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Keeping The Wild In Wildlife

Toward the goal of wildlife photography as a harmless and sustainable practice

“Copter View”: The red lechwe, an elusive, swamp-dwelling antelope, is difficult to photograph in its own environment. A gentle approach from the air and long reach (400mm) captured this beautiful animal at sunrise in Botswana’s wildlife-rich Okavango Delta. Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF 100-400mm at 400mm, 1/750 sec. at ƒ/5.6, ISO 800

The subject of humans and their fascination with wildlife has been a hot topic lately. As the mainstream media feasted on the topic of big-game hunters wasting threatened species for sport and profit (most specifically, Cecil the Lion), wildlife photographers rightfully expressed horror and congratulated themselves for their harmless pursuits of the same subjects. While we’re truly unable to fathom the concept of killing for sport, at the same time, we observe that hordes of photographers, in hot pursuit of meaningful images of wild creatures, can cause their own kinds of harm, despite their benign, even loving intentions.

First, Do No Harm
The truth is, both sport hunting and wildlife photography, particularly of big game, are usually conducted within the same, highly monetized, public and private spheres around the world: reserves, public lands, national parks and game farms. Hunting and photography feed an enormous public and private economic system throughout the world. There’s an obvious, but essential difference between the two pursuits, of course, which we’ll state here for the sake of clarity: Hunters maim or kill their subjects and remove them from the environment and the gene pool; photographers take only photographs and, ideally, leave their subjects unscathed by the experience.

But do we? Let’s take a hard look at ourselves, the impacts we have on wildlife subjects and practices we can adopt to achieve the goal of wildlife photography as a harmless and sustainable practice. Here, we’ll discuss just three aspects of wildlife photography that are receiving considerable negative attention today. (There’s much more to be said about this subject, as we did a few years back in our book, Wildlife
Photography: Stories from the Field

“When you encounter an animal in the wild, you represent all of that individual’s cumulative experiences with humans, and you are adding to that experience with your own actions.” We’re quoting ourselves here, from a description of an encounter with a very aggressive African elephant in Botswana a few years ago. The issue of cumulative stress on wildlife subjects is more important than ever, as there are far more photographers now than there were when I took up nature photography 50 years ago, and there are few remaining inaccessible locations on Earth. I’ve always photographed under the premise that no photograph is worth the life of the animal that we wish to capture with our cameras. With that said, over the decades, I’ve observed that those we ask to manage wildlife act with varying degrees of intensity, depending upon the venue and the philosophy, to keep photographers from disturbing “their” subjects.

The details of wildlife management are often murky and illogical. As an example, I recall a Yellowstone Park Service study of human/elk interactions. Researchers placed heart monitors on some of the elk to associate levels of stress (as evidenced by elevated heart rates) to close approaches by humans in the winter season. The results indicated that the animals’ heart rates increased, indicating stress, when humans approached even from a great distance, and before the animals indicated any observable response, such as lifting their heads to look at the people. My problem with the study was that the elk in the study had been pursued, darted and collared by researchers, and at least one of the animals died during the procedure. I think those elk might be a bit sensitive to humans after that experience! I would also think that an elk’s pulse would be elevated with every intrusion into its space, whether it’s a photographer, or a wolf, or even a vehicle along the park roads.

Nonetheless, I keep this study in mind when I do photograph in Yellowstone and similar venues, especially in winter; since I don’t have access to elk EKGs, I continue to base my proximity on their observable response to my presence. When photographing a wild subject, use cameras, lenses and techniques that allow you to reach out without getting close. Watch from a distance to establish a baseline understanding of normal behavior. Then, as you approach, you’ll be able to discern changes that indicate you’re causing a disruption. And, of course, we must follow the directives within the jurisdictions in which we find ourselves.

While photographing wild animals from the air once was a relatively rare occurrence limited to research teams and BBC cameramen, the helicopter experience has become a routine aspect of African photo safaris. Two specific, contrasting flights come to mind. One pilot, a grizzled military veteran with lots of experience, moved fast, zoomed around the animals at close range and aggressively approached herds of elephants and giraffe. In every case, the animals ran in panic; I couldn’t use a single photograph from the flight because they all documented inexcusable harassment of the subjects. The following year, our group worked with a younger female pilot. She was sensitive to the animals, her approaches were much less aggressive, and while the animals were certainly aware of the helicopter, they continued with their normal behavior and demonstrated no adverse responses. Technique matters, whether approaching animals by plane (or drone), on foot, by boat or in a snow machine. Being aggressive and pushing too close and too quickly will seldom yield desirable photographs and will often be detrimental to the subject.

There has been a recent resurgence of the continuing discussion about baiting animals to entice them closer to the photographer or into a more favorable location for photography. One of the more serious early debates concerned polar bears near Churchill, Manitoba. At the beginning of winter, the hungry bears hang around Hudson Bay, waiting for the sea to freeze so they can reach their primary food source, the ringed and bearded seals that live out on the solid ice. Some 30 years ago, a few photographers were setting up camp with Tundra Buggies at a good distance from the primary bear-viewing area. When word got out that they were placing blocks of lard to bait the bears into photographic position, there was a huge protest from some conservationists. When I look back at it now, I don’t think it was so terrible. The incidents were isolated; as soon as the ice was ready, the bears left for their preferred wild food sources and weren’t being habituated to an unsustainable environment. The photographs attained by these photographers are now being used to call attention to the effects of climate change on the bears’ environments. Would this work today with the great number of tourists that now come to this area? No.

But let’s admit that baiting, by other names, is an essential strategy for both wildlife photography and sport hunting. A prime example is the planting of grain fields in or near wildlife refuges to augment or create habitats for migrating waterfowl that are accessible to hunters and photographers alike. On a smaller scale, I’ve been feeding small birds in my backyards in California, Colorado and now Oregon for many, many years. While some suggest that backyard bird feeding alters bird migration patterns, my observations don’t support that theory; the birds come in for some free fast food, then move along on schedule. While they’re in the neighborhood, I’m pleased to capture head-and-shoulder portraits of small birds from 3.2 feet away, using a blind and my new Canon EF 100-400mm Mark II zoom with a 1.4X tele-extender on a Canon EOS 7D Mark II. The angle of view is 896mm at 3.2 feet! Some types of baiting look more natural than bird feeders, but the effect is the same. We create desirable environments such as butterfly gardens and ponds to draw wildlife close to us so we can observe them, learn about them, photograph and remember them.

While there always will be critics, we, as nature photographers, are part of the wilderness, and we have the potential to advance knowledge and understanding of our wild subjects and their environments. The best practices we can adopt as nature photographers are to pursue knowledge of our subjects before we photograph them, respect their environments, and do what we can to limit our impact as individuals and as a group. We believe that the nature photography community needs to engage more broadly in thoughtful discussions about human/wildlife interactions and, as individuals, we need to carefully consider the costs our passions may impose on others. Finally, we need to make discerning choices about the institutions, both public and private, that our photography dollars are supporting, and to be sure that their standards are consistent with ours. Don’t be an unwitting accomplice to unwise breeding, the importation of wild animals from their natural environments, inhumane treatment or the canned hunt.

We were pleased to learn this magazine will introduce a new column that focuses on wildlife photography. “Wild by Nature,” by our colleague Melissa Groo, will appear in the first issue of 2016. Congratulations to OP and Melissa on this important new feature.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.