As in most countries, with rising disposable income and better, and cheaper, equipment entering the market every year, bird photography is becoming more and more popular in China. This should be welcomed – after all, anything that connects people with nature and broadens the appreciation for the natural world must be good for conservation. China has rich birdlife and many species have been caught on camera for the first time only recently thanks to the growing army of photographers. Not to mention that most of the recent additions to the list of bird species recorded in Beijing have been found by photographers.
However, as in every country, there is a minority that acts irresponsibly, putting the image ahead of the welfare of the bird. There are some horrific stories of photographers taking young Asian Paradise Flycatchers from the nest and lining them up on an open perch in order to get frame-filling shots of the parents feeding them without any annoying twigs or branches in the way. And deliberate flushing of cranes in order to secure flight images. There was even a story of one photographer, after having secured superb images of (Endangered) Scaly-sided Merganser, throwing fireworks into the river to make them fly away so that no other photographer could obtain better images. Then, of course, there was the image below that went viral on social media outraging tens of thousands of people.
In many countries where bird photography is well-established, guidelines or codes of conduct have been developed. For example, in the United States, Audubon has a set of guidelines for ethical bird photography. British Birds magazine has a ‘code of practice‘ and BirdLife Australia has Ethical Guidelines for Birding which include photography. In most cases the guidelines or codes of conduct are common sense. They address issues such as use of playback, the need to steer clear of breeding birds, avoiding deliberate flushing and habitat modification and condemning the use of live animals to attract birds of prey.
Of course, although in some countries there are laws and regulations that prohibit some of the more intrusive bird photography, particularly at the nest, most of these guidelines and codes of conduct have no legal basis. To be effective, they require photographers willingly to respect the guidelines and for others to challenge bad behaviour when they see it. It is only through self-policing that a code of conduct can be truly effective.
That is why it was heartening to see some of China’s top birding and conservation organisations, led by China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA), come together to develop their own code of conduct for bird photography in China (Chinese only). The authors have sensibly drawn on the codes of conduct in the US, Europe and elsewhere to put together a comprehensive set of guidelines that cover all of the most important issues – putting the welfare of the bird first, avoiding birds at the nest, no deliberate flushing, judicious use of playback and condemning the use of live animals as bait.
A code of conduct won’t change bad behaviour overnight and, as we see in the West, even with codes of conduct in place for several years, there will always be a minority of irresponsible people willing to ride roughshod over the rules to obtain an image that is better than their peers.
However, this is another step forward for the conservation of wild birds in China and the organisations should be congratulated for putting together such a sound set of guidelines. CWCA has 31 provincial level branches across China with more than 260 prefecture or county level organisations and the Code has already been circulated far and wide on social media and in bird photography, and birding, chat groups.
Bird photographers do a great deal of good to promote the wonder of wild birds and bring them closer to the public; hopefully these guidelines will help keep bird photography in the headlines for the right reasons and images such as the ‘man’ with the Great Crested Grebe above will be few and far between.
Title image: bird photographers waiting for a Japanese Robin in a Beijing park, November 2012.