The Ethics of Wildlife Photography: Drones Meet Animals

Do photographers have any ethical obligations towards wildlife? Drones can cause significant damage to wildlife and should be used with caution, not abandon. 

Access to tools and travel makes being a wildlife photographer easier than ever. You have access to tools that NatGeo photographers of the 1970s could only dream of.  Take a quick read of Ryan Mense’s recent article here on Fstoppers, The New Frontier of Wildlife Photography.

let us go photo, Polar Bear Churchill, MB.

I am a wildlife photographer in large part because I love the animals I photograph. To me, finding my way to meet these animals in their own territory is almost transcendental. To me, this is a privilege. 

In my opinion, with this privilege comes responsibility. This responsibility means that wildlife photography is more than hiring a Jeep and chasing animals. There are ethics involved. Wildlife photography is often, at its heart, conservation photography. Again, to me, photographers have an obligation to make sure that they do no harm.

let us go photo, Gentoo and chick, Port Lockroy.

The last week has seen two high-profile drone/animal interactions. Both of these were avoidable incidents.

India

Kunj Dødiya, or Adventure Monk, is a popular first-person-view drone pilot and photographer in India. He recently published a vlog that highlights a bird of prey attacking his drone. 

The video shows Dødiya flying his drone in a series of fast maneuvers at various altitudes before the bird homes in and downs the drone. 

Adventure Monk, Dodiya, a little too close for comfort.

As stunning as the footage might be, it comes at a price. If you pay close enough attention, you can see that the bird made a hard landing. 

The bird looks like it's attempting to land. Based on the shadow, you can tell there is distance between the bird's body and the ground.

Based on the shadow, you can tell there is no distance between the bird's body and the ground. Because the bird's body impacts the ground on landing, which is atypical, you can infer that the bird has suffered injury.

I reached out to Dødiya for comment. He explained that he didn’t realize that there were birds of prey in the area. It seems that he first saw the bird just as it hit his drone.

In my opinion, there are ways that this kind of accident could be avoided. Based on best practices, photographers shouldn’t maneuver their drones this way over a bird nesting area. I appreciate that Dødiya uses spotters as part of his FPV flights. His spotters should have been on the lookout for birds of prey. Then, as soon as Dødiya was aware of the bird, he should have landed his drone. 

Michigan

NPR and a variety of other outlets are also reporting that a bald eagle downed a Michigan state shore-mapping drone. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy has made light of the incident by way of Twitter: 

As well as in a news release:

A spokesperson said the agency has no mechanism or authority to issue corrective action notices to individual, non-human wildlife, noting it would likely take an act of the legislature to do so. Even then, it might be subject to a legal challenge. 'Unfortunately, there's nothing we can do,' the spokesman said. 'Nature is a cruel and unforgiving mistress.'

Reports indicate that the bird was unharmed, but this assumption is based on the fact that the bird was seen flying away. Just because the bird was seen flying away doesn’t mean it was unharmed. There is no way to determine the extent of the bird’s injuries.

Again, this was an avoidable incident. The Michigan state drone pilot has seen other birds of prey following his drone flights. If there were other close calls, procedure could have been changed to avoid a strike. For example, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy has been considering eagle countermeasures, including using "skins" or other designs that make drones look less like prey for these raptors. Perhaps amending flight patterns or redesigning the drone’s markings would have avoided this strike.

For the purposes of this article, I'll just avoid going into depth about the very symbol of freedom in America taking out a government-sponsored drone/surveillance project.

Drones Flying Over Other Animals

Major studies from Dr. Margarita Mulero Pazmany (Liverpool John Moores University) et al and Jarred Hodgson (University of Adelaide) et al, both experts in drone use related to ecology, have found that drones have a negative effect on animals. Studies have indicated that animals that encounter drones have an increased heart rate, display anxious behavior that may result in a change to their reproductive processes, and may even leave their young to flee or engage the drone. This means that young animals or eggs are left vulnerable to predators.

A 2015 NatGeo article shared a study examining the effect of drones on black bears. 

In one extreme case, the remote-controlled fliers caused a bear's heart rate to spike from 39 to 162 beats a minute, a whopping 400 percent increase, says study leader Mark Ditmer of the University of Minnesota. That's well above the heart-beat jump experienced by people riding a double-corkscrew roller coaster.

Unexpectedly, the bears didn’t appear to be bothered, even when the drones flew within 33 feet. This might lead pilots to assume they aren’t having an effect on bears when in fact, they are.  

In May 2014, a drone flying too close to a herd of bighorn sheep caused the animals to scatter. This resulted in many calves being separated from their protective mothers. Reportedly, it was this careless pilot’s flight that led the National Parks Service to ban the use of drones without special permits in their parks

What Can We Do?

Almost certainly, amateurs and professionals are going to continue flying drones around animals. How can we avoid these incidents? Is there a way to fly drones around animals ethically?

let us go photo, Dust bath, Tanzania.

In an article for The Conversation, Mulero Pazmany goes on to explain that

Drone operators should try to minimize the impact they have on wildlife. To start with, they should consider why they want to fly into or near an animal’s habitat and whether they really need to. When scientific projects are planned, they have to be approved by ethical committees and the potential disturbance has to be justified by the interest of the project.

There is simply no way to justify photographers disturbing and potentially damaging wildlife for likes. 

Mulero Pazmany’s study on swift breeding colonies exposure to drones concludes:

...that recreational flights should be discouraged or conducted at larger distances (e.g. 100 m) in nesting birds areas such as waterfalls, canyons, and caves.

Mulero Pazmany and Hodgson have put together a series of recommendations for using drones to study wildlife that should be adopted by the photographic community: 

Photographers should minimize the risk of disturbance and accidents by:

  • using small and low-noise drones
  • using drones that don’t resemble the shape or silhouette of a predator
  • keeping flights as short as possible — this would mean having a plan before taking off and approaching the animals
  • flying at the highest altitude possible
  • flying regular patterns, not complicated or erratic maneuvers
  • not changing flight paths over animals
  • monitoring animal behavior and ceasing flights if behavior becomes disturbed
  • minimizing flights during breeding season
  • if raptors are present, flying in lower-temperature times of day when raptors are less likely to be airborne

Moreover, flying around animals at all should only be done by experienced pilots that understand the animals and their behaviors and their potential responses to the stress of a drone. Knowing shutter speeds and apertures isn’t enough; photographers need to understand the animals they are photographing or flying around. 

Aerial wildlife photography may be more accessible than it has ever been, but it’s not as straightforward as buying a drone and heading out. Knowledge is hard-earned. Learning about your animal subjects and how to fly around them isn’t easy; it takes dedication. 

Video and images used courtesy of Kunj Dødiya. Additional wildlife photography from let us go photo.

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14 Comments

jim hughes's picture

I'm stunned that this is even a question.

The impact should be zero, unless the photo is making a significant contribution to a real world conservation strategy. End of discussion.

Go ahead and flame me with contrived scenarios.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I'm almost 100% with you. I think almost all wildlife photography will have an effect on the animals in the images. The observer effect if you will.

I think that the goal has to be to reduce the chances of harm to minimal or negligible levels.

jim hughes's picture

I think we should be 100% guided by what the scientific and conservation people advise. If they say no drones at all, then that's how it should be. You and I don't know if our actions stress an animal, cause it to abandon a nest, wander out of a protected area, or break cover and be taken by a predator. We can try to convince ourselves that things are fine, because we really, really, want that picture, but we don't have the detailed knowledge of the behavior of every species.

It should be like whale-watching; there are clear limits on how close boats can approach, everyone knows them and tries to observe them. Once in a while some idiot causes a problem but in the future, technology can make even those encounters rarer.

Drones buzzing around in wild areas might be causing harm to animals we don't even know are there - not just the ones we're trying to photograph.

Steve White's picture

All good points, but the most important is that "once in a while some idiot causes a problem..."

I suggest that there are plenty of idiots out there, and that high number x once in a while = lots of incidents.

Whale watching works because (economically speaking) the barriers to entry are relatively high. You need a proper small ship or large boat, certified by the coast guard (ours or Mexico's), proper government licensing, etc. Relatively few idiots can afford all that.

Whereas, lots of idiots can afford an inexpensive drone. And therein lies the problem.

I don't have a good answer; enforcement alone won't solve the problem.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I'm not sure that barriers to entry are enough. I've been on very expensive vacations and watched captains, drivers, guides etc. do some very questionable things to help their clients get a photograph. Although a jeep or small boat may not seem like a lot, in the places I've been, it can represent a lifetime of saving.

I think education and finding a way to encourage the idea of community ownership is the ONLY way. For example, the farmers on the hills of PNV in Rwanda now understand the value of the mountain gorilla and are now less likely to chase them away or allow their cattle to graze in the park or on the park's borders.

I don't know though, such a complicated situation.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

This --> We can try to convince ourselves that things are fine, because we really, really, want that picture, but we don't have the detailed knowledge of the behavior of every species.

I vote for more and more education.

David Stephen Kalonick's picture

Do you know how many vloggers there are with drones that fly in national parks and zero regards for the rules and regulations of part 107, let alone the wildlife? Not only should they be fined for their monetization without a license if they harm wildlife that should be another massive fine. The harder they press the less this shit will happen.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Agreed.

But, education has to be the basis for any real change. Fining people may stop someone from doing it again, but I don't think it stops other, unrelated offenders.

For example, I know a lot of people who have been fined for speeding, and that generally doesn't stop me or 99% of the other drivers on the road from speeding. I will however be very vigilant and drive carefully in school zones as I've been educated enough on the potential for disastrous outcomes. According to Wikipedia, by 2008, drinking and driving cases made up 12 per cent of all criminal charges in Canada. That's the largest single offence group in all of Canada's criminal law. Clearly a law isn't doing enough.

The question is, how do you educated so many people (amateur drone pilots) on what most people (the entire population - not just drone pilots) see as a minor inconvenience?

jim hughes's picture

Maybe we develop a culture that says drones just aren't cool; they're annoying nerd stuff. Think "Google Glass".

Consider also that technology keeps advancing and today's big noisy drones are going to seem pretty steampunk in the future. Is this good or bad? If drones become as small and unnoticeable as insects, does that mean they're harmless and can be anywhere? I don't know what the resolution will be.

David Stephen Kalonick's picture

Tony Tumminello nailed it. Ban their account until they provide a paid fine or a part 107. And they have to remove all videos that don't comply.

Tony Tumminello's picture

I'd love seeing Instagram/YouTube/whatever platform they're using just ban their account when that happens. When you're an influencer making money a fine (which they should also be hit with) is just the cost of doing business, but risking the loss of allllll their likes, followers, monetization, etc would hopefully get those people to think twice about taking that sort of risk.

David Stephen Kalonick's picture

Nailed it. Ban their account until they show a paid fine to the FAA.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I’m with you. From my point of view, no debate. Problems arise when they aren’t American, are American’s filming in Africa. Im not sure how you could enforce fines.
In terms of social media, they won’t ban abhorrent political statements, or they outright ignore or facilitate genociadal statements, I doubt they’ll step up to save a rhino or two.
I personally, agree with you.

Tony Tumminello's picture

Regarding enforcing fines, I'd love to see it start with the low-hanging fruit: residents of the US (for sake of example) getting fined for incidents in the US. Actually going after people for a start, barring them from national parks if it takes place there. Literally anything showing that bad behavior won't be tolerated.

Regarding social media, it seems like it would be such a wonderful PR move that I'm genuinely shocked that they don't do that. Showing commitment to keeping locations in great condition for others to enjoy later on would be such a power move by Instagram. Obviously they've shown that they don't give a damn and only care about the dollars flowing in, but I struggle to see how it would impact them financially to anything past a rounding error.