It was still dark outside, but my friend had “sensed” movement, so he had gotten up in the middle of the night and was now excitedly poking me to wake up!
I drowsily wormed my way out of my sleeping bag and off the cold hide floor to grab a seat and my camera. We were lost in photography for a good while, when my friend turned to me and asked ” are you getting any photos?”
I had seen the back of his camera screen and replied ” some, but my gear is not as good as yours, I can’t get as close with my lens.” He looked at me a bit funny, and we continued shooting.
It was only later that I realized that me and my friend had the exact same mm length lenses, I could definitely “get as close” as he could… But I saw highly endangered wolves in the wild for the very first time and completely forgot I had a zoom lens! So most of my wolf images from this trip were shot at 100mm as that was what it was set on when the excitement took over.
But it turned out that the best part about this adventure wasn’t the photographs made. The best parts involved howling, learning new things and shifting perspectives & prior opinions about commercial hide photography.
Prior to this trip I asked my Instagram audience what they thought about the commercial hide photography business, especially the type that is focused on large carnivore species.
It became quickly clear that it is a hot topic. People have a lot of firm opinions and there are a lot of open questions. There’s clearly a need to examine this area of wildlife photography from the ethics, sustainability and ecotourism perspectives. In this post I will do just that, based on my own personal experience, research and history/passion in nature conservation in Finland and elsewhere. Please note that the following is based on my own personal thoughts, observations, conclusions and musings at the time of writing this. I am always open to learning more and to re-examine my conclusions and understanding on the topic.
Is it ethical? Is it sustainable and responsible? Should we photograph wildlife from commercial hides?
I think that there are two ways of beginning to break these questions down and to start looking for answers. This all comes down to which way you choose as your approach.
We could choose to look at commercial hide operations and attracting animals with food as its own separate entity excluded from the bigger picture and the world at large in which it exists. In which case it might be easier to focus on the negatives from an idealism and in some cases ethics perspective as well as look at what makes a responsible hide business on its own.
BUT everything in our world is connected and hence the first approach above, won’t give us wholesome and true to life answers to the bigger question of the mere existence of these types of businesses. Just like when choosing a camera brand for your photography needs, you shouldn’t make your choise based on just the camera specs…to choose the best brand for you, you should look at the camera AND the whole ecosystem of lenses, services, third party applications, accessories, your specific needs etc. and how it all comes together in the real world. Just looking at the camera specs is one way to go, it’s needed, but it won’t cover the bigger picture.
So let’s begin looking at commercial wildlife photography hides as a travel destination, as a part of the current world we live in and as a business that profits from wild animals. Accepting the realities that as long as we live in a monetary system, and as long as humans have the innate need to connect with nature; there will be businesses built around it.
In part two, we will hone in on the details of what makes an ethical and responsible commercial hide business.
If we look at commercial hides next to other businesses that benefit from wild animals, like zoos & aquariums or atractions and activities centered around hunting…what do you think?
In a zoo or aquarium, the animals, whether wild caught or captive born, are kept in a small closure, deprived from their natural habitat, for mainly entertainment’s sake. Some zoos do a better job than others on environmental education, but it is still a sad fact that the main message zoos teach is that animals are ours to gawk at and own. In a zoo or aquarium the nonhuman animal is captive, the human animals are free.
Personally I prefer the commercial hide set up where humans are “captive” in the hide and the nonhuman animals are free to live their wild lives as they choose. To use their free will.
Hunting centered hobbies and businesses…do we even need to go there? Well we do, because responsible ecotourism based wildlife hide businesses can help turn the tables form killing to conserving. The more popular responsible commercial hides become and the more money flows in favor of keeping wildlife alive; the better odds we have at saving endangered species and habitats.
For example, in Finland the grey wolf is already highly endangered, yet they are still under a constant pressure from hunting. The situation threathening the wolves in Finland is not a biological one but a sosiopolitical issue.
One effective way to help protect and increase wolf populations in Finland would be to develop ecotourism businesses that center around wolves and other wild animals and profit from vibrant wolf populations, like hide businesses do.
Once there are enough jobs and profitable business around keeping wild animals safe, the sosiopolitical situation will inevitably shift in favor of conservation.
Watching the bears and wolves through the hide window, I felt a little bit like watching them from a TV screen. Personally, for me, the absolutely best part about wildlife photography is the shared moment of connection and oneness that happens with an animal when there are no barriers between us. Though a very thrilling experience photographing from a hide, for me something was missing. But then again, it wouldn’t be very realistic to connect with a bear in the wild, the same way one can connect with a fox cub. 🙂
Although there were a couple of touching moments. One lasting impression on me was made by the wolverine. His personality was just shining through the hide walls and he made it abundantly clear that he was totally onto us “in hiding”.
And the best part was the part where I saw zero animals to photograph but the wolves began howling all over the surrounding wilderness…forget about photographs and ethical ponderings and the rest of the world! At that moment I was one with the entire universe and all the beauty it holds.
Thank you for reading!
And stay tuned for part two for a deeper dive into what I think makes a responsible and ethical commercial hide.