Where does friendship end and social responsibility begin? Isn’t one of the tenets of friendship to challenge one another to be better and do better? It’s these questions that I have been asking and wrestling with for the last year, deliberating on when or if there was a right time to share my experiences. When I broached the subject, I was told, “Yes we want to change, but it takes time, be patient, we’ll get there…and let’s all keep up the great work taking great photos”. I called bullshit on this immediately, and my follow-up went unanswered. Finally, I decided that change might not be affected immediately, but the willingness to change can be. To that end, I decided not to rush to judgment, to observe and hopefully to take a more balanced view with the perspective that only time can offer, and with the disgust and horror behind me. However, as far as I know the situation has not improved, and their unethical behaviour continues unabated. So, without further ado, and putting the con- in conservation, I introduce Tropical Herping or TH for short.
For those that are unfamiliar with TH, they are relatively young company formed by herpetologists Lucas Bustamante and Alejandro Arteaga, both of whom are talented photographers, and herpetologists. I befriended the duo on my first trip to Ecuador when TH had yet to be formed. I enjoyed their company and counted myself lucky to have met a passionate group with mutual interests. Soon afterwards they formed Tropical Herping, and an excellent group of photographers coalesced around them, including Jaime Culebras and award-winning photographer Javier Aznar Rueda de Gonzalez, amongst others. The latter two have since fallen out with the organization, but TH has since recruited and expanded their circle to include Sebastian di Domenico, Jose Vieira and others.
Tropical Herping’s core principles can be summarized by their three pillars: Photography, Tourism and Research (their website includes Education and Conservation, though these are encapsulated to a certain extent under the three main pillars). Let us look at each in turn.
The TH brand of photography is grounded in an aestheticism; glossy award-winning photographs of reptiles and amphibians. These photos are undoubtedly beautiful, not only do they inspire, but they also have the ability to set trends and inspire re-creation. How? Well, through their social media presence and following, each of the photographers supports and reinforces one-another and the company as a whole. This broadens their audience to include not only clients but other nature photographers and conservationists, beguiled by unbelievable displays of beauty and behaviour. They have brought in honorary members like Greg Basco (Deep Green photography), and Andrea and Antonella Ferrari and Juan Guayasamin (excellent photographers, and academics and educators in their own right*). They have also shored up their credentials through partnerships with respected institutions and lodges.
Alejandro Arteaga, branded as the academic in the partnership, works both in the lab, helping shed light on taxonomy and phylogenetic relationships, whilst also venturing into the field, sometimes discovering new species, or re-discovering those formerly thought extinct**.
With such a wealth of experience, and the passion to communicate it, it makes perfect sense to finance their fine conservation-minded goals through tourism. It sounds like a good business model, and in truth it seems to be, as they are expanding into other countries, developing partnerships, and establishing themselves. Currently, according to their website, they offer 8 trips (though their international destinations aren’t as clearly represented re. their Namibia, and Sri Lanka tours which don’t appear on their ‘tourism’ landing page, indicating that the number is closer to 10). These tours clearly have as their demographic tourists/professionals interested in reptiles and amphibians with some inclination towards photography (clients, whose photos come to resemble in some aspects those of TH, and undoubtedly employ similar methodologies).
These pillars are mutually supportive, with tourism ostensibly supporting academic endeavours, and funding conservation efforts. Education and outreach is done through their photography, exposing classrooms to reptiles and amphibians, de-mythologizing and trying to re-shape the narrative surrounding what have been a culturally and historically reviled and demonized group. In fact, they even summarize this in a flow chart – “Why come with us? 1. We Find you the animals 2. We help you get the shot 3. We use the money to fund our research 4. We use the money to save the Choco rainforest.”
I have no reason to doubt any of these claims. In theory, these are all good things, and on the surface, if one doesn’t delve beneath the gloss of the photo, then one would rightly be impressed with the efforts and actions of these motivated, young men. If the story ended there, I wouldn’t feel compelled to write this piece and I would laud their efforts alongside their growing list of partners. However, the story goes deeper, and it’s all too fitting that for a company specialized in herpetological endeavours that they should be represented warts and all.
In April of last year, while working on the Sani Project in the eponymous Sani loge, just outside Yasuni national park, I had the mixed experience of working alongside two members of the Tropical Herping team; Jose Vieira, and Sebastian di Domenico. They were guiding a couple of Eastern European tourists on their 100 species tour around Ecuador [A brief digression: the 100 species tour as TH describes it]:
This tour involves a trip to Mindo, the Choco and the Amazon. The tour is meant to illustrate the huge biodiversity of the country and to afford an appreciation of the incredible herpetofauna. The reality is quite different. Respect to their subjects is an afterthought, wildlife is commoditized, personal responsibility is avoided, and constructive criticism is met with hostility and/or avoidance.
My experiences with TH up to this point had been agreeable if superficial. I’d have the occasional online chat with either Lucas or Alejandro, perhaps we’d exchange a brief mention of future projects, allusions to collaboration, or trade compliments over photos. When the two TH guides came to Sani lodge, my experience was altogether different [It should be noted that I wasn’t looking to criticize or even engage in their tour, beyond offering my services to aid them in logistics, and to help locate them herps (which I did, finding them an anaconda, and my assistant helping them locate a yellow-phase boa (which earned a place in their Amazon Reptiles Field guide))]. What I observed, however, disturbed me. As the group left for a night walk, the guests were told to leave their cameras behind. I thought this odd, TH placing as much importance on photography as they do, and their justification (potential water damage to equipment through rain or capsized boat) rather weak. Accompanying them in the canoe gave me an appreciation for their abilities as herpetologists. They identified calling frogs to species at the lake’s edge, and pointed out barely visible snakes, twined around the branches 10M above our heads. I was rightfully impressed. As the boat landed, we continued together for 1.5hrs, and then I was left to return with their guests, an impromptu decision I was taken aback by, but acquiesced to, as the pair of guides ran about collecting animals in plastic bags which would later pile up into overflowing mounds on their hotel beds.
I observed that these animals were kept for longer than 48hrs, despite the guides’ insistence to the contrary. Oftentimes these bags had little air, and little or no water changes (a point which struck a cord, as I recall re-filling the plastic bags with air, as they went about their photography).
Up to this point I had some reservations, but despite a philosophical objection to removing animals from their native environment (I am admittedly guilty of the same with respect to arthropod life), I felt that if the animals were handled responsibly (and there was no indication at this point that such was not the case, and as one assumes that a professional herpetologist, and tour guide under the watchful eye of their clients would be) and returned to the site of original removal, then the resultant stress and damage if minimized, might be justified. This was not the case. The following evening I had the opportunity to observe their methodology. Their website, with its aesthetic wide angle shots juxtaposed with antiseptically clean, white panel photos, and crafted language is deceptive, and literally white washes the blood and shit from terrified animals, and celebrates a truly ugly behaviour. Their message proclaims boldly:
Your white background photography must be done ethically, legally and justified under the scope of a scientific project, never for the sake of achieving an aesthetic image. As such, you must proceed in strict accordance with the guidelines for the use of live amphibians and reptiles in field research, and only in the presence of a trained herpetologist. Finally, make sure to contact us to make sure which procedures you can use that have been reviewed by the Minesterio de Ambiente del Ecuador (MAE) and specifically approved as part of obtaining the field permits for scientific photography.”
Yet, calling oneself ethical does not make it so, and painting oneself with this cheap veneer as they’ve done here, serves only to underline the sad hypocrisy of their actions (whilst undermining trust in others doing genuine good), because let me tell you what follows in the wake of their ‘ethically taken’ white background photos…something like this.
Amounting to a living diorama, I watched as the TH guide removed the dart frog from its plastic bag and placed it atop some carefully placed leaves, gently rearranging them until he had hit on the right composition. “The middle of the Ecuadorian rainforest”, all from the comfort of the hotel room. Upon finishing, the dart frog was placed back in its plastic bag, awaiting release (assuming none of the TH guests wanted to take photos, which would entail another white-wash cycle, rinse and repeat). But you know, 👍, right? This was a simple, relatively benign breach of trust in a misleading caption. However, how about below?
When behaviours are forced/elicited ex-situ in the hotel room-cum-impromptu studio, and passed off as natural, should we be so laissez-faire? When no mention is made of the abusive manipulations needed to get a shot, a shot which is portrayed and even self-branded as “ethical”, is that just how the sausage is made? Not the shot that was satisfactory mind you, not the shot that follows the Herpetological Animal Care and Use Committee (HACC) guidelines and that they themselves reference and allude to following, but the shot that they wanted, aesthetics before ethics. The shot that TH wanted, regardless of the stress to the animal, and regardless of the biological realities which manifest in normal, observable behaviours. This is no longer turning a blind eye, but rather a form of diabetic blindness, overdosing on eye candy.
It’s difficult not to indulge the senses, is it not? These photos come directly from Alejandro Arteaga’s portfolio page at TH here, and they’re undoubtedly beautiful. But how many of these shots were manipulated, and how many observed free from human intervention? The lack of any formal disclosure regarding handling, or manipulation (even on sourced images on Facebook/Instagram/etc…) makes it difficult to know, but perhaps an impartial herpetologist in the crowd might hazard a guess in the comments below? I’m no herpetologist, but let me tell you a story of behaviour, both natural, and unnatural, both human, and herpetological.
This story ends with a beautiful image of a coral snake feeding on a lizard, much like the 5th image, 1st row (link). It’s an image of an astonishingly rare behaviour in a cryptic, uncommon creature, all caught in stunning detail. It’s the kind of image wildlife photographers aspire to, and the kind none should debase themselves to take. It’s an image shot with one eye to composition, and the other on the growing LIKES and reactions beneath the post.
But this image has more ignoble origins. It begins on a sterile white board with 2 flashes pointed at 45 degrees, a little something like this:
The snake, arranged and re-arranged into complacency, is made to form a ‘perfect’, sinuous shape. The loops and hoops of its body, shaped by white mugs, placed in the nooks and edited out in post-processing, and its tail held down by gentle pressure, perhaps a weighted snake stick. It may have thrashed a little to begin with, but after some minutes it begins to tire, and it becomes pliable. A pair of forceps in hand, the shape is moulded into position, and the photo is taken, meeting all the criteria:
“a) Eye and head scales in focus; head slightly raised, showing infra-labials, and closer to the camera than any other body part. b) Body curves not overlapping so dorsal scales can be counted c) Spacing between coils should allow proper lighting of the entire body and d) Tail not hidden and facing away from the direction of the head.” – Guidelines
Work dispensed with, the herpetologist can now take some “natural” shots. Heading outdoors, he selects the perfect log and places the snake on it. Still tired from its earlier exertions, it senses a change in the environment and makes a dash for freedom. But it is brought back to the log time and again, hooked by snake stick, or else grabbed by a gloved hand. Once again it settles into submission, and allows its limp body to be maneuvered into position. Maybe something like this:
Only somewhere along the way, through mishandling, or perhaps an errant step while chasing down the snake, it is stressed, possibly even mortally wounded, and regurgitates its prey. Some species can be quite resilient, though many are fragile. Unable to bite like a pit viper, despite possessing a potent neurotoxic venom, the snake regurgitates to facilitate a flight response. As the tail forces its way out, slowly followed by the rest of the lizard, the sequence of shots, when run in reverse look almost as though it could be eating. A tragedy no doubt, but it would be a shame for it to have suffered or died in vain, no?
How about now, have any lines yet been crossed? Do you see these beautiful images from the other TH team members in the same way? It’s difficult for me, but I can no longer see these images, even those that appear natural, without wondering, “How was this made? How was the subject treated? Did the photo justify the discomfort, stress, death?” Once trust has been breached, it corrupts all facets of the relationship, and its proxies. Even though their partners may have no idea of the TH methodology, and even if they did, they may not participate in it themselves, the association is there, and it saddens me to have to think in those terms.
TH Profile from Lucas Bustamante HERE
TH Profile from Sebastian di Domenico HERE
TH Profile from Jose Vieira HERE
As the TH team and guests left Sani lodge, their rooms left in a state of disarray, the putrid odour of animal excrement hanging in the air, and the specimen bottle that I’d loaned them in the trash, a dead frog already moulding the inside, a malaise settled in my stomach, gradually coalescing into a need for change. I’ve tried to be patient, I’ve tried to engage in dialog with both TH, and with my Facebook followers. I’ve tried to bring awareness to the subject, and by presenting my own failings, try to explain how one can slide, and yet strive to be and do better. What I see is the old maxim, “familiarity breeds contempt” or at least flimsily fabricated caveats, allowances and self-justifications. The Tropical Herping team is the symptom of a deeper problem, one which has become systemic in wildlife photography – commoditization of wildlife.
On a final note, one might be tempted to think that this is an unmitigated attack, and wonder how I can be so callous to people I purportedly call friends. It’s a legitimate question, and one answered in the second line. It’s precisely because I value friendship that seek to push them to be better, because I know that they can, and I am rooting for them to do so. Every member of TH is a talented, and driven photographer. However, the shortcuts that they’ve taken are unacceptable, undermine the genuine good that they do, and their clients, followers, etc…have a right to know just what they are helping to support.
Pursuant to a conversation with TH, I have taken down the photos which they deemed infringement on their copyright hence the somewhat bare look of the current blog form. They have so far declined to comment, stating that the article was “information not based on facts”, but offering little in the way of elaboration, except a link to a newly created set of ethical guidelines. I offered the concession of pulling down the blog whilst they formulated a response, which I promised to further incorporate into the blog, one which would be rewritten to offer a fair counterpoint to my own experiences and those of trusted sources, however, their lack of motivation and denial of accountability has prompted me to repost whilst awaiting their response.
If you’d like to add your voice to the discussion, I encourage you to head to the Facebook thread.
My own ethical struggles can be explored in greater detail in the following links:
A discussion on LIKES, and their negative impact on behaviour
The creation of Ethical Exif
The Sani Project is a closed Facebook group (though anyone is welcome, just ask) with various discussions about nature photography, behind the scenes, with my own poor ethical choices used as examples.
*I have no relationship with any of these photographers or educators, and do not wish to insinuate or implicate them in anything with respect to their methodologies. The article refers to TH only.
**The re-discovery of the Pinocchio anole, a sensitive and restrictively distributed species which should enjoy the protections afforded to at-risk species has become a money maker for TH. Guides will climb into the trees, and bring down the anoles for their guests to photograph. Stressed out animals photographed in outdoor studio environments. This is not the mutually beneficial connection between research and tourism which they espouse.