Hornbill, elephant and grey loerie – an ethical problem?

Usually when I post about wildlife photography it is simply to share my images, to comment perhaps on the choice of colour or of black-and-white, to say something about where the photographs were taken, and the circumstances – but this time I want to say a few words about something different, about the ethics of the shot.

You see, there has been an interesting reaction, to this series of images of yellow hornbills, with the elephant looming in soft-focus in the background, and the papaya – a reaction which I assume extends also to the photo with the grey loerie.

So here’s the story. Before posting these pictures here, in my blog, I posted them also on the Birdlife South Africa Facebook page, and on my personal Facebook page, and quickly received over 240 ‘likes’ – which is not why I take photographs, but nonetheless nice feedback for a photographer.

However, there were two or three people who raised an eyebrow, scolding me for ‘feeding the animals’ and, in one case, suggesting the photos were ‘staged’ and going so far as to question whether they were ‘ethical.’

Now, I did not want to get drawn into an online shouting match, but I did feel it was important to address the issue. I did so on Facebook, and let me do so here.

Here are the facts, and my take on the situation.

First up, there is absolutely no question that we must treat wild birds and animals with respect, and not intrude unnecessarily into their environment or their ‘space.’ It is imperative that we behave ethically and responsibly, if we – and those who come after us – are to have the joy and the wonder of observing them, not just in a zoo or on camera, but in the flesh, in the wild. And it’s not just about us, as humans – it’s about recognising their own right to existence, recognising the complex interdependencies of nature, and the fact that we are – at best – the custodians of a vulnerable and fragile planet.

Second, my understanding from the bird photography books I have read is that expert, ethical professionals, shooting in the wild, will sometimes lay out food to attract the birds they wish to photograph, for example near a hide, and that this is regarded as acceptable practice.

Third, I will think more carefully in future about the ethics of bird and wildlife photography, and the rewards of behaving ethically and responsibly.

And for my last comment, let me just say that the fruit was there, and the birds were there, when I came upon them at our lodge: I was lucky to see them, lucky to have my camera with me, and lucky to get the shots.

Does this mean that, in the end, it’s the photograph that matters?

Unequivocally, no. In the end, and at all times, it’s the wildlife that comes first.

4 responses to “Hornbill, elephant and grey loerie – an ethical problem?”

  1. Mark Lafer Consulting Avatar
    Mark Lafer Consulting

    There is another aspect to photography, especially of animals in the wild. Human’s rarely have concerns regarding the well-being of other living things, including members of their own species, without repeated exposure.

    If I have no conception of the magnificence of the elephant, the rhino, the big cats, etc., stories about their endangered state have less power. As an advocate of protection for endangered and at-risk species (and aboriginal human communities), I would prefer minor staging, if it serves the greater good.

    That I know that you do not engage in this practice just leads me to add, “Honi soit qui mal y pense.”


    1. You make a good point, surely. The wildlife photographer needs to educate and influence, and create a sense of shared respect and wonder, if the animal world – and indeed, our planet – is to be preserved.


    1. Thank you!


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