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Should Photographers Intervene in Nature?

By December 7, 2018No Comments
Screen shot of The Times (UK) article about a film crew intervening in nature.

Screen shot of The Times (UK) article about a film crew intervening in nature.

If you saw an animal in the wild that appeared to be in distress, would you try to help? Would you report it to the authorities? Would you leave it alone, since it’s just nature being nature? As nature photographers, we are interested in conservation and generally love the animals we photograph. Is it our responsibility to let nature take its course, even if an animal dies? Is it our responsibility to save the animal? Or, does it depend on the specific situation?

A BBC film crew from the series “Dynasties” was shooting footage of lions in Kenya when they noticed that some lions were behaving strangely and acting unwell. The crew reported their observations to the safari lodge where they had been staying. The lodge passed this information along to the authorities at the Masai Mara National Reserve. A mobile veterinary unit was dispatched and treated the lions, who had ingested poison. Without intervention, at least one of the lions would have died.

Are the members of the BBC crew heroes or villains? They broke an industry rule that requires documentarians to be observers and prohibits any kind of intervention in nature. On the other hand, although they didn’t know it, the lions had eaten poisoned bait set out by local farmers.

It’s not the first time that a “Dynasties” film crew has intervened in nature. In an earlier episode, the BBC crew came upon group of emperor penguins trapped in a gulley. The penguins were unable to get out and would certainly die of starvation, if left alone. The film crew built a ramp out of snow, hoping that the penguins could use that to get out of the gulley and save themselves.

Screen shot of story from iHeartMedia.

Screen shot of story from iHeartMedia.

The incidents occurred much earlier, but the programs only aired in the UK this month. And the events have stirred up a lot of controversy, with stories in all the major newspapers. The series is narrated by Sir David Attenborough, who defended both decisions to intervene.

NANPA Ethics Committee Chair Jennifer Leigh Warner will talk about Ethics and the Nature Photographer at NANPA’s 2019 Nature Photography Summit, February 21-23, in Las Vegas, NV. To register or learn more about the other great speakers, events and sessions, go to the Summit website. Special pre-conference pricing is still available.

These are dilemmas faced by film crews, photographers and ordinary people. Most of us heard about the tourist in Yellowstone who came across a bison calf, alone and shivering. Left on its own, the bison calf would likely have died of starvation or attack by wolves. The visitor put the calf in his car and drove it to a ranger station. Park biologists then tried to bring the young bison back to its herd, but the other bison rejected it. In the end, the calf was euthanized.

The National Park Service has a policy of “natural regulation,” that’s also followed by most wildlife agencies in the US. If an animal is injured or orphaned due to human activity, rangers can intervene. If it is something that happens naturally, they don’t.

Animals die all the time. They drown. They become prey to other animals. Sometimes they starve. The circle of life is not kind, but it is natural.

NANPA’s policy is to always adhere to the laws and policies of the location and NANPA’s Principles of Ethical Field Practices include some excellent tenets to help guide our behavior and decision making, but every situation can be unique, with its own complicating factors and constraints.

What would you do?


You can read more about the BBC controversies here and here, about Attenborough’s comments here, and about NPS guidelines here.