DeFINitely Hot: Why telling people to refrain from flash photography is not enough


It’s 2020 and revisions of policies concerning sustainable practices around wildlife are mushrooming. It becomes common sense that we need to do things differently if we still want to experience wildlife in its natural habitat in the future. In particular, how tour operators and their patrons should behave around wild animals to minimise potential negative impacts is in the spotlight. The latest addition is a standard issued by Friends of the Sea on best-practice whale shark tourism and certification. It includes no-brainers such as refraining from touching whale sharks as well as its contribution to research and academic insights - regulations that are still not comprehensive across the whale shark tourism industry.

While such policies are essential when we talk about responsible wildlife tourism and species protection, I am always surprised that it lacks one fundamental issue that just cannot be overlooked at this point:

Encountering and experiencing wildlife is a highly mediated activity these days with social media being flooded with ‘once of a lifetime’ animal encounters which often seem to be too close for comfort. So why are these guidelines and regulations missing the point of including appropriate camera handling and content-taking in wildlife tourism settings?

Not using flash is an all-time favourite. Sure, you shouldn’t use flash photography. That’s a guideline that can be dated back to when people became snap-happy around animals which is quite a while ago. And if you’ve ever been blinded by a smartphone flash, you know that animals wouldn’t appreciate this either. But there is so much more about ethically photographing animals that it is time managers start to include those in their proposals. Plus, what’s further frequently ignored is that it’s also about the tourist experience so we should provide people with best-practice tools to get the most out of their images without compromising animal welfare.

WWF in collaboration with Project AWARE and Manta Trust took a good shot when it comes to shark tourism and what you should and should not do around sharks, banning selfie-sticks and selfie-taking around whale sharks which can be potentially harmful to both, people and animals. However, the proposals greatly vary mong species, so what is suggested best-practice for whale sharks is not applied for interactions with stingrays or other predatory types such as bull or tiger sharks. But guidelines live from consistency. What’s proposed for a rather docile animal should be implemented for wildlife that poses a potential risk to our safety as well. At least, ideally. Duh.

If we take a look at other marine life, best-practice guidelines for swimming with cetaceans proposed by World Cetacean Alliance prohibit the use of artificial light as well as camera extensions, but so far, do not offer information on selfie-taking. However, in the majority of cases, if mentioned at all, guidelines also do not explicitly state why tourists should not take selfies. In a recent publication issued by the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) on the sustainable development of wildlife tourism in Asia and the Pacific, social media was found to be addressed, but merely in a unidimensional way that emphasised its benefits for online marketing purposes, raising awareness about wildlife or facilitating tourist feedback. While all of those benefits are true, no information on the challenges of user-generated content and a potential compromise in animal welfare associated with inappropriate camera use was provided, which is particularly evident in Asian wildlife tourism settings. Such findings highlight that management plans regarding camera use in marine wildlife experiences are poorly conceived, and will need a more comprehensive approach to be viable. And now is the time to start.

Each day, most of us are spending a reasonable amount of time on the phone and social media platforms. And just like with porn (yes, I’m comparing wildlife watching with sex), what we see has little to do with reality. The mediated wildlife tourism experience has potential for shifting people’s expectations to a point where it becomes unrealistic. And that’s a job for management, too. How far would people go to get their face to face shot? In many cases, they would breach local regulations for approaching distances. Selfies often mean close distances to animals that may become a real threat to our wellbeing.

In essence, I would like to see a more holistic integration of contemporary issues that come along with watching and encountering wildlife. And photography plays a significant role. Cameras and smartphones have become our extended eyes and memory storage, and to many wildlife enthusiasts, such devices are a must-bring when they're out and about. So we should tell people how they can take great shots but without endanger wildlife or themselves. Sounds good? Let's do this!