Ethics in Wildlife Photography

How to ensure the animals’ wellbeing during a wildlife photography workshop

Observing and photographing African wildlife in its strikingly beautiful natural context is a privilege, and an exhilarating one. But while we’re all for going that extra mile to get the perfect shot, we also believe that the wildlife should never be harmed in the process. Wildlife photographer Alan Hewitt, who guides our upcoming Kruger Wildlife Photography Workshop and Masai Mara Photo Safari, shares some tips on ethics in wildlife photography; how to avoid conflict between stunning photographs and the animals’ wellbeing. 

The Cheetah

Amid Christmas and New Year celebrations I heard some sobering news reports about the population decline and outlook for Africa’s cheetahs. Cheetahs hold a very special place within my wider appreciation of African wildlife. Their incredible evolutionary history fascinates me and every encounter I have experienced has left me increasingly in awe of this amazing and beautiful predator.

Don’t get me wrong, all African wildlife encounters are very special. But, I am so fascinated by cheetahs that I can recall every single encounter I have had the privilege to experience with them. On a more basic and aesthetic level, I have to say that I think they are the true ‘supermodel’ of African Wildlife too! It just so happens that a lone pregnant female was the first predator I photographed during my memorable first visit to Kenya’s Masai Mara (Naboisho Conservancy). Maybe this plays a part in my cheetah love affair?

Leopard in the nature Leopard ready to attack

There are two particular cheetah encounters which I remember for being very different to each other in terms of wildlife photography ethics. The first of these encounters occurred in Kenya’s National Masai Mara reserve which we visited for a day from our base further north in one of the Conservancies. Sammy, our Masai guide and driver spotted a lone cheetah sitting within some foliage taking refuge from the sun. Within a matter of just 15 minutes we were joined by a throng of vehicles. Sammy and I looked and nodded at each other, signalling we were thinking the same thing and we drove away. Neither of us wanted to be part of the carnage we knew was about to unfold.

As we drove off, we looked back towards the cheetah and as we predicted, what did unfold can only be described as a farcical approach to wildlife photography and worse, an atrocious lack of respect for the cheetah. As more vehicles arrived they began blocking others, and one driver (I won’t say ‘guide’ in his case) punctured a tyre on some rocks due to his excessive and ridiculous speed. This caused a bottle-neck resulting in several more vehicles seeking alternative routes, destroying vegetation in their selfish determination to get closer and causing a huge choking cloud of dust to cover the area.

Looking through the binoculars the distress to the cheetah was obvious. She was desperately trying to flee the area and her progress was quite deliberately blocked by a vehicle at every turn. I could also see a tinge of sadness in Sammy’s eyes and in his expression too. As a graduate of the Koyaki guiding school in the Mara Conservancies this was against everything responsible safari guiding stood for.

It’s not my intention to make sweeping accusations as the majority of guides operating in the national reserve operate ethically and respectably. But, it is undeniable that there are a significant number of visitors and drivers who simply do not consider the welfare of the wildlife as a priority.

Learn more about joining Alan on a photo safari!

Like many African predators, cheetahs are facing a bleak future mainly due to habitat encroachment and human conflict. Cheetah cubs are especially vulnerable to high cub mortality rates by other carnivores such as lions and hyenas. As numbers continue to dwindle, their population health is further compromised due to an increasing lack of genetic diversity. With such unprecedented threats to their survival, it is exasperating that they also have to periodically endure such incredibly disrespectful behaviour by people.

Thankfully my experience is that this behaviour is in contrast to the Mara Conservancies. The Conservancies are situated around the northern border of the main National Masai Mara Reserve. I always use the Conservancies as a base for my Kenyan photography safaris as they are a much more ethical and sustainable way of experiencing the wildlife of the Mara ecosystem. There are strict rules on the number of tourists and vehicles allowed to operate and also on managing encounters with wildlife to minimise disturbance and avoid stress. Healthcare, education and water projects are also funded by the money generated in the Conservancies. I also use guides who, like Sammy, have graduated from the Koyaki Guiding School. These are local Masai men and women who are very well trained in animal recognition, behaviour, ethics and safety.

Elephants walking in the nature

The second of these two encounters was memorable for much better reasons. Last year our group, led by our brilliant guides Titimet ‘Moses’ Nampaso and Boston Nabaala were returning to our accommodation at the House In The Wild in Enonkishu Conservancy. While crossing the plains of the Lemek Conservancy, Moses caught sight of a lone male cheetah.

Boston and Moses used their fieldcraft and knowledge to carefully position our vehicles next to a couple of trees way ahead of the cheetah. Within a couple of minutes he strolled right by us, just a few metres from our vehicles and also paused to scent mark the trees. Our photographers got lots of fantastic photographs and for some it was their first cheetah encounter!

We knew from the behaviour of the cheetah that he was keen to hunt. They are diurnal hunters and as sunset was approaching we allowed it to get well ahead of us so it had room to hunt without disturbance.

Be Ethical

It’s a great privilege to photograph wildlife, especially in some of the Earth’s most diverse ecosystems. But wherever we photograph wildlife, this privilege also comes with a great responsibility and that is to conduct ourselves in an ethical manner.

Ethics in wildlife photography can be a complex issue and a subject of endless debate. However, if you conduct yourself by this very simple quote you cannot really go wrong… “The wellbeing of the subject, its habitat and the environment are all far more important than any photograph.”

Wildlife elephant wildlife photography

It is also important to remember that disturbing animals is not just an ethical issue. In the UK many species are protected by acts of law and any disturbance can be punishable by heavy fines or even prison sentences.

I also believe that many people do not intentionally disturb animals but act blissfully unaware of the consequences of their actions. But is ignorance a valid defence?

The growth of smart phone ‘apps’ which can play recordings of animal calls is a growing problem in the disturbance of sensitive species. I think these apps are a great reference but should they be used in the field and in wildlife hides? I don’t think so.

I’ve been in a wildlife hide when another person took out a device and made repeated calls to try and attract another bird. We had a discussion about it and they weren’t being deliberately malicious, they were just unaware of how those recordings may affect the birds…

  • the stress of a bird believing there is another species, a predator or competitor perhaps?
  • wasting precious energy flying to protect its territory or nest?
  • leaving young vulnerable and unprotected in a nest?
  • attracting a predator?

Good guiding & wildlife photography is not just about finding and photographing something. It’s also about knowing when your presence and behaviour becomes a danger to an animal. Too many species in our natural world are in terrible danger of becoming critically endangered and we should set a positive example rather than becoming a catalyst in their demise.

Text and images by Alan Hewitt. Pay his website a visit to see more of his work!