By Bahar Dutt
Wildlife photography has changed from being a passion or a hobby to an aggressive competitive sport
In early December, Discovery channel aired a much hyped show in which naturalist Paul Rosolie offered to be swallowed alive by an anaconda. The screening led to a huge public outcry across the globe on the ethics of wildlife film making and what constitutes right or wrong while capturing images in the wild. The debate hit closer home when I found myself in a national park surrounded by an overzealous lot of wildlife photographers, so enthusiastic just to get one magical shot of the tiger. I learnt the first jeep to enter the park in the morning would quickly drive over the pugmarks on the sand trail, so no one else could get to spot where they were. The next day I encountered another bunch of trigger-happy photographers who shouted and screamed and urged their driver to move fast so they could get a shot of the ambling tigress with her cubs—the animals looked confused as they were surrounded in minutes by a melee of people. In the evening around the bonfire, I met a group of techies from Bengaluru who showed me their calendar—Christmas in Ranthambore, summer in rainforests of Borneo, autumn in the Masai Mara, ending the year in Corbett, their safaris booked months in advance. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against wildlife photographers. In fact, I married one! And I myself have gasped in admiration at many a picture of the natural world, full of admiration for the people who spend so much time in the wilderness clicking them. But in the last decade with the explosion of digital technology and with more and more people travelling to forest areas, the obsession to capture that one great image has reached the proportions of an epidemic. What used to be a passion or a hobby is now an aggressive competitive sport. And there’s enough evidence that our obsession to capture images of the natural world is having a negative impact on it. Unrestrained and irresponsible behaviour by nature photographers affects species such as the Slender Loris or the Great Indian Bustard as well as ecosystems like the Hesaraghatta grasslands in Karnataka or the Kaas plateau in Maharashtra during its annual flowering. As acclaimed photographer, Aditya Dicky Singh, who has won many awards for his iconic pictures of the tigers in Ranthambore says, “Driving off-road when no one is around, clapping or throwing stones in nearby bushes to wake up sleeping tigers, getting off the vehicle and lying down on the ground to get low-angle shots, etc. I know very few serious photographers who have visited Ranthambhore and not done any of the above.” Kalyan Varma, wildlife photographer from Bengaluru who has worked on films for the BBC, refers to this new breed of photographers as the digital trophy hunters who will indulge in nest photography, call-backs, roasting amphibians with flash, etc. that are known to have very negative impacts. But he adds, wildlife photography has its relevance as well—with more and more people getting access to better equipment, the pictures (as seen on social media forums or photo-sharing sites like India Nature Watch) have become exponentially better. The issue though is with photographers who will go to any lengths to nail their trophy, says Varma, with no thought or concern for the subject or its habitat. My husband Vijay Bedi, who followed an elusive animal like the red panda for three years for his film, insists that the problem is rooted in an “impatience to get the right shot, rather than waiting for the animal to display its natural behaviour”. He’s also found that often it’s not just the film maker, but the researcher or the scientist who will do something unethical such as removing the animal from its habitat and photographing it in a captive environment. He insists, “We need to come together and create a platform voluntarily, before the forest department puts more restrictions on us.” Sandesh Kadur, another award-winning wildlife film maker and photographer, agrees. “Regulations are the need of the hour, but most importantly we need photographers to inherently feel the need to be ethical in their everyday practice,” Kadur says. “Otherwise, even if you do bring about a regulation, who is there to monitor and enforce it?” The concern is if regulations are put in place, will it affect creativity for an industry that is already bound by too many rules? Both Varma and Singh insist that self-regulation is the best option as ethics are not always possible to define. But everyone in this industry agrees that a code of conduct is essential. Some suggestions are possible that have been tried abroad as well—such as preparing a list of dos and don’ts and wearing a badge that shows that the photographer subscribes to that code of conduct. Some initiatives have already been successful, for instance, magazines such as Sanctuary refuse to accept pictures of bird nests in their photo competitions. As the debate rages on, perhaps there is one simple rule to follow. A fly-on-the-wall technique could be the place to start from as we all go about our work of documenting the natural world, the good old-fashioned way.