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