Dangers associated with wildlife photography hides
Photography hides that allow tourists to get close to large carnivores pose a particular risk to local residents, seasonal visitors, hikers and others enjoying the great outdoors. The risk increases as more large carnivores begin to frequent an area and get more used to people. The tourists enjoying the chance to photograph the beasts are relatively safe, however.
The Finnish Safety and Chemicals Agency (Tukes) started a surveillance campaign on businesses that provide these kinds of nature photography services in 2018. Tukes is concerned about the safety of hikers and local residents in the vicinity of photography hides where tourism operators leave food out to attract predators. Based on inspections carried out during the campaign, the tourists themselves are relatively safe as long as the tourism operators conduct their business responsibly. Dangerous situations can arise, however, if photographers attempt to get close to the animals without the benefit of the hide to protect them.
Tukes learned about four close encounters between large carnivores and humans in the vicinity of wildlife photography hides in the late summer of 2019. Some of these incidents involved tourism operators’ customers, and some of the people in danger were others affected by the operators’ services. Tukes is looking into these incidents in cooperation with other authorities.
Large carnivores attracted by the promise of food
These kinds of nature photography opportunities are mostly offered to tourists in eastern and northern Finland. There are between approximately 25 and 30 service providers. Nine of these were inspected in the course of the surveillance campaign. The high season usually begins at the start of April and ends in mid-August before bear hunting season begins. Most tourists are interested in photographing bears, but the hides also attract wolverines, white-tailed eagles and various other species of birds of prey. Wolf sightings are rare.
It appears that most of the businesses that offer these kinds of nature photography services use fish carcasses and other waste, often supplemented by, for example, porridge, dry dog food and honey, to lure animals. Based on information gathered by the Finnish Food Authority, pigs found dead at farms and fish are the most popular by-products used for feeding.
The promise of food can lure a large number of predators to a small area. Approximately 40 bears are known to have visited a single feeding spot in one night. Even the least popular spots can attract between six and eight bears per night. The northernmost photography hides are also frequented by white-tailed eagles. According to the tourism operators, many of the bears and white-tailed eagles that visit their feeding spots come from Russia and return there afterwards.
Low risk to customers as long as tourism operators conduct their business responsibly
Tukes’s inspections of providers of wildlife photography services during the surveillance campaign focused on the operators’ safety management policies from the perspective of consumer safety. Tukes’s inspectors also visited the operators’ photography hides in person and interviewed representatives of the businesses.
All the inspected operators were able to present safety documentation that complied with the Finnish Consumer Safety Act. In a few cases, the inspectors had to ask an operator to revise their policy.
Tourists are mostly at risk when they arrive at the site and when they leave it. Almost all the guides who take tourists to photography hides are highly experienced and knowledgeable about the dangers. Many also have first-aid training. Based on the inspections, tourists are given plenty of information in advance, and the guides are generally always either present or at least easily reachable.
There have been a few close calls involving individuals who are not part of a group. For example, Tukes’s inspectors heard stories about bear hunting and dog training in the vicinity of photography hides.
“Tourism operators who feed large carnivores must recognise the impact of their actions on the surrounding area and local residents. Feeding spots should be clearly marked, and photography hides should not pose a risk to the safety of others in their vicinity or their property”, says Senior Officer Jaakko Leinonen.
Representatives of Tukes, the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the Finnish Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment and the Finnish Wildlife Agency reviewed the results of the surveillance campaign together in the spring of 2019.
Stricter regulation of carcass feeding needed
There are a number of laws that contain provisions relating to carcass feeding. Businesses offering nature photography services are subject to the provisions of the Consumer Safety Act (920/2011). The Consumer Safety Act is designed to ensure the safety of service providers’ customers and anyone affected by their operations. The amendments introduced to the Finnish Hunting Act (615/1993) on 1 January 2018 mention the use of food to attract animals to nature photography and observation hides. All feeding spots must be signposted with information about the operator, including their contact details and the address where safety documentation complying with the Consumer Safety Act is kept. The European Union’s Animal By-Products Regulation (EC No 1069/2009) contains provisions on the use of food to attract animals. There are also other reasons why people might put food out to lure animals, and not all use of food in this manner is related to services provided to consumers.
The provisions of the Finnish Consumer Safety Act only apply to service providers’ customers and other individuals and property directly affected by their operations. The other dangers of nature photography services that rely on the use of food, such as the risk of wild animals getting used to people, are governed by other laws. It appears that there is a need for more detailed regulation of carcass feeding in order to address all the different perspectives. The risks arising from changes in animal behaviour resulting from artificial food sources, the growing likelihood of encounters between different species of animals and the increasing influence of humans on the lives of wild animals warrant further study.
Tips for tourism operators offering wildlife photography services
- Never feed animals directly from photography hides.
- Never let your customers move around in the vicinity of photography hides unaccompanied, including when they arrive at the site and when they leave it.
- Always make sure that there is a way for any customers spending the night alone in a photography hide to call for help.
- Follow the Finnish Food Authority’s guidelines for feeding animals.
- Do not use honey, as bears that are accustomed to honey pose a serious threat to beekeeping.
- Build your photography hides as far away as possible from any livestock farms, apiaries, reindeer calving pens and human settlements to prevent damage.
Senior Officer Jaakko Leinonen, tel. +358 (0)29 505 2141 (consumer safety), [email protected]
Senior Officer Taina Heimonen-Kauppi, tel. +358 (0)40 489 3351 (by-products used for feeding and registration), [email protected]
Senior Officer Jussi Laanikari, tel. +358 (0)40 733 6229 (damage caused by large carnivores, hunting quotas for large carnivores and hunting regulations), [email protected]