Saturday, 29 March 2014

Wildlife Photography - A Costly Impact!

Wildlife Photography - A Costly Impact! 

A male adder 'mate guarding' this larger female in early spring.
© 2014 Brett Lewis 
Over the past few years there has been an influx in the number of people photographing herpetofauna including lizards, slow-worm, grass snake etc., but perhaps none more so than the Adder (Vipera berus).

The Adder has become a target species for the trophy hunting photographer and indeed the ‘wildlife and conservation photographer’ fraternity that offer workshops, deliberately targeting reptiles in the spring and late summer months throughout the UK.

I have to put into question the reasons why the Adder has become the No.1 target for would-be photographers and I believe it to be no more than a ‘trophy’, and a profiteering exercise since there is little evidence of a tangible, conservation outcome from their activities. I’d even go so far as saying that the activities of a few are very detrimental to a great number of animals.

Adders are a long-lived species and have evolved special traits that have allowed them to exploit even the coldest of climates within the Arctic Circle, yet they remain a cryptic and shy species, subtly going about their activities. They are a top predator, well adapted to help maintain equilibrium within the habitats in which they thrive.

With the slightest understanding of reptile ecology, it is not difficult to work out the best times of the year to view these amazing animals. The best times are indeed the early spring months and late summer but is it possible that the well-meaning photographer might be causing more harm than good? Is limited knowledge of the photographic subject an undoing of the entire population?

Whilst I am well aware of the plight of herpetofauna species in the UK through loss of habitat, increased predation, stochastic events through anthropogenic intention, and climate change etc., there are more subtle problems afoot and we can help by giving them some room.

Many of my followers here and on Facebook will know of my passion for all things wildlife and indeed my work with herpetofauna, spanning over many years. You will know that I love to spend time in the field studying their behavior, and collecting biometric information to help our understanding of their life histories. I also undertake hands-on conservation activities to help improve their habitats, and in turn preserve local populations. I also really enjoy photographing them, but how can this simple, inert activity affect the population?

Well, firstly there is the obvious disturbance issue. Adders do not like to be discovered and avoid predators, humans included, at all costs. As mentioned before, they are a shy, cryptic species and will often move quickly into the undergrowth if they sense detection. However, with the recent spout of photography, this disturbance level has gone much further and there are a great number of people catching Adders and placing them in the open habitat in order to capture an unobscured image or that illusive ‘perfect picture’. There are records of people collecting them and taking them long distances to photograph them over several days, whilst in captivity.

There are people who use cool boxes in an attempt to reduce the activity of the subject and photograph them over extended periods of time. There are people who antogonise them in order to make them ‘strike’ to get that ‘aggressive snake’ shot. There are people that blow smoke into the faces of Adders in order for them to flick their tongue. People use all sorts of methods in order to achieve that ‘different’ photographic image.

These issues are well documented among the herpetofauna science communities and there is ongoing debate about the best way to help alleviate the exponential trend in disturbance issues, especially among tourist and ‘pay-per-view’ photographers’.

Perhaps those that carry out these practices, in the name of ‘conservation photography’, might first spend some quality time reading the relevant literature and discover the true ecology of the species they are targeting and understand the real effects they are having on the overall population – not just the one or two snakes they are viewing at any given time.

A prime example of this came to light earlier this year when photographers started to announce their workshops for the coming seasons. In one instance the photographer predicted that this month was the best time to go out and photograph adders with their company, as there are so many around and ‘close together’!

Another example is a company advertising reptile photography workshops including European Protected Species (EPS), on a well known RSPB reserve in Dorset.

Perhaps, if I provide you with a couple of reasons why these activities might be detrimental or shouldn’t be undertaken then you might take it upon yourselves to find out a little bit more about the species you are affecting and maybe change your policies and indeed your ethics.

Firstly, disturbance of EPS, without the appropriate licence, is illegal and if you are part of such activities you are open to prosecution under the law governing strict protection of these species. Species include Smooth snakes (Coronella austriaca) and Sand lizards (Lacerta agilis). Even if you are with a licensed person, there are certain activities that may not be permitted under their licence, and they may include photography. Photography is only permissible if it is an incidental part of a licensable activity.

Secondly, did you know that adder sperm is costly? A very interesting paper by Olsson et al. (1997) describes the level of body mass that is lost by individual male adders through spermatogenesis (sperm generation) when they come out of hibernation. Male adders are often sedentary when they come out of hibernation (brumation) and spend much of their time basking in the warm, spring sun, in order to produce enough sperm for the pending mating season - An expensive component of reproduction. They have been shown to use up to 5% of their body mass on this activity alone, which is significant given that they haven’t eaten for several months prior to this and wont be in their best condition anyway. Furthermore, they lose more body mass post-ecdysis (after sloughing), which shows that the first month out of hibernation is a tough time for them. It is important that they are allowed to go about this activity in order to produce enough sperm to mate successfully and hopefully sire the next generation of adder and continue their life histories. So, sperm production is costly and necessary and disturbance at this time of year will impact on their breeding success and future generations.

Next, post-ecdysis, the males will go about their courtship behavior and will seek out and ‘guard’ females. Males will often ‘wrestle’ in combat, again using vital resources. Further disturbance of these beautiful looking specimens will interrupt this process and will reduce breeding success.

A male adder pre-ecdysis, Kent, UK. 
© 2014 Brett Lewis
Many female adders will spend their spring and summer months basking for thermoregulation. Adders are viviparous and incubate their young inside. The females need to regulate their body temperature to optimize the gestation process and facilitate development of their young. Eventually, in late summer, the females give birth to live young that will be ready to fend for themselves. Disturbance of female adders throughout this time will significantly reduce their chances of developing a successful clutch of young snakes and therefore undermining the entire population.

Herpetologists, those that study reptiles and amphibians, are well aware of these processes and I include myself among those. It is important that we, as photographers, do not cause undue stress or disturbance to our target species and this should be the very moral and ethical underpinning to our working lives.

I hope, by highlighting this ongoing problem, you might look at the way you approach photography of wildlife and perhaps take time to read and learn more about the species you are affecting in the field. There is no doubt that any disturbance to adders may cause them problems, so ask yourselves and your clients if you/they are happy with disturbing them in order to obtain a photograph whilst possibly impacting the entire population?

There are many ways in which we can absorb the desired knowledge and there are many organisations out there that are willing to share that knowledge with you. Don’t be proud, be ethical and take conservation seriously. Money in your pocket is not worth the wildlife on your doorstep. Let this blog remind you of that fact with every subject you photograph and may you continue to enjoy all that the world has to offer and remember ‘Take Only Photographs – Leave Only Footprints’.