Is Travelling for Wildlife Photography Justified?

It’s probably something that has been said to anyone who touts a conservation tagline, but then happily hops on a plane to the farther reaches of our planet in search of wildlife. I am included in that group of photographers lucky enough to be able to explore with my camera beyond my home country. But is the burning of all that jet fuel justified by the mere fact that someone is travelling to enjoy nature?

Some people may read this and question why I am even writing this. Surely one extra person on a plane doesn’t matter? The plane is flying anyway, after all. Whilst that’s true, it’s the same argument about a reduction in meat consumption (which is the best thing you can do yourself at home) for reasons to benefit the environment. If enough people do it, demand for a particular product or service drops and consequently less are produced down the line. So, to me, it’s an important thing to think about; I want to minimise my impact on the planet. But I also love travelling, and I love seeing all sorts of animals around the world. Perhaps that makes me a bit of a hypocrite.

Is a passion for nature enough to “permit” me to travel? Probably not, no. But the voice inside my head attempts to reason that practising a vegan diet, as well as minimising my material consumption back home, is enough to earn me “credits” to take a flight away. Even so, I’m still travelling for selfish reasons. I don’t need to travel to survive, and there are plenty of animals closer to home for me to photograph.

But the likes of the Amazon Rainforest have a real hold over me. It’s somewhere I love, and I know that I want to spend a lot of my life there working in film-making. It’s an important area to protect and I hope that I will be able to take photos and create films that bolster awareness about conservation issues threatening the rainforest. Perhaps that’s a cliché line now, but it’s still true.

Not every trip that we photographers take is going to benefit conservation efforts, though. The “raising awareness” line is easily said, but most of the time an image of an endangered primate isn’t going to achieve much. Of course, there are exceptions, and trips undertaken on commission for conservation organisations are surely a good thing. But even though my images from an expedition into the Amazon Basin back in 2015 have been used by a charitable organisation, I can’t really believe that I’ve made any measurable difference to the world with them. Perhaps a few more tourists booked to visit the region having seen the shots, but I’ve hardly moved mountains with my photos.

But where’s the joy in striving to conserve and protect our planet if we’re not “allowed” to experience it ourselves? Sure, you could still say that is selfish reasoning, but it will ultimately kill that passion for the natural world if no one ever visited. Beautiful wildlife films on television aren’t enough to truly inspire large numbers of people. Without that first-hand experience, people won’t go out to enjoy nature with their kids and raise the conservationists and scientists of tomorrow. I’d say the thrill of adventure goes a long way to moulding a person’s character, especially at a young age. So once that happens, who’s left to “save the world” in the future?

If we don't support ecotourism, how can we inspire future generations? Click to Tweet

Look at it this way: human-wildlife conflicts are here to stay. People want to visit these areas, and the local people require an income. It’s far better, in my opinion, to “exploit” these areas through ecotourism, rather than ransack our environment and destroy habitats to profit directly from nature. Tourists visiting an area for nature put a price on it alive, encouraging governments and local populations to keep them intact. It’s a long-term income, too, rather than the short-term gains made from acts like deforestation.

So travelling for wildlife photography is just another form of eco-tourism. Eco-tourism that supports threatened areas, and when lots of people do it (just like making that diet change) then it will make a difference. These areas will have a better chance at staying standing.

So I say travel; go enjoy nature. Just maybe eat fewer steaks to offset that carbon footprint.

Is travelling for wildlife photography justified? Click to Tweet

Lead photo by Eximius84 and used under CC BY 2.0 license.

Will Nicholls is the founder of Nature TTL and a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from England. Having been photographing since the age of 12, Will’s images have won a string of awards, including the title of “Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year” in 2009 from the British Wildlife Photography Awards. Will is also the author of the book On the Trail of Red Squirrels.

Download our free ebook
Grab Our FREE eBook!

Get our best tutorials sent straight to you, and enjoy a copy of "10 Ways to INSTANTLY Improve Your Nature Photos".

  • Rebecca Hd

    Thanks for this. I recently decided that I would’nt visit Svalbard to revel in its beauty and also see polar bears. This is because I read about how increasing tourists there are increasing human-polar bear encounters and this is leading to an increase the amount of polar bears being shot. An average of 2 are shot every year and last year 4 were shot all by tourists. This was mainly by skiers and not photographers I may add. This may not sound like much but I find this hard to stomach and would hate to contribute to this where polar bear numbers are already so low. Essentially the wilderness is their territory and they have a right to be in it more than we do. A mass surge in tourism there is also leading to more of the wilderness being taken up for development which I’m not sure is a good thing. I’d like to hear other peoples thoughts.

    • Hi Rebecca. Thanks for your comment!

      That does sound like another kettle of fish. I would love to head to Svalbard one day! Better us than oil companies, though. Maybe better education of tourists is necessary then.

  • Carl Morrow

    This is an issue i think about a lot, not only travelling abroad but
    also making long car journeys in my own country (Ireland). With this in
    mind i sold my car 4 years ago in order to force myself to photograph
    the wildlife that’s available within cycling range of home. I also grow
    over half of my own food and fuel and have planted over 40000 trees on
    my property which I’m lucky enough to have. (so should have a light
    carbon footprint). Has the resulting images from these years made a
    difference to local government environmental policy or the intensive
    agricultural practices in the locality? nope. Would travelling abroad
    to poorer parts of the world to support local eco tourism projects via
    wildlife photography be more beneficial? Probably would. As a wildlife
    photographer i’m already dependent on fossil fuels and the mining of
    precious metals to make electronic components for cameras, lenses,
    computers etc. i’m still in two minds about which way to go……..

    • Thanks for your comment Carl.

      I also think about my fuel emissions all the time – perhaps I need to invest in an electric car! Luckily that looks like the way everyone is going, and with some hefty solar panels (maybe those new roof tiles by Tesla) you can have a totally carbon neutral car (post manufacturing).

      To be honest, it’s impossible to live without leaving a footprint. But the smaller that footprint is the better, in my opinion.

  • Chris

    Before wildlife photography I travelled a lot, and didn’t really think about the impact I was having.

    Wildlife photography has changed my view. I do still travel but now I care where I spend my money, the environmental and conservation policies where we are staying are important, and how much we are or aren’t supporting the local economy is a factor.

    Small things changed, attitude to recycling energy use etc, etc, we now have an electric car.

    I could change my travel habits or should I continue to let travel and wildlife photography change my views and behaviours?

  • Annicola

    Travelling to see or photograph wildlife/nature is, inevitably, selfish with regards to using the planet’s resources. However, if we don’t show governments, local people etc that others enjoy that nature, and will bring more people to see it, therefore bringing money into local communities, that nature will, as you say, disappear.

    We can all decide how, when and where we travel, and therefore how much impact we are having, both on local communities and on the nature itself.

    If going on an organised tour, we can choose one that really benefits the local economy rather just lines the pockets of the organisers.

    I have, in the past, visited all continents except Antarctica at least once. But now confine my travelling to Europe – we have plenty to see here. We also try to pick places where we can have our own patch for a week or two, rather than trying to cover a large area. We use our feet, or local public transport as far as possible. And ask local guides to show us the places/species that are harder to get to.

    I don’t think we should stop travelling to see wildlife, just be more careful about it.