What’s a Picture Worth? The Hidden Conservation Costs of Wildlife Photography

‘Take a picture, it’ll last longer,’ goes the old adage, and it may well hold true; if people aren’t careful with the pictures of endangered species that they take and how they distribute them, there could be serious complications for their unwitting subjects.

Shocking photos of wildlife crime – freezers full of dead pangolins, and the bloody bodies of rhinos and elephants poached for horns and ivory – can be a valuable tool for gaining support for anti-poaching measures. But there is a flipside; officials at Kreuger National Park believe poachers monitor the geolocation data in guests’ safari selfies to track and kill them. They do not want to discourage guests from taking that ‘once in a lifetime picture’ but have asked them to be careful not to upload location data or say where and when they saw the animals.

New guidelines from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) warn conservationists and primatologists of the dangers of posing with their subjects. Studies have shown that, devoid of context, a picture of a volunteer cuddling a baby chimpanzee at a rehabilitation centre may make viewers more likely to view chimps as suitable pets, fueling their illegal trafficking. In many tourism hotspots, young primates are taken from the wild to be used as photo opportunities and their less tractable parents killed in the process.

Even if we take poachers out of the equation, photography can still be damaging to conservation. In the early 1990s, a craze for nest photography led to Indian photographers deliberately damaging nests to ensure their rivals couldn’t take the same shots as them. While those days are long past, photographers can still cause unintentional damage. By converging on an area en mass during a migration or breeding season, photographers can cause damage to the local environment, or unduly stress more sensitive species. In 2013, the Indian Ministry of the Environment and Forests banned photography of the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard during its breeding season because the presence of the photographers left the birds feeling too threatened to mate.

Photographs showcasing the beauty and diversity of endangered animals and raising public awareness as to the dangers they face are a vital tool for helping the public engage with conservation campaigns. But it’s vitally important that both conservationists and the public are aware of the potential pitfalls, for the sake of the animals we all love.

Primatologist Jane Goodall and ‘Mr. H’, available under the CC3.0 International license. In 2020, the Goodall Institue stopped sharing images of Goodall interacting with (non-plush) animals to prevent normalising such interactions to the public.