It was getting dark, nearly closing time at the Kabini Wildlife Sanctuary. Ashwani Sharma and his wife were leaving when they saw a vehicle coming from the opposite direction, heading back into the park. Sharma and the driver of their vehicle found it odd and asked the other driver why they returning to the forest. The answer was more baffling. “He said one of the tourists had dropped a cellphone and they were going to look for it,” says Sharma, a program manager with an MNC technology company in Bengaluru. Sensing something was amiss, Sharma’s driver called a third driver and learnt that a tiger had been sighted. “They were going to the spot and lied to us. It’s quite common—people do these things so that they can see and take “exclusive photographs” of the animals,” says Sharma.
It’s not just information about wildlife sightings that are withheld in the race for that Instagrammable photograph—Sharma and other amateur enthusiasts say a handful of hobby photographers break the basic rules of wildlife tourism. “It’s common to see photographers bossing the drivers, blocking the view when an animal is spotted, getting too close for a photo. Some of this behaviour is very toxic,” says Sharma, who himself is a hobby photographer.
In the last decade, with the rise of social media, say naturalists and professional wildlife photographers, there’s been an increase in people trying their hand at wildlife photography. Many crave for a good photo that will get them ‘likes’ and bragging rights on social media.
“It’s become a competition about who can get a better photo. Jab tak ‘nice pic, bro’ nahi likhe koi, toh photo achi nahi aayi hai (You haven’t got a good photo till someone comments ‘nice pic, bro’),” says Rajesh Bhatt, an environmental educator, and green business mentor in Ramnagar, Uttarakhand. Bhatt trains guides in the area who take people to the nearby Jim Corbett National Park, to ensure that tourists and photographers take photographs without disturbing the birds and animals.
Some tourists get too close to the animals or birds in search of that unique shot, say naturalists. Mumbai-based Shashank Bajaj, who runs Wilderlust Expeditions, a safari tour company, remembers one such instance he heard at the Ranthambore National Park last year. “A hobby photographer got close to a tiger and threw something at it to wake it up,” says Bajaj. “The tiger snarled at him, and walked away. I’ve had guests who wanted to go close to the tiger for photos or selfies. I respectfully tell them that if we went near the animal, it would take off, and nobody would be able to sight it.”
Fortunately, this problem is limited to a small number of people so far, and most just need to be introduced to the rules of jungle photography. Bengaluru-based wildlife photographer and mentor Sudhir Shivaram educates people he takes on jungle tours about ethical practices and appreciating nature, instead of focusing only on photography. “The photographers who do these things are mostly amateurs and often are not aware that what they are doing is not right. For instance, when there is a bird feeding its chicks, you shouldn’t go close to it to take a photo. It stresses and disturbs the birds. Sometimes, without realising it, you may alert a predatory bird like a crow, which figures the location of the nest and may later either eat the eggs or kill the chicks,” he explains. Geo-tagging locations where photos were taken can send more photographers to the spot and further disturb the animals, or worse, alert poachers, says Bhatt. “It’s a learning curve though; most of them are not habitual offenders,” says Bajaj.