Wildlife Photos Reveal Dirty Tricks as Insiders Spill: “There’s a lot of fakery.”

From trained tigers to glued insects many photographers are revealing the fakery in this niche as one such photographer lost an award for allegedly using taxidermy in a shoot.


Capturing a shot at the entrance to a national park was how Brazilian photographer Marcio Cabral managed to create an image of an anteater but which was actually taxidermed. In the final edit the animal could be seen at the foot of a glowing termite mound but judges who had awarded him with a prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year award noticed that the animal was not alive and therefore stripped him of his award.


This marks an emblematic turn in what is now becoming a rather murky underbelly in the field with those claiming to document “wild” animals doing otherwise – Cabral denies the charge strongly, but if Cabral did use a stuffed animal it goes hand-in-hand with other reports such as luring animals in with bait, freezing or gluing insects into a visual position, hiring trained animals to create natural history images without disclosure to be more magazine-worthy.

“There’s a lot of fakery,” says the US photographer Clay Bolt, one of the judges in this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards. This wouldn’t be the first time a photograph has been judged to be a fake – the judging panel is composed of experts in digital trickery and experts in biology who have a strict criteria for ethical photography which must conform to the “gold standard” of the awards offered by bodies such as the British Natural History Museum.

Game Farms

In 2010, Spanish photographer José Luis Rodríguez also strongly denied creating an image of a species rarely seen in the wild because he had allegedly hired a tame Iberian wolf from a Madrid wildlife park; judges became convinced that the photographer had staged the shot and stripped him of his $14,000 prize. “It may be a beautiful image, but because it’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year, we want the animals to be wild,” says Bolt.

By visiting a game farm so-called “wildlife photography” can be totally taken out of context and is a common way for photographers to get shots. Without having to track animals down in their natural habitat, which would take days of waiting, confined animals can be photographed in closeup; these facilities are providing a more and more convenient way for photographers to get these types of shots. Animals such as cougars, wolves, snow leopards, grizzly bears, and Siberain tigers, have all beeen trained as “models,” and at places like Triple D in Montana photographers can pay anything up to $500 per 90-minute session with the animals.

The way in which certain creatures appear and the public expectation of how they look has been reshaped because of the pleasing aesthetics of animals that have been selected and well fed in order to appear in that way, especially pictures of game farm animals in particular. “I could show you two pictures: a skinny wild cougar hiding in a cliff face in the sleet, or a game farm cougar with a few extra pounds and a beautiful glossy coat in the snow,” says the Canadian wildlife photographer Alex Strachan. “A purist would want to see the wild cougar fending for itself, but 99% of people would rather see a photo of a big healthy cougar.”


The way that work is captured and the techniques used such be fully disclosed says Canadian photographer Laura Kaye who specialises in birds, but adds that there is nothing wrong with photographers documenting captive creatures provided they are well looked after. Owls can be baited for photography and the baiting of certain wild animals is not ethical according to Kaye. The great grey owl is an animal that is notorious for being elusive so when Kaye received a tip in early 2017 about where she could find a photograph of the owl she pursued it. When she arrived she noticed a group of photographers directly in front of the owl which had swooped down but it turned out that it was only due to the fact that a few metres in from of the cameras one of the photographers was throwing a live mouse out to bait the bird of prey.


“People who do this can get great closeup flight shots of the owl coming in and eating a mouse, but you don’t want predatory animals associating humans with food. You end up changing their behaviour,” she says. The disadvantage of documenting birds in their natural and wild state is therefore compromised by photographers who don’t have the same amount of patience that the more ethical photographers have: “It might take you a day or a week to get those photos that someone with a cooler of mice can get in five minutes,” she adds.

Animal Cruelty

Amphibians, small reptiles, an insects have a more grim fate than others as a consequence of fakery. “People do quite terrible things to small creatures, like putting them in the freezer [to slow their movement], supergluing them in place or attaching them to wires,” says Bolt. Online forums have highlighted the cruelty by suggesting ways in which to immobilize these tiny animals such as popping ants and dragonflies in the freezer of smearing vapor-rub around spiders to restrict their movement.

A whimsical and eye-catching photo of a frog “riding” a beetle went viral in 2015. The picture had been taken in a “natural but controlled environment – the shot was not prepared at all,” the photographer later said but conservationists noticed that the frog’s open mouth indicated distress and pointed out the incongruity of the frog being a nocturnal animal, again suggesting cruelty in getting the shot.


A single image can be made in Photoshop of two animals photographed separately, backgrounds can be altered, like removing floating debris from an underwater shot, for exmaple, and colours can be enhanced – these are just some of the ways that photo-editing software can be used to make tweaks that are becoming more and more common in wildlife photography. The insistence by publications associated with reputable competitions demand that the raw files be submitted for closer inspection and changes made digitally then become relatively easier to detect, however. “Digital images leave quite a specific record, so you can tell if a photo has been tampered with,” says Strachan.

The British wildlife photographer David Slater says that “all professional photographers are guilty in some degree”, because of the difficulty they face in making a living. “If you try for the genuine shot, you are less likely to be published. That’s why most photographers will push their own ethical boundaries.” Slater well knows the economic challenges of the field: he is best known for capturing the infamous “monkey selfie” that became the subject of a protracted legal dispute over whether Slater, a crested black macaque or no one should hold the copyright to a self-portrait taken by an animal. While the photographs became world famous, Slater earned almost nothing, and considered turning to dog-walking when he was forced to defend himself in a copyright infringement lawsuit putatively brought by the monkey.

Money Talks

But the point is clear, images that are questionable ethically are being driven by a market and media industry that places increasing financial pressure on its participants, Bolt has argued: “budgets are super low and everyone is in a hurry to get content out,” he says, adding that only leading publications such as National Geographic have the resources to do due diligence on the provenance of images.


The authenticity of genuine photos are now facing unwarranted suspicion and scrutiny due to the rise of fakery, a feature which, Slater says, adds harm to the bottom line of all photographers. For example, accusations of a staged image came against him when many assumed that a bee sleeping on a blade of grass might be dead, an image which was entered into the 2009 British Wildlife Photography awards. “Even when you do genuine photographs, people don’t believe you,” he says.

On the other hand, cheetahs and wolves that have been trained are used by photographer David Yarrow, whose black and white pictures fetch between roughly $14,000 and $83,000. Whether it’s art or wildlife photography depends upon how the picture is framed and how certain manipulations are perceived by those looking at the picture, he argues. “I am an artist. I make pictures rather than take them,” he says. “Nothing crosses the line in the art world. You can superimpose Krakatoa erupting in the background and Darth Vader coming over the hill.” Yarrow suggests that a shift in career might even be lucrative for Cabral: “That photo is now worth probably more as a piece of art.”

Words by Elijah (Content Marketer)