Years ago, I visited a Norwegian wildlife park and came home with some images of lynxes that were very well-received. It all seemed perfectly fine; the pair of lynx lived in a spacious, natural enclosure which we were allowed to enter under the surveillance of guides. I did notice that the guides tossed out scraps of meat to entice the lynxes to come closer. But the animals there were healthy, and the purpose of Polar Park (as well as the German Bayerischer Wald), is to protect rapidly vanishing European species and inform visitors about them. I was happy with my lynx photos.
Sometime later, I did a bird photography workshop in the US with conservation photographer Melissa Groo. It was then that I first heard the term ‘wild and unbaited.’ I started realizing that there are honorable and less honorable methods of photographing wildlife. Places like Polar Park are honest wildlife parks where animals live well under natural, albeit controlled, circumstances. However, taking a photo of a lynx or wolf there is not much different than taking a photo at the zoo and making sure the bars aren’t visible. There’s no harm in it, just be honest about how and where you got the shot.
There’s both a light and a dark side to wildlife photography, whether you’re photographing in the Netherlands, the US, or Africa. Good wildlife photography can inspire and teach people to love and protect wild animals. It can be a way of supporting conservation and raising awareness. But some people collect wildlife images the way hunters collect trophies. ‘I got my wolves, now I need to get bears.’ Fortunately, photographers cause less harm to the animals than the hunters. But is this always true? National Geographic recently pointed out that it isn’t always the case. Wildlife tourism (not just photography) has a dark side to it. (read article here)
There are, however, also those who cash in on the other side of the story. Recently a fellow photographer shared an article from the Daily Mail with the shocking headline “Horrified wildlife photographer, 47, says he saw ‘elephants screaming in agony’ as guides whipped them with bamboo canes at a wildlife reserve in India” My first reaction was that of horror and shame. As I read the article, I realized that I had been to this wildlife reserve and had seen mahouts riding tame elephants. They protect the tigers from poachers and keep track of the well-being of all the wildlife in the reserve. The elephants seemed healthy and well-treated. What had I missed?
Because the Daily Mail is not known for its well-documented, unbiased journalism, I went back to study the article and the posted photos more carefully. It was filled with half-truths and conjecture. The self-styled ‘wildlife photographer’ had not seen elephants being mistreated, he had heard trumpeting and had interpreted this as ‘screams of agony.’ The photographs just showed a few elephants hanging around with their mahouts. The headlines and photo captions written by the Daily Mail implied even worse things than the text described.
And yes, I know that training and using elephants sometimes does involve cruelty, and that not every mahout is the same. But what fascinates me is the fact that I was tempted to believe this sensationalist bit of hearsay simply because it was dealing with animal welfare, a topic that concerns me. So I was willing, however briefly, to suspend my critical judgement and feel anguish about the mistreatment described.
Here, we enter the realm of the oft-misused term ‘fake news.’ At the moment I’m reading an excellent book called Network Propaganda, by Yochai Benkler et al. It’s a very well-documented study showing how media manipulates the truth.
It’s extremely important that those of us photographing wildlife do so in order to raise awareness and inspire love of wild animals. It’s equally important that we do this in an ethical way that shows respect for wild nature.
It’s also highly important to be very careful not to believe and share something simply because it confirms our own bias.