The Ethics of Wildlife Photography: African Safari

ethics of wildlife photography
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Photographers heading out on safari for the first time usually only have one thing in mind – get the perfect shot.

Sometimes the determination of photographers to get great shots of African wildlife can override the best interest of the animals themselves.

In my experience this is particularly true when photographers on an African safari for the first time put themselves, and their guide, under pressure to find and photograph specific species in a very short time frame.

This article shares a code of conduct and ethical guide that any wildlife and nature photographer committed to wildlife conservation should follow.

ethics of wildlife photography

Guide to Ethical Wildlife Photography

Here are some best practices that the wildlife photography community can use as a guide for wildlife photography ethics.

Know the rules

The laws and regulations that govern the safari destinations you will be visiting vary from country to country however, they are tiered as follows:

  1. International law
  2. Law of the country
    1. Government department laws
      1. Conservation
      2. Environment
      3. Tourism
  3. National Parks regulations
  4. Private Parks regulations
  5. Local operator regulations
  6. Local cultural norms and practices 

Looks complicated doesn’t it?

My advice is to research 3 – 6 in as much detail as possible. Particularly point 6.

ethics of wildlife photography


The Africa safari industry is a huge contributor to the GDP of southern African nations.

National governments in Africa have by and large failed to provide adequate funding for wildlife conservation.

There are a number of reasons for this – small tax base, corruption, and lack of training being but a few.

A portion of the money you will spend will go towards conservation efforts, irrespective whether it is via the government or the owner of a private reserve.

I have always considered nature and wildlife photography to be a very important part of documenting and promoting wildlife in Africa and as a result I take it very seriously.

If you see yourself as something of a conservationist for wildlife and nature, then you will understand that raising awareness of the need to protect wildlife is important.

We should all be held to high standards of care towards nature and use our own knowledge as a tool for raising awareness among shutterbugs.

ethics of wildlife photography

Know your place

It still shocks me the way a small number of people think that a safari into Africa has been arranged for their personal entertainment and satisfaction.

You are a visitor here. When we set off into the African bush we are in the animals’ habitat – not the other way around.

The best attitude to have on safari is to soak in and appreciate the great wilderness that is Africa, and to get joy from that.

Getting some great images of animals is a bonus, not a divine right.

Respect is everything

Respecting the environment you are in is crucial to practicing ethical wildlife and nature photography.

The environment in this case includes:

  • nature
  • local culture
  • local laws
  • your fellow photographers

Do unto others etc….

ethics of wildlife photography

Animal rights come first

We sometimes forget that any animal in the wild feels the emotions of fear, anxiety and anger (aggression to be more accurate), as acutely as we do.

If anything that we do as photographers, intentionally or unintentionally, causes any of the above to be triggered, then we are not behaving ethically.

Additionally, an environment that habitually has a negative impact on wildlife and their natural behaviour, is usually operating unethically and sometimes even operating outside of the law.

Do your research

Wildlife photographers going to Africa usually have a ‘tick’ list of species they want to photograph.

It will save a lot of frustration and disappointment if you research the species common to the area you are visiting as well as those that are rarely seen. 

Keep in mind that many safari destinations are not Big 5 locations.

For example, if you are visiting the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park you will only find two of the big five animal’s there namely, lion and leopard.

Some other key things to research are whether off-roading is allowed, and whether the safari vehicle being used has an open top or not.

It has been my experience that frustration and the desire to get better photos, are the main drivers of unethical photography practices.

A lack of research can, and does, result in frustration.

ethics of wildlife photography

Know your subject

Your safari guide should be knowledgeable in the habits and characteristics of the wildlife you are photographing. 

This would include their tolerance level to the presence of vehicles and humans. It is up to the ranger or guide to determine how and when to keep a respectful distance.

If you are on a self drive safari then it is vital that you research the animals you are hoping to see and photograph.

Proper research of your subject will not only provide you with better photographs, it will also help keep you and the animal safe.

Obey your guide

Safari guides are there to keep you and the animals safe. That is their top priority.

If your guide tells you to sit down or to stop talking – hopefully in a respectful manner – then please do as he or she says.

They are the experts and do not dish out orders for the fun of it. 

ethics of wildlife photography tracker

Do not intimidate your guide

I have heard of situations where a photographer has bullied a young guide into doing all sorts of unethical things so he can get the shot.

More experienced guides will ignore the intimidation or, in the worst cases, terminate the drive.

If you want to get the best from your guide then show the correct amount of respect.

Do not disturb

All of us have had occasion to curse the intrusion of long grass, or the presence of an errant branch in the frame. 

Do not under any circumstances remove or destroy any vegetation around a sighting location. This is particularly important when it comes to nesting birds and den photography.

An environment that is altered in even the most minor way could cause an animal or bird to abandon that location.

This effectively sentences any chicks or baby animals present in the nest or den to death.

ethics of wildlife photography

Be unobtrusive

It stands to reason that the less obtrusive you are, the more likely you are to get the photographs you want.

Exactly what unobtrusive means depends on the situation. Consult your tour operator for guidelines and advice

If you are on a safari vehicle then keep noise to a minimum and wear neutral clothing. It also helps if you remain seated and keep expansive body movements to a minimum.

I used to own a Nikon D4. The shutter sound on that camera is incredibly loud and sometimes scared away whatever I was photographing.

I have since switched to mirrorless technology and my Nikon Z9 can be operated in total silence.

If you are on a walk then clothing becomes important. I wouldn’t go to the extreme lengths of investing in camouflage gear, but use common sense when picking out clothes to pack.

If you are obtrusive in any way than this causes a significant amount of stress in the animal. 

If you are photographing birds, keep a safe distance from the nest and use a telephoto lens. Particularly in breeding season.

It’s always best to avoid the use of torches and flashes but ask your guide if in doubt.

ethics of wildlife photography

Do no harm

Any photographic activity that causes actual physical harm to an animal, or to its’ environment is always unethical, and usually also illegal.

Cornering or restraining an animal for the purposes of photographing it, is not only cruel, it is also highly dangerous.

Capturing wildlife is a criminal offense.

A stressed and frightened animal is also a dangerous animal.

Animals that have attacked humans are always driven by self preservation – not predatory behavior.

Animals that are ‘put down’ in game reserves are usually killed because an interaction with humans has turned violent.

In such cases it is almost always down to unethical, or stupid, behavior on the humans’ part.

Know when to leave

Many of the animals you come across on safari are habituated to human presence.

All of them do have a tolerance limit however, so it is important that you do not over stay your welcome at a sighting.

Get your shots and move on.

ethics of wildlife photography

When in doubt - ask

As a general rule of thumb I would say that if you need to ask whether doing something is unethical, then it probably is.

There are usually destination specific rules and regulations, that may not immediately be apparent, that you should clarify before setting off on safari.

Examples of this would be the use of flash photography, infrared, and/or spotlights.

Always ask if you have questions about the suitability of any of your photography equipment.

Frequently asked Questions - Ethical Wildlife Photography

I have been photographing African wildlife for more than 20 years. I have spent thousands of hours on the back of safari vehicles, in hides and on foot, in search of great shots.

I have seen most things, and some incidents I have witnessed have shocked and even upset me.

Here are some FAQ’s to additionally inform your actions and decision making when on safari.

Is it ethical to bait subjects?

Photographing wild animals is very similar to hunting.

The only difference is that you shoot with your camera rather than a rifle.

The ethics are similar however. Baiting is usually considered unethical if it begins to disrupt an animals’ behavior in any way.

It is also unethical to bait an animal who is then put in a position of danger, to itself and others, as a result of baiting.

Common sense needs to apply.

Do I consider feeding yard birds with bird feeders unethical? I don’t but perhaps others do.

Would I sling an impala carcass into a fork of a tree branch to get photographs of a leopard? Absolutely not.

Some people differentiate between putting out live bait as opposed to ‘dead’ bait (dead bait includes things like worms, hay etc.)

My opinion is that live bait is always unethical. Dead bait and scattering of food depends on the animal, the location, and the impact the practice may or may not have.

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Is it ethical to lure subjects?

When it comes to wildlife photography, luring is usually a term used for playing vocalizations and sound, to bring an animal or bird closer to you.

Examples of this are playing recordings of lions roaring through a loudspeaker, or playing bird calls using an app on your phone.

The direct consequence of this is that you may lure an animal or bird into the territory of another, and I believe this to be against the ethics of photography.

This can and does cause territorial disputes that may result in death or injury to one or both of the animals.

Can I photograph endangered species?

Yes you can.

I believe that it is our duty as wildlife photographers to document the ongoing threat to the wildlife of Africa as away of raising public awareness.

What should be avoided, as with any subject, is any unethical behavior in order to get the shot.

If you know that climbing off the vehicle is going to scare the pangolin you want to photograph, then stay on the vehicle. Common sense in everything.

You can also post such photographs, but make sure you remove any EXIF information from the digital file beforehand – particularly if your camera has geo tagging capabilities.

There is always a risk that a poacher is paying someone for this information and caution in this area will protect animals lives.

ethics of wildlife photography

What if my guide engages in unethical behaviour?

Guides operating in national parks and private reserves in southern Africa feel huge pressure to deliver results.

In the wildlife photography world, results are pictures – preferably of rare species and predators.

This pressure can result in a guide tossing ethics overboard and doing practically anything required to get you in a position to take photographs.

It is our duty as photographers to keep the pressure off the guides and to let them know that your priority is the welfare of the animals and their environment.

If you do get into a situation where you think your guide is acting unethically, then you should report him or her to the warden of the reserve or to your tour operator.

This sounds unpleasant but it will serve as a deterrent to others.

Can I use a drone on safari?

In most African parks and reserves, the use of drones is strictly prohibited.

A drone is not only noisy but in the wrong hands it can cause no end of stress to the animals.

The Kruger Park in South Africa levies a USD 3 000 to anyone caught with a drone, airborne or not.

Are guided photographic tours ethical?

We have spoken about the pressure on safari guides in the answer to an earlier question. The pressure on photographic tour operators is even greater.

After all, you have paid over a large sum of money to photograph gorillas or leopards etc. and your expectations are understandably high.

I have been on many photographic tours and they have all been incredibly professional and ethical in their approach.

My advice would be to do your homework beforehand to understand what the operators’  practices are.

Look for online testimonials and also take a look at their photo gallery.

You should soon be able to make a determination as to their ethics or lack thereof.

ethics of wildlife photography

Final Thoughts

One of my old mentors used to tell me that I should never do anything that I would be uncomfortable telling a journalist about. Wise words.

Ethics in wildlife photography usually comes down to common sense.

If we all applied common sense, then photographing wildlife when on safari would be an all round positive experience.

Further reading

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