Ethics of Wildlife Photography

Over the past decade, I’ve steadily become more and more concerned about the impacts of photography on wildlife. I’m seeing and hearing of too many instances where people are getting far too close to wild animals to get an epic shot with their cell phones or point-and-shoot cameras. Such behaviour can trigger a defensive response that ends up with someone getting hurt (or worse) and the animal put down. The advent of high-resolution digital cameras coupled with powerful lenses and sophisticated editing software are partly to blame for encouraging this behaviour.  They makes it very easy to create the illusion of an extreme close-up when, in fact, the animal was quite some distance away.

Among my photos, you’ll see lots of images of wildlife. In a few instances, the animals approached very close because they were habituated to people and in one instance, likely food-conditioned as well. Definitely not a good situation. When a wild animal becomes too at ease with humans and begins to see them either as a source for food or as food, trouble is sure to follow. In many cases, though, I cropped some of my wildlife photos to compensate for the relatively short length of my lens. Currently I shoot with a Canon 60D coupled with a 24 – 200mm lens.

Because I’m concerned about unintentionally encouraging copy-cat photographers who attempt to get similar shots with their cell phones and point-and-shoot cameras, I will explain the circumstances surrounding the photo and I’ll state whether the image has been cropped. In doing this, I’m following the lead set by a friend who is also an avid wildlife photographer and who has the same concerns as I. It would be wonderful to see this simple action spread among wildlife photographers.

Coastal wolf standing on log
Coastal wolf standing on log

Although we were on a remote island off the Central Coast, this wolf exhibited all the signs of being habituated and likely food conditioned. It showed no signs of fear towards us. But nor did it act aggressively. However, it did trot towards us at one point and approached within 10 – 15m. It likely has come to associate people with a food reward. There is some reason to believe that the wolves on the island are being fed by passing recreational and commercial anglers who purposely leave fish guts on the beach to attract them. But this is a terribly irresponsible behaviour, endangering the lives of these magnificent wild animals and anyone who camps on the islands, such as kayakers. There’s already been one serious mauling on the West Coast of two kayakers by habituated and food-conditioned wolves.

I’ve only cropped the image slightly to remove some of the logs in the foreground.

Spirit bear walks a log
Spirit bear walks a log

Our group had been patiently waiting all morning, hoping a spirit bear would show up at the stream to feed on the spawning Pink salmon. Just as the sun came around the mountain and its penetrating warmth drew rising steam from the surrounding forest, one appeared almost ghost-like upstream from us. Then, to our intense delight, it began to work the stream towards us. Eventually, it ended up spending more than an hour hunting and feeding on salmon in front or near us.  Well within 15 – 20m much of the time.

No doubt that it was a highly habituated animal. It showed no concern about our presence and stayed very focused on its hunting and eating. It certainly knew we were there, perched on the viewing platform about 3 – 4ms above the stream.

The local First Nation has named this bear “The Boss”. Not only is he large, but he is also dominant over all the other black bears in the area.

No cropping was necessary.

Black bear strolls along streamside
Black bear strolls along streamside

This black bear showed up in front of our viewing platform shortly after “The Boss” had left.

Same circumstances surrounding the taking of the photo. No cropping.

The habituation and food-conditioning of wild animals, I think, should be a strategic issue for the tourism industry in BC.


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