Leopard photograph ignites ethics debate on wildlife photography

A leopard that was photographed in Coonoor near to the spot where the woman was charged at and injured on Tuesday.   | Photo Credit: Specialarrangements

A problematic incident of human-leopard interaction in The Nilgiris has put the spotlight firmly on the ethics of wildlife photography and news reporting on the sighting of wildlife in the district.

What started as an incidental sighting of a leopard by a wildlife photographer near Coonoor has quickly snowballed into a contentious issue after a woman was injured during a confrontation with a leopard in the area on Tuesday.

The photographer ,who took the picture, told The Hindu that she spotted a leopard at a distance, and spent a couple of minutes photographing the animal. She then subsequently shared the picture on social media. “I did not mention the exact location in the post, but did so in some of the comments,” said the photographer, unmindful that this trivial bit of information would inadvertently lead to a series of unintended consequences that would get the forest department involved in the matter.

Following the post on social media, journalists accessed the photographer’s page, and began sharing images of the leopard on mobile messaging applications, while a few reporters also published stories, claiming that the leopard posed a threat to humans in the area.

“None of the people who shared the pictures or published stories got the permission of the photographer in question, which in itself is highly unethical, and compounded the matter by mentioning the exact location where the picture was taken,” said a prominent wildlife photographer in the Nilgiris. What followed was inevitable – over the course of the next few days, a trickle of curious onlookers turned into torrent of people, with up to 15 people camping near the rock where the leopard was spotted to try and catch a glimpse of the animal.

Due to the increased footfall in the area, the leopard stopped venturing onto his favourite rock over the last few days, but on Tuesday, an unfortunate incident occurred. A tea estate worker, who was collecting leaves in the area, was charged at by a female leopard which was trying to protect its cubs. The woman ran, but is said to have tripped, fell and injured her leg, resulting only in minor injuries.

Irate villagers, who had not had any problems with the leopards, began blaming the wildlife photographers, claiming the disturbance they were causing had resulted in the attack. “We have taken the comments of local residents on board, and have asked them to inform us if any people come to take pictures and disturb the animals,” said S.M.Sasikumar, Forest Range Officer, Coonoor Range.

K. Saravanakumar, Assistant Conservator of Forests, Nilgiris division, said that the forest department would identify locations across the division popular with wildlife photographers, to prevent a repeat of the incident. “From now onwards, we will impose fines on any people who are trying to photograph the leopards,” added Mr. Sasikumar.

Chandrasekhar Das, a conservationist working with the Keystone Foundation in Kotagiri, said that it was important that both wildlife photographers as well as journalists avoid revealing the exact locations where wildlife is spotted, as not only could this lead to unnecessary attention from people wanting to catch a glimpse of the animal, but also from poachers. “Nowadays, we all have smart phones and more people have the equipment to take pictures, so it’s important that we are all in tune with the ethical implications of photographing wild animals,” said Mr. Das.

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 7:21:45 AM |

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