Paul Bertner is a distinguished rainforest photographer with a background in cell biology and genetics. His bio describes him as feeling “kinship with the cockroach.”

Two days ago, he posted a blog alleging a slew of harmful activities being practiced by a prominent ecotourism organization, Tropical Herping.

Admitting his own hesitations at “outing” Tropical Herping (or TH) because its members are his friends, Mr. Bertner concludes that—due to a lack of action being taken to address his concerns—it is necessary he do so. In dramatic fashion, he claims TH puts “the con-in conservation.”

What is TH?

TH logoTropical Herping was founded by two herpetologists as “an initiative striving to preserve tropical reptiles and amphibians through tourism, photography, research and education.”

In essence, TH’s beautiful photography—posted on its social media accounts— lures tourists to its programs, the payments for which then provide the resources the group needs for research and education to aid conservation. “It sounds like a good business model,” Bertner admits, noting they currently offer 10 different trips.

What are They Accused Of? 

Bertner’s accusations stem from the “mixed experience” he had working alongside two TH members last April in Sani loge, Ecuador. While not a guest on the trip, Bertner offered to help with logistics, and was “disturbed” by what he witnessed. This includes, allegedly:

  • Animals being rounded up, placed in plastic bags with little air and little to no water, and kept for longer than 48hrs, “despite the guides’ insistence to the contrary.”

    Screenshot courtesy Bertner’s blog post via “promotiona; Tropical herping video”

  • Images of animals “in nature” which are in fact curated by guides as if in a “living diorama,” with the animal only to be subsequently returned to its plastic bag.

    One of the images Bertner claims was staged.

  • TH putting “aesthetics before ethics,” doing whatever it takes to get the gorgeous images they place on social media “regardless of the stress to the animal.”

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    Via Bertner’s blog, as he explains: “One of my least favourite shots from Sani lodge which now serves as a constant reminder of poor practice to me. This subject was one of many subjects collected by Tropical Herping working on a photographic field manual of Herps in Ecuador. This parrot snake (Leptophis ahaetulla) was played with. Grabbed by the tail and gently swirled in circles. Then it was gently batted about the head, to engage in an open-mouthed threat display. This occurs naturally to a certain extent, but with more stress, the defensive gape is held for longer. There were more than 30 different individuals, each experiencing greater or lesser amounts of abuse, and all held in sub-standard conditions over the course of days. Held in plastic or cloth bags, they were stressed out, mishandled, at least one died to my knowledge, and at the end they were translocated beyond where they were caught.”

In short, Bertner argues, TH—while supported by a group of right-minded conservationists—has fallen prey to the “commoditization of wildlife,” treating it as a storehouse to be racked for pleasing images. For him, these images can no longer been seen without wondering “‘Did the photo justify the discomfort, stress, death?”

Response 

Requests for comment from TH went unanswered, but one of its members has been commenting on Mr. Bertner’s Facebook thread sharing the original post. It reads, in part:

“Your post portrays TH in a very negative way and I find that rather unfair – some of your points are quite understandable, others less so and are apparently due to a personal motivation. Without getting in detail, I would like to add that the practice of collecting animals to photograph them later on under controlled conditions has always been used by 99.99% of herp (and insect) photographers….We always found TH’s field practices to be fair, practical, humane and respectful of the animals’ well-being and safety…I am really getting nauseated by the holier-than-thou attitude shown by way too many Facebook users, always ready to crucify others for what in reality amounts to insignificant details (especially in front of many other bigger and more worrying environmental issues).” 

To which Bertner responded he is glad that they have had better experiences with TH, and that the “negative” depiction in his post come from his personal experience. As for the commonality of TH’s practices, he responds—while noting the many pieces he has written about his own regrettable experiences commodifying animals—that just because all photographers engage in a certain practice “doesn’t make it right.” 

 

Feature Image Courtesy Marius Masalar