Plans to ensure ethical nature photography

Recent incidents prompt Nature Photographic Society to hold sessions on practices that harm animals and habitats
Audrey Tan Straits Times 29 Nov 15; Also on AsiaOne

Some bird photographers in Singapore are making a name for themselves, but not for their pictures.

Instead, they were recently pointed out on social media for practices that harm animals and their habitats, highlighting the thorny ethical issues of nature photography.

The Nature Photographic Society (Singapore) is now taking steps to minimise harmful photography practices. It is working with hobby group Birds, Insects N Creatures of Asia (Bica) to hold activities, such as photography workshops, and talks on topics such as appreciating nature subjects, to reach out to the growing number of nature photographers here, said society president Fong Chee Wai.

The first workshop will bring together members of the nature and scientific communities, photographers and bird watchers, and is being planned for January next year.

Dr Fong said only "a handful" carry out unethical photography practices. "Some of them are new and could have picked up the wrong tips, which is why workshops and talks can help by providing an alternative perspective," he added.

Last month, a post on website alleged that three photographers had baited grey-headed fish eagles in Bukit Batok using live fish which were injected with air and styrofoam so that they would remain afloat. They allegedly did this to try to get a shot of an eagle swooping down on its prey near the water surface.

It followed another incident in August last year, when a photographer was caught tethering a little tern chick's legs to a bush so it could be posed for a photograph.

Both incidents drew the ire of the nature community and prompted the authorities to take action.

The National Parks Board (NParks) is investigating the Bukit Batok case and the photographer in the little tern incident was fined $500 by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority for animal cruelty.

If the photographers in the Bukit Batok case are found guilty, both incidents would be clear examples of unethical photography.

But other practices, such as the use of bait or recorded calls to lure birds closer, or clearing vegetation for cleaner shots, are in more of a grey area. National University of Singapore bird researcher David Tan said a common defence from photographers is that these practices do not cause direct harm to the birds.

"But they are in no position to ascertain this, as these are issues that generally require some level of understanding of the species' biology," Mr Tan said. "Baiting causes birds to divert foraging time away from more nutritious food in the wild to unhealthy store-bought bait like mealworms."

He has observed such practices while doing fieldwork since 2012, and has come across people who played recorded calls or went off the boardwalk to photograph birds. Venturing off the boardwalk may cause habitats to be trampled upon.

A spokesman for bird conservation group BirdLife International said the use of playback is generally not recommended, especially during the breeding season when it can divert a bird's energy.

NParks director of conservation Wong Tuan Wah urged the public to avoid manipulating any plant or animal in the process of photography. "This includes not feeding or using artificial lures and calls to attract the animals as this might harm or cause discomfort to them."

For offences relating to the unauthorised capture, disturbance and manipulation of any plant or animal, penalties range from a maximum fine of $5,000 (if committed in public parks) to $50,000 (if committed in national parks or nature reserves).

Despite the controversy surrounding nature photography, ethical photographers can help scientists to understand bird behaviour, said Dr Wee Yeow Chin, who heads the Bird Ecology Study Group.

In August, the group formalised an agreement with Bica, which allows it to use the latter's photos and videos on its website. The study group provides scientific background and interpretations, "adding value to Bica's images of birds and their activities", Dr Wee said.

He said he was also happy to see the collaboration between the Nature Photographic Society and

Bica. "As newcomers get more involved in nature activities, experiencing the care taken by more experienced photographers will hopefully inspire them to also care for the plants and animals around them."

3 common disruptive practices
Audrey Tan Straits Times 29 Nov 15;

One of the most widespread practices in nature photography, it involves putting out food to attract birds, so that photographers can capture "food in mouth" shots. Common bait includes mealworms or crickets to attract birds that feed on insects, and fish for piscivores.

National University of Singapore bird researcher David Tan said the practice poses problems: store-bought bait tends to lack the nutrients needed for a balanced diet, and feeding can modify the birds' behaviour and make them more susceptible to poaching.


The use of recorded bird calls to get birds to come closer is controversial. Scientists also do this to study bird behaviour, but when playback is used excessively, such as when large groups of photographers do so continuously, there could be negative impact.

A paper in science journal PLOS One in 2013 noted that "playback could negatively affect species if they become stressed, expend energy, or take time away from other activities to respond to playback".


Photographers sometimes venture off boardwalks or they clear vegetation around a perch to get better pictures. The latter is sometimes known as setting up a "studio", which usually involves the use of bait. Litter is also prevalent in such set-ups.

Photographers venturing off the boardwalk at the mangrove area in Pasir Ris Park to take photographs of a juvenile common flameback woodpecker earlier this year.

It's more than just taking pretty pictures
Audrey Tan Straits Times 29 Nov 15; Also on AsiaOne

For Mr Francis Yap, 46, the joy of photographing birds lies in more than just getting great shots.

He also enjoys being out in nature, and the challenge of getting a close-up photo of the birds without using bait or recorded bird calls, or modifying the environment.

Last December, Mr Yap's photo of a male crimson horned pheasant was featured in BirdingASIA as an example of ethical photography.

The magazine had lauded his image as one that was taken "without any special aids, inducements or effects; his main tools were exceptional care and patience".

Mr Yap, who picked up the hobby in 2010, told The Sunday Times: "For me, there are stories to be told about the birds we see, and the photos that we take.

"A lot of my pictures are not worthy of publication, but I keep them because they remind me of the moment in the field."

Mr Yap, who works in the biomedical industry, recalled how it took him 30 trips over two months early last year to get a shot of a lanceolated warbler, a migratory bird which had stopped over in Punggol.

He said: "It is a bird that is hard to see when it is migrating, but easy to photograph during the breeding season in Japan, when it sings its heart out for a mate."

He struck the jackpot on his birthday last February, and finally got a shot of the elusive bird.

It was far from a perfect photo as the body of the bird was blocked by branches, Mr Yap said.

"But I'm happy - I tried very hard and I got the shot."

He shared some tips with The Sunday Times.

Look for fruiting trees: Fruits and flowers naturally attract a variety of colourful bird species, including fairy blue-birds, doves, green pigeons and bulbuls.

Explore: Instead of visiting birding hot spots, photographers can take a walk in their own backyard and discover treasures of their own.

Understanding the subject: This means learning things about a bird, such as its habitat or diet, or recognising the sound of its call.