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The Wild Side of Wildlife Photography: How to Walk the Ethical Way

The ugly side of wildlife photography will rear its head ever so often, but it’s important to remember the ethics.

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Sultan the tiger sparked a massive uproar on social media when he vanished without a trace from the tiger haven of Ranthambore national park. But irrespective of the entire online clamour following his disappearance, and the rampant fear-mongering, the forest department tracked him down within a short span, of a few months.

The array of lenses trained at him in the video, will give you a sense of his mammoth popularity, making it easy to guess why the rumours flew thick and fast in the wake of his absence.

The ugly side of wildlife photography will rear its head ever so often, but it’s important to remember the ethics.
Sultan, moments before he made his final dash for his prey. (Photo Courtesy: Indranil Datta)

But should the case of one missing tiger – out of the 2,000 plus which inhabit the subcontinent – be the cause for so much ado? And, since he owed much of his popularity to shutter-happy tourists, is it safe to claim that it was, on their part, a great disservice to conservation by needlessly making a mountain out of a molehill?

But before I attempt to definitively answer any of these questions, it is important to take stock of what the wildlife photography landscape in India is today, and the paradigm shift that has occurred in recent years.

The video makes for a perfect starting point.

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Social Media: A Boon or a Curse to Wildlife Photography?

The scenes shown in the video are ones I had the grave misfortune of viewing first-hand. Disturbed by the sorry state of affairs, a number of questions kept circling my head; was the tiger harried? Had we cost him a crucial meal?

A lot has understandably been written about the ills of wildlife photography and the scourge it has now become – but while the debate over ethics rages on, there’s one very pertinent question that begs asking, and one we tend to lose sight of – are some of the follies intrinsic to the practice? Or more broadly put, have we started justifying the means solely on the basis of the ends?

It is common knowledge that the single biggest factor behind the recent surge in the number of wildlife photography enthusiasts is the advent of digital photography. Gone are those days when wildlife photography was a passion taken up only by a smattering of intrepid individuals.

The ugly side of wildlife photography will rear its head ever so often, but it’s important to remember the ethics.
A bevy of tourists crowd around a sub-adult tiger. (Photo Courtesy: Indranil Datta)

Now, lest we forget, the same boom in wildlife photography has also proven to be a blessing in disguise in many cases.

Take social media, for example. The latter is largely blamed for all the ills plaguing wildlife photography today. The instant gratification one gets on social media is called out for being the main driving force behind insensitive wildlife photographers. And, while this may partly be the case, one shouldn’t overlook the fact that a lot of offences are brought to the attention of public authorities through these same social media portals.

What would earlier pass unnoticed, is now readily cracked down upon.

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The Ugliness and the Ethics

The ‘celebrity tiger syndrome’ – of which Sultan was a beneficiary – is an equally grey area. But while Sultan might have been rediscovered, his counterpart from the Umred Karhandla wildlife sanctuary, Jai, is still missing. Numerous search parties have been deployed but all of them have returned empty handed. A bustling online community pushed the government to step in and launch a full-fledged CID probe into the mysterious disappearance of one of India’s most iconic and celebrated tigers. This, to a large extent, justifies the noises being made after Sultan’s disappearance.

The ugly side of wildlife photography will rear its head ever so often, but it’s important to remember the ethics.
A pack of Dholes feasting on a deer carcass. (Photo Courtesy: Indranil Datta)

However, nothing illustrates the inherent dichotomy in wildlife photography in its current state better than the tragic case of the Baghinnala tigress – who was poisoned to death along with two of her cubs inside a high-surveillance tourism zone in Pench national park. A group of photographers were itching to catch a glimpse of the cat, and were scouring the jungle when they chanced upon the tigress, in deep sleep – or so they thought. It soon dawned on them that this was no ordinary catnap; this was a nap from which she would never awake.

It may be good to remind ourselves that, as long as the art of wildlife photography continues to thrive, it will rear its ugly head time and again – no matter what. To think otherwise – of a quick fix or a radical shift in thought – would create a false sense of complacency that’s even worse.

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(Indranil Datta is a final year media student specialising in journalism. His passion for wildlife, and the environment in general, have conspired to keep him from attending classes on a regular basis.)

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Topics:  Wildlife   Photography   Tigers 

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