Over the past month I have began diving into the world of podcasts. I find this outlet a very good source of education. There are a few great casts that I have thoroughly enjoyed and many that I have trouble relating to. The most common thing I hear from the nature photography community is the "code of ethics" standpoint when photographing wildlife and landscapes. There are many good and respectable ideas out there, and I personally believe this is an issue everyone needs to consider.
I find it difficult to converse in debates as I most often am very much stuck in my own ways, which is why I started a podcast here on the site and soon realized that it wasn't for me. I began recording different topics that I value as important but soon understood that I have very one-sided ideas that would make it difficult for my following community to listen to, as I tend to ramble frequently. I thought it would be best to replace the podcasting page with the videocast page and simply take my viewers out on my explorations. This way I have time to look at the words I write before I deliver it to the public in an attempt to not create hypocritical content. As I began recording episodes for the podcast I realized how hard it is to touch on topics such as deforestation and environmental pollution issues when I am a carpenter and live in a society that really forces all of us to pollute in some way or another. Saying this, I have a few things I would like to talk about here and share my thoughts on what I find to be controversial in the world of the nature/wildlife photography "code of ethics".
The photo above is my first lion sighting on my previous trip to Kruger National Park, South Africa. I came across these two lioness as I was traveling from one campsite to the other. These extraordinary cats have never left my mind since the moment I seen them and the images I have taken will continue to recall the hour long conversion we had. I simply pulled to the side of the road and took the moment in as the two creatures lied on the road and exhibited perfect family-hood right in front of me. Time was spent taking photos while much more time was spent existing with these apex predators.
What I would like to consider here is the image I was trying to capture in opposed to the African photography tourism way of exploiting these lovely animals. As I traveled through Africa I quickly realized first-hand how the majority of the tourism fleet behaves. This is a business strictly geared towards bombarding and suffocating wildlife's natural path of existence in order to appease their paying clients appetite for aggressive imagery . The first few days traveling through Kruger I came upon many scenes where safari guide vehicles packed predator hunting activity sites to the extreme, and to the point that I felt completely overwhelmed with disgust and continued on my way. The remainder of my time in the park and travel through Africa was spent as far away from tourist activity as possible. This brings me to my point in wildlife photography ethics.......Always respect wildlife's domain and understand the simple fact that, encroaching on an animals means to survival "is what it is"......photography, poaching, trophy/sport hunting, or whatever the human hobby may be that directly cripples an animals way of survival, is in the end, all the same. So my point is, the photo I'm sharing here is a photo of allowing animals to exist as they are and move at their own will. Wildlife podcasts seem to be built on methods that are geared towards setting people in spaces that conflict with animal natural movement for the sole purpose for getting an image. The majority of photos with leopard, lion, hyena, or any other predator attacking and gorging on a meal are most often taken from a vehicle that has played a very negative role in manipulating the entire approach to what was naturally happening. The simple idea is that, predators go with far too many missed meals due to egotistic travel guides and travelers who are more concerned with getting photos then respecting wildlife in it's natural state, which most often should mean, leaving it all alone.
By the time these powerful predators make it to this region they have already endured a very daunting and exhausting migration and before they head back to the far north, the most important thing we can do as photographers, is to either have the right gear or just put the camera down. Migratory animals need their space.
Ethics plays a huge part in any animal you decide to photograph but many times is not really considered. It seems that photography has become more about human ego then it has to do with anything else. Getting published and having a pristine gallery is great, but when animals go without meals and miss out on rest then your photography has become an "animal cripple". Experience in the field and researching wildlife behavior are two things we all need to consider when pursuing wildlife photography. Ethics and common sense go hand and hand for the most part, but when photographers have bad or selfish motives, the hobby and animals suffer. Wildlife photography for me is purely for the enjoyment of my encounters and to document them in order to give wildlife a voice that we as humans may be able to interpret. The truth is, understanding a camera and all of the components of photography is really quite simple, so there is no need to get too egotistically involved. Always explore, learn and conserve wildlife, because it is much more important then the images we produce.
The end of my adventures in the park were spent heavily in photography. At this point I was settling into a pretty comfortable approach from the beginning of the day to the end. As I seen a large variety of animal species by this time I was better able to take advantage of encounters in a photographic mindset. The big 5 had been knocked off my list and I could now enjoy freely, the last of my travel time as I neared the end of Kruger.
On the evening of the second last day I found myself traveling back to my campsite nearing the 6:30pm curfew time when all public vehicles are to be off of the roads due to the massive risks and dangers lurking in the Africa's nighttime hours. This day I traveled far into the bush and seen next to no other tourists throughout the better part of the day. As I reached my vehicle and began moving back to camp I seen my first Black Rhino. She was close to 500 meters away and together with her was a very young calf. I immediately stopped the jeep and reached for the camera in the back seat. As pulled it onto my lap I realized my wide-angle lens for landscapes was still attached and had to be replaced with a telephoto. I began rushing to change the lenses as I noticed the two Rhinos begin running straight for my vehicle. I didn't realize how quickly these massive animals were able to move and while I was attempting to set up my shot from outside of the vehicle, before I knew it, they were legitimately right on top of me. At no less the 25 meters away I was forced to abandon my photographic pursuit and escape to the false safety of my vehicle. I quickly closed the door and floored the gas pedal only to harshly stall the jeep. With this enormous mother Rhino honestly charging to 15 feet away the hard sound of the vehicles acceleration to the clucking of the stalling engine was enough to deter the pair from continuing the charge. They abruptly ended their pursuit as a storm of dust weathered over my vehicle and they quickly turned and ran back to their starting point.
This experience was a major lesson I've learned many times in many different areas of the world. As a wildlife photographer I honestly do my very best to respect the well-being of all animals I encounter. It is extremely easy to get caught up in the feeling of necessity to create images, especially when you know you have a chance of a lifetime presented to you. As I pulled away that evening I spent the ride back to camp in awe of how foolish and selfish I could still be in my photographic journey. As photographers it is so important to understand our role in a wild habitat. It is so important to understand the risked that are involved by not understanding your subjects. Always take time to study the animals you plan to photograph so you have an idea of their behaviors. This was my first up-close encounter with a mother Black Rhino who was in complete determination to protect her calf. She was an amazing creature who taught me many serious lessons. I know it's very easy to negatively criticize people with stories like this but I'm sharing it here in hopes that it can be a lesson to others. Animals are killed every year in Africa because tourists get far too close to them and end up driving the wildlife into aggressive states.
The year prior to my arrival in Africa there had been 2 elephants shot dead because they attacked vehicles carrying tourists who got far too close. Literally not moving out of the path of these massive beasts until they were right on top of them with tusks driving through the sides of both vehicles. Although if the story ended differently for me it would have possibly been days before anyone ventured into the area I was located and the rhino likely being miles away by that time. Regardless, wherever it is on the planet that you decide to go and photograph animals, the most important thing you can do for your safety, and the safety of your subjects, is to do your research before arrival.
However, issues with unsafe animal encounters go far beyond tourists. While in Kruger I was a witness to a guide coxing an elephant towards his safari jeep which was loaded with paying tourists. The guide who looked to be a well off white man, continued to rev his engine, screaming obscenities at the creature as the elephant approached the vehicle. At the time I was forced to stop my vehicle behind 4-5 others because this pompous fool was in full ego-mode and had to put on a show for everyone. The elephant came to the side of his vehicle as the man continue to aggravate the poor creature. The elephant then went to the front of the jeep and locked tusks with the front grill. The moment this occurred the tour guide released the brake and went to battle with the elephant as it forcefully pushed forward. The vehicles tires created a cloud of smoke black enough to see for miles as he filled his ego with an act he's obviously been doing for years. This incident was reported along with video evidence of the whole scene, and I can only hope that something was actually done in the way of justice. The moral of this story is that, the next vehicle this elephant approaches may just be a few senior tourist enjoying a wholesome drive through the park to stop and view the beauty of Africa's wildlife, and before they know it, the trained and annoyed elephant drives it's tusks through the side of their vehicle and is later, inevitably, shot dead.
My last few nights in Kruger where spent on night game drives with a park ranger. These trips revealed much of what happens in Africa after dark. Eagle Owls were common and the predator animals seemed to own the grounds. I had opportunity to sit with a group of 5 male lions just after they fed themselves on a recent kill that I did not see. Hyena and leopard where animals you can count on seeing on these night cruises as the guides know exactly where to go.
As I drove through the heat of the night in Africa, I couldn't imagine another place I'd rather be. The interactions I had at Kruger National Park are going to be cherished, deep inside my soul, for my lifetime. The only plans I have made since I left this heavenly place, is to someday in the not so-far-future, take my wife and daughter back to experience this place called Africa.
Robbie P. Gallant
As a naturalist, I spend a great amount of time in personal study. Discussion and research is key to exploring new and intelligent ideas and furthering our understanding of our natural surroundings.