I was about fifteen years old when I was given a camera with which to explore the world. What began as a way to keep me out of trouble became my way to make a living. For years, I have worked as a commercial photographer shooting product advertising, food, architecture, events and even editorial. But my true passion is for the critters living around me. Later in life, armed with enough knowledge about the natural world, I embarked on a long journey to document wildlife and educate people about the importance of all living things. My photography became a medium to reach people and teach them something they didn’t know. This journey has taken me to some of the most amazing places in the world. From hotspots of biodiversity in the Amazon and Central America, to the ever-changing Galapagos and the megafauna of Africa, each has provided me with multiple opportunities to understand life and the importance of each individual and its impact on the ecosystems they live in. That includes animals like us, humans.
Over the years I have seen many more people exploring the outdoors, kayaking, boating, camping and photographing wildlife. Some with very positive results; others, not so much. Nature photography has become one of the most common outdoor hobbies, bringing people closer to nature. But sometimes these encounters may have detrimental effects on the wildlife we love so much.
As a naturalist and photography instructor, I try to teach the ethics of nature photography to my students in an effort to create nature-conscious individuals. Learning when your actions affect your subject or others in the ecosystem is very important. I have learned from my own mistakes. There was a time in my life where documenting birds nesting was a priority, until I noticed the effect this could have on nesting birds. Having witnessed many nesting birds fail due to increased visitation from photographers and nature lovers made me realize the impacts are no different than any other anthropogenic causes. In our quest to get the best image possible, we fail to recognize the level of impact we imposed on our subjects. Recently, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the effect of our love for nature and the outdoors was seen across our national parks, where masses of people went in search of relief after lockdown. The parks were littered with garbage and animal-human conflicts were on the rise. How can we love something so much to the point of hurting it? The answer may lie in our own selfishness. Take for example the case of a man that took a selfie too close to a large alligator. Without hesitation, the photo is posted on social media and many more join the craze. A few weeks later, the famed alligator was deemed too friendly and was removed from the reserve. Its final destination was unknown, but most people assumed it was euthanized. The moral of the story is that without knowing, the selfishness of these individuals and their unethical behavior caused the loss of one famous alligator.
Few years ago the strange sighting of a Snowy Owl on the beaches of Jacksonville drew the attention of many birders and photographers that tried their chances at seeing or photographing this northern species. People from all over Florida were trampling the vegetation along the sand dunes, and their mere presence made the owl a bit antsy. The constant chase prevented the owl from resting and hunting properly to the point that the owl died. My question then, is do those people really care about the owl, or did they care more about their own selfishness of getting the shot.
The stories of unethical encounters with wildlife are more common that many of us want to admit. One time, while walking a preserve, I came across an individual placing his arm inside a gopher tortoise burrow in hopes of getting the tortoise out for a photo opportunity. Besides advising him on the illegality of his actions, I went into explaining the danger he was exposing himself to. It’s not unusual to find rattlesnakes living in the gopher tortoise burrows. While my actions were passive, my only hope was for him to learn about the big mistake he had just made. You may have heard about a few cases of wild animals that have been removed from the environment because of people feeding them, or treating them as pets, etc. Sometimes we think we are doing them a favor by providing them water or food, when in reality we are just sentencing them to death. That’s the reason the signs read “A fed bear is a dead bear.” I guess that applies to gators, too. But while this expression may apply to certain situations, like campgrounds and parks, we can’t deny that feeding may be positive in a different situation. Take, for example, the scheduled feeding of California condors in locations where the birds were re-introduced. But these are specific situations that are carefully monitored for the benefit of the species, not for the benefit of the photographer.
More recently I have witnessed how our love for wildlife and getting the perfect shot may be affecting the migration of thousands of ungulates in Africa. While visiting the Mara River in Kenya to document the Great Wildebeest Migration, I was appalled to see how many tour operators will park their vehicles right on the path of the migrating wildebeest to give their clients the ultimate view. It was bad enough to prevent the wildebeest from crossing the river. Instead of allowing enough room for them to cut across, the vehicles on the opposite side of the river bank acted as a concrete wall preventing the animals from even attempting the crossing. This is the largest land migration on earth with more than 2 million animals crossing the Mara every year as they move from Tanzania to Kenya. I also learned about an apparent practice in Tanzania to set fires to delay the migration of the wildebeest in an effort to keep the business in the country. While Tanzania denies the practice, many tour operators in Kenya continue to blame Tanzania for the stalled migrations.
A few days later, we encountered a leopard that was surrounded by nearly 40 safari vehicles loaded with tourists with cellphones in hand. The vehicles were inching against each other in hopes to get a clear view of the shaken cat. The story later repeated itself, this time with a lonely cheetah. Vehicles circled the exhausted animal, with the insensible occupants taking pictures with their phones at close distance. Both experiences were too much for me to bear and I asked our drivers to leave the area immediately. My conscience was telling me: “the shot is not more important than the welfare of the subject.” But for the tour operators, putting their clients in the best spot usually means more money in the form of tips. A hard habit to break when they need the money.
So, what can be done to avoid this type of wildlife encroachment? Perhaps the answer lies in each one of us and how we communicate with the people near us about the dangers that our actions pose to wildlife. National parks and preserves need to teach their operators about safe viewing distances, and proper wildlife-watching etiquette. We need to make it illegal to approach the wildlife, and denounce those who commit the crime. We can never allow money to dictate our actions and we must always work for the safety of our wild animals and natural resources. At the end, we won’t have anything to photograph when it’s all gone. Do your part and learn what is too close or too much.