Stop! Don't Shoot Like That.

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 37 No. 10, October 2017

A Guide to Ethical Wildlife Photography

Conservation India is one of our most effective wildlife advocates. Shekar Dattatri gave up a career making wildlife films for international channels to produce conservation films that could make a difference in India. Ramki Sreenivasan, an ardent bird photographer, co-founded the organisation, which they both run. The text on the ethics of wildlife photography is just one among scores of strategic communications crafted or curated by them to strengthen India’s wildlife conservation movement.

Unethical Photography? What’s That?

Many photographers probably don’t even think about their impact on wildlife, and may regard animals simply as ‘models’ that exist for their photographic pleasure. It probably does not even occur to them that their actions could cause stress to an animal, perhaps even affecting it profoundly. Simply becoming aware of the issue might make many photographers – at least those who are otherwise ‘decent’ folks – think carefully on their next outing, and modify their behaviour appropriately.

Take the example of one of the world’s rarest birds – the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard. This large bird, which lives in open grasslands, is extremely wary of intruders. When it spots someone even hundreds of metres away, its reaction is to stop whatever it is doing and fix its attention on the trespasser. As long as the ‘threat’ persists, the bird will not feed, court or mate, impacting its very survival. As a result of the disturbance caused by some insensitive photographers, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) was constrained to issue a circular curtailing photography of the bustard during its breeding season. Unless we proactively check the menace of unethical photography, we can expect more such directives in the future, which will affect the photography community as a whole.

Damage to habitats can be immense too, when many photographers and their vehicles converge on a particular location. For instance, the Hesaraghatta grasslands on Bangalore’s outskirts suffered tremendous damage and destruction as a result of over enthusiastic weekend bird photographers. Fortunately, thanks to the issue being highlighted and talked about, there has been a change for the better in some areas.

While it’s impossible to catalogue or list every type of ‘unethical’ behaviour, one’s conscience and common sense are the best guides. If you believe that something you are doing, or are about to do, may cause distress to your subject, or damage its habitat, back away. It’s as simple as that.

Tourists posing with a Nilgiri Tahr. Close contact with wildlife causes distress to animals.  Photo: Saurabh Sawant.

The Way Forward

The single, most important factor in changing behaviour might be to set a good example. Good role models are important in any field, and wildlife photography is no exception. If you are a veteran photographer, strive to be a good role model, and lead by example. If newbies see you adopting questionable practices in the field, they will assume that this is how wildlife photography is to be done, and emulate you. In effect, you would have amplified your bad behaviour by inadvertently passing it on to others, and created a nasty ripple effect. On the other hand, if you are seen being respectful of wildlife, not only will your stature go up, but your attitude may also rub off on many others.
As a veteran, you probably also have a lot of followers on social media. Reach out to them frequently with messages about ethical photography. It costs you nothing, and will make a strong impression on those who are still finding their feet with this hobby.

If you conduct wildlife photography workshops, start and end each one with a strong plea for ethical behaviour when photographing nature. Make your participants take a sincere pledge towards ethical photography. This will definitely have an impact on those who are lacking in awareness. As for those who simply don’t care, they will be forced to change their behavior when more and more photographers become respectful towards nature and intolerant of unethical practices.

While it’s impossible to catalogue or list every type  of ‘unethical’ behaviour, one’s conscience and common sense are the best guides. If you believe that something  you are doing, or are about to do, may cause distress to your subject, or damage its habitat, back away. It’s as simple as that.

Examples Of Unethical Practices And How To Curtail Them

While it’s not always possible to define ‘unethical’ in black and white terms, or point out every example, here’s an indicative list. Please note that several of these practices, in addition to being unethical, are downright illegal and violate several wildlife and environmental laws. If reported, they could attract stiff penalties and prosecution.


In the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, the tigers known as Matkasur and Maya find themselves overwhelmed by safari-goers as they attempt to beat the mid-summer heat. Photo: Advait Kamathe.

Too many people or jeeps crowding around an animal in a sanctuary or national park, or deliberately going too close to provoke a snarl or a charge.

Impact: Causes tremendous stress, and disrupts the animal’s natural behaviour, such as hunting, feeding and courtship. In the case of large animals like elephants and tigers, regularly being subjected to crowding might make them more dangerous.

Remedy: When you spot an animal, maintain a ‘safe’ distance between the animal and the vehicle. When you see other vehicles approaching, take a few pictures and leave. If you see any drivers, guides or photographers misbehaving, discreetly shoot a video and report it to someone in authority. You can also upload the video to YouTube and send us the link.


Photographing birds at their nests or near it, or mammals at their dens.

Impact: Causes stress and disturbance and could lead to abandonment of the nest or den. In the case of mammals, it often forces the parents to move their litter to another den, which may not be as safe as the original one. This type of photography can also attract other photographers or even poachers.

Remedy: Avoid nest or den photography. Stay away from newborn or young animals. Needless to say, this also includes manipulating nests. Publishers (including moderators on online forums) should be very strict about allowing nesting and denning images.


Impact: Studies have shown that this can cause stress to birds. The available literature suggests that responding to call-playback may result in serious energy costs for the bird, disrupt social systems and even lead to pair break-ups. Call-playback during the breeding season could distract adults from more important tasks like courtship, nest guarding, and defending territories, all of which could have dire consequences for breeding success.

Remedy: Desist from this practice, especially for rare and endangered birds.


Impact: Nocturnal animals, especially creatures such as nightjars, lorises and owls, have extremely sensitive eyes, and can get temporarily blinded by powerful torches and flashes. Biologists who study such creatures therefore use diffusers and red filters on torches to minimise the impact of lights on the extremely sensitive retinas of these animals.

Remedy: Leave nocturnal animals alone. If there is a good reason (such as research) to photograph them, it might be better to use a night vision video camera (which relies on infrared) and take some frame grabs from the recorded video.


In the mad rush to take photographs of displaying fan-throated lizards in Wai, photographers on foot and motor vehicles often trample and crush these lizards in their dozens. Photo: Raj Dhage.

Impact: Tremendous stress; no energy left for other activities, or even to escape from predators.

Remedy: Obviously one cannot plead ignorance here. This is one of the most despicable things one can do, and a person who practices this cannot be regarded as a nature photographer. Such a person should be named and shamed and not allowed to get away with it.


Catching and handling wild animals is illegal. Many amateur photographers handle snakes such as the common vine snake for that ‘perfect’ shot, causing them immense stress. Photo: Gaurav Shirodkar

Impact: To begin with, catching and handling wild animals is illegal. It also causes them severe stress. If a snake has just eaten, its first response to handling will be to regurgitate its food.

Amphibians may get infected with fungi and bacteria from your hands, which can be deadly to the individual and sometimes to the entire species in the area or landscape.

Keeping them out of their natural environment will cause their skins to dry up, and may impact their survival. Some photographers have even been known to refrigerate quick-moving amphibians and reptiles in order to slow them down for photography. This is extremely detrimental to their physiology and may even cause death, albeit out of sight, after you have moved on.

Remedy: Photograph amphibians and snakes in their natural habitats without handling or disturbing them. Never resort to refrigeration. Work with an ethical herpetologist to ensure that no harm comes to the animals.


Impact: While almost all parks, especially tiger reserves, have banned the use of wireless radios and cellphones, violation of this rule is quite common. These practices encourage crowding, and totally kill the pleasure of ‘chance’ encounters in the wild. Also, the sounds of phones ringing and people talking disturb wildlife, as well as those who have come to enjoy nature.

Remedy: Using a cellphone in the wild in non-emergency situations demonstrates utter disregard for nature. Do not instigate the driver, naturalist or guide to seek information about the presence of animals. Enjoy the forest and whatever comes your way. Don’t miss out on all the other wonderful creatures of the forest in the single-minded pursuit of ‘big game’.


Tourists feeding Himalayan marmots in Ladakh have habituated them to humans and altered their natural behaviour.  Photo: Tahir Shawl

Impact: Alters the behaviour of wildlife and could have long-term repercussions such as increased habituation and, in the case of carnivores, result in attacks on livestock or even humans.

Remedy: Do not bait animals for photographs. Please note that this is a strictly illegal activity as per the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, and could invite the same penalties as hunting.


Impact: Off-roading in sensitive habitats like grasslands, salt flats etc. can be disastrous for ground-nesting birds and scores of plants, insects and snakes. It can also cause immense damage to the habitat itself. Applicable while being on foot also.

Remedy: Avoid off-roading. While on foot, stay on designated paths/trails.


Impact: Driving fast to get to a ‘sighting’ or in order to exit the park before the gate closes, not only frightens wildlife but could also result in animals getting run over. Although speeding is strictly prohibited in wildlife reserves, it is unfortunately
quite common.

Remedy: Always stick to speed limits. If there is no speed limit prescribed, try to maintain low speeds (20 kmph.) to ensure that there is enough time to stop if an animal suddenly crosses the road. Lodge complaints against drivers who indulge in speeding.

Responsibility from Publishers & Editors

We believe that there is a significant responsibility from publishers and editors of wildlife and photography magazines, as well as online communities and Facebook groups, to ensure that their contributors meet ethical standards. Images that are questionable should not be accepted. In the past, such leadership by magazines has resulted in curbing undesirable practices such as nest photography.


We believe that following these guidelines and sharing them with fellow photographers will promote the well-being of wildlife and natural habitats. In the field, a photographer must exercise good judgment and, when in doubt, wildlife should ALWAYS get the benefit of doubt. Let’s enjoy nature responsibly!

Acknowledgements: Conservation India is grateful to the following for their valuable inputs (in no particular order):  Aditya Singh, Sudhir Shivaram, Jayanth Sharma, Sugandhi Gadadhar, Jayanand Govindaraj, Sandesh Kadur, Sarath Champati, Sumit Sen, Adesh Shivkar, Bikram Grewal, Bittu Sahgal, Rajneesh Suvarna, Sachin Rai, Shreeram M. V., Rohit Varma, Rana Belur, Kalyan Varma, Vijay Mohan Raj, Karthikeyan S. and Vikram Hiresavi. First published in Conservation India. F.or more resources on nature conservation visit


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