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Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards

Nature and Photography: Uneasy Partners

Recently, a good friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to an article entitled A Sad Tale of Photographing in Yellowstone, by professional photographer Nasim Mansurov. Here is the comment she included with that link:

"This is my back yard, and we've seen tourism skyrocket over the past four years. Yellowstone and Grand Teton are being overwhelmed - it is completely out of control. It seems we've crossed a tipping point of numbers and bad behavior. There seems to be a completely different mindset now - not a reverence or respect, just a visit to an amusement park. Is the answer to limit the number of visitors? The parks CAN'T sustain this - it threatens wildlife and resources and degrades the very things people come to see and experience. We feel under siege.”

I have always wanted to visit Yellowstone, one of the reasons being that it’s the world’s first National Park (established in 1872). The video, How Wolves Change Rivers, in which George Monbiot narrates the remarkable story of how the reintroduction of wolves in 1995 literally brought Yellowstone back to life, further increased my desire to see this natural wonder.

But Mansurov’s blog has put me off. In it he describes how he felt compelled to cut his trip short because he was “tired of seeing the same behavioral patterns of park visitors over and over again – to the point where it was just getting absurd, abusive and downright stupid.” This coincides with recent news of the death of a young man who apparently wandered over 200 metres from the boardwalk and fell into a boiling spring. Not to mention incidents of tourists getting far too close to black bears, bison, and elk; if one woman hadn’t tripped during her attempt to escape an elk which charged after she approached it to take a photo, she might have suffered a lot more than a bruised ego.

I know that if I witnessed such behaviour as described by my friend and by Mansurov, it would taint, if not ruin, my experience of Yellowstone. So, better to stay away for the time being. On the positive side, it makes me appreciate even more the less visited, less dramatic, but equally enchanting nature closer to home.

I must say, though, I was disappointed that Mansurov didn’t illustrate his much-needed article with shots of people disregarding park regulations and trampling all over sites of scenic beauty or taking selfies with a total lack of consideration, not only for the wildlife, but also for fellow tourists. Instead, and ironically, he chose to use this opportunity to show off photos that everyone will want to emulate: of a bear eating an elk calf, sunsets over lakes, and a pair of buffalo fighting. Only the last photo, showing human footprints around the edge of Morning Glory Pool (now known as Fading Glory), seems relevant.

And this is the problem: on the one hand we love to watch those fantastic wildlife documentaries and those miraculous award-winning images in glossy magazines, and yet when people flock to the places where they were taken (isn’t this what we want, thousands of people longing to see wildlife?), the ecosystem can’t cope with our demands on it. Nobody would deny that photography can be an important tool for conservation, but it can also bring the crowds to fragile places that might otherwise be less in the limelight. As a hobby photographer and nature writer, I am as guilty of contributing to this erosion of wilderness as the next person.

I suppose what finally matters is the sentiment with which sites of natural beauty are visited and photos taken. Is it largely out of a selfish desire to boast, to garner likes and comments, to prove to your ‘friends’ how exciting your life is? And to hell with the needs of wildlife and fellow tourists, the rules and regulations? Or is it to respectfully connect with nature, to share your wonder with others, to raise awareness? And to be part of a community of people who care about our footprint on this Earth?

Tourists and giant otters in Manu National Park, Peru. Photo: Frank Hajek

In harmony: Tourists observe and photograph a family of giant otters from a fixed observation platform in Manu National Park, Peru. The giant otters approached of their own accord.

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