and nature preserves. And for those places where they are allowed, we must still consider their effects on the wildlife. A well-known 2015 study documented the effect of drones on the heart rates of black bears in Minnesota. Though there were no outward signs of stress, bears’ heart rates rose as much as 123 beats per minute above the pre-flight baseline when a drone was present. (Learn the dark truth behind the "inspirational" bear video that really wasn’t.)

4. Consider the captive

*Scrutinize opportunities to photograph wild animals in captivity.

*Know what makes a legitimate sanctuary or zoo, and avoid places where wild animals are exploited for profit.

Much of the photo industry condemns game farms, and photos from them are prohibited in high-profile photo contests and most major magazines, including National Geographic. For every species held by a game farm, there is a conservation photographer who has carefully and conscientiously photographed that species in the wild, in its true habitat, exhibiting natural behavior. (Check out, for example, what it took to find and photograph the rare helmeted hornbill.)

We must recognize that the dollars we spend will validate and perpetuate the living conditions those animals have found themselves in, through no choice of their own.

There are organizations that can help determine whether a self-titled “sanctuary,” “refuge,” or “rescue” is really what it claims to be. Start with the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFSA). GFSA-accredited facilities must meet high standards of care and management. Another source is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Though some may debate whether every AZA-accredited operation offers the quality of life to a captive animal that we would wish, these places are held to high standards of care. (Note that the AZA is distinct from the ZAA—Zoological Association of America—a controversial coalition with a confusing acronym.)

5. Caption with honesty

*Be transparent about how a photograph was made.

Ethical practice in wildlife photography doesn’t end when we return to the comforts of home. How we represent the truth of an animal’s life when we share our photos matters.

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At top: Snowy Owl Juveniles, Barrow, Alaska (Snowy Owls). Photographed while working with the Owl Research Institute, by Melissa Groo
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Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer, and conservationist, based in upstate New York. She writes a bimonthly column on wildlife photography for Outdoor Photographer magazine, is a contributing editor to Audubon magazine, and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

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