Ethics in Herping

In the process of herping, a photographer or an enthusiast may face several moral and ethical dilemmas. One must understand the importance of conserving and protecting the welfare of the animals that are being photographed and that no harm comes to them. Nature photos are best used in aid of conservation efforts, and not in the pursuit of personal glory.

This write-up consolidates a set of guidelines for herpers to abide by whilst out in the field. These guidelines can help document reptiles and amphibians in a scientifically viable way. These guidelines also help ensure the safety of both the subject and the photographer. This essay was adapted from Mr Nicky Bay’s Macro ethics page. Do check it out at this link.


  1. Safety
    You do not want to harm yourself or the animals in the process of photography. At the end of the day, safety is your responsibility. If you feel uncomfortable or unconfident in doing something, don’t do it. As a rule, never herp alone. Ensure you have each others’ emergency contact details and carry a simple first aid kit.
  2. Responsible usage of the photo
    Even after a photo has been taken, it can have a large impact. If the subject is endangered and is known to be a target of poaching, avoid releasing these photos to the public unless explicit permission is given for special usage (e.g. conservation projects). They might end up alerting poachers to the location of the animal.
  3. Respect for the animal
    Do not indignify the animal by irritating it to elicit a reaction. Trophy shots and handling shots are disrespectful and distressing to the animal.


  1. General Handling Guidelines
    It is usually unnecessary to handle animals as it unduly stresses them out. Before handling any animal, ask yourself, “Why should I handle it?” As a rule, amateurs should not handle any animals that they encounter.
    • When subject is consuming a meal
      Refrain from disturbing ANY animal that is in the midst of consuming a meal. However, do document it with discretion via photographs and videos as these are important observations of animal behaviour
    • When subject is engaging in a sensitive activity (i.e. Giving birth/laying eggs, mating, shedding etc.)
      This may be extremely dangerous both for the handler and for the subject. (e.g. Snakes are more irritable when they shed their skin)
  2. Handling Subjects
    • Snakes
      • It is highly inadvisable to handle snakes without the proper training.
      • More importantly, it requires experience to correctly identify snakes. Many snakes have evolved mimicry, making it difficult to tell different species apart.
    • Lizards
      • Many groups of lizards (e.g. geckos) can break their tails off when stressed. The tail is extremely important, as the lizard stores most of its energy reserves there. Avoid holding lizards by the tail.
      • Monitor lizards (Varanus spp.) have extremely sharp claws and teeth. Do not attempt handling these lizards without specialized training.
    • Chelonians
      • Many turtles and terrapins will expel their gut contents as a defense strategy when stressed. This causes undue stress to the animal; therefore it is not recommended to handle chelonians.
      • However if it is necessary to handle one (in the case of identification), one should always grasp the turtle firmly with four fingers at the plastron and the thumbs on the carapace. Take note that chelonians can have deceptively long necks and painful bites!
      • Do not handle sea turtles. They are endangered and are sensitive to improper handling. If you encounter a sea turtle laying eggs or hatchlings returning to the sea, observe them from a safe, respectful distance. Avoid making noise and shining bright lights on them.
    • Amphibians
      • Do not handle amphibians with bare hands. Most amphibians have extremely delicate and easily damaged skin.
      • It is also possible to transmit chytridiomycosis to amphibians by handling them. This fungal disease has caused amphibian population declines all around the world.
    • Crocodilians
      • It goes without saying that crocodiles can pose a danger. Simply observe crocodiles from a safe distance. Do take photos, but do not get too close to it. If it is on the trail, do not attempt to bypass the crocodile.
  3. Displacing subjects
    • If the subject was found under a rock, place the rock carefully back in the same position as it was originally.
    • If the subject is in a location that poses a risk to its own well being or to the safety of others (e.g. in the middle of a road, in someone’s house), it can be moved a short distance away to a safer location.
    • If the subject is handled for record taking purposes (e.g. measurements, sexing) do return it to the exact location that you found it in.
  4. Collecting subjects
    • Subjects should never be collected without an official permit from the National Parks Board. Collection of live specimens without a permit is considered poaching, which is a chargeable offence.
    • Dead animals may be collected to be deposited at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum for scientific records. Do take a shot of the ‘crime scene’ for record purposes.
      1. You may contact the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at 6516 5082 or the NUS Department of Biological Sciences at 6516 2692 (General Enquiries)
  5. Exposing subjects to artificial elements
    Some photographers create artificial scenes to capture unique photos. Such methods are very stressful and injurious to the subjects. They also lack scientific value. Some examples of unacceptable behaviour include:
    • Spraying water to create artificial rain – this can cause the subject’s body temperature to drop, slowing down their metabolic processes.
    • Artificially placing 2 or more subjects together. Reptiles are rarely communal. The presence of a potential competitor or predator may stress the subjects out.
    • Baiting subjects by placing food in the open to attract them.
    • Refrigerating subjects so that they are slowed down or incapable of movement.
    • Forcing subjects into unnatural poses, sometimes using strings or wires to control the subjects like a puppet
    • Gluing or restraining subjects in place to stop them from moving.
    • Before deciding to share such photos on social media in the future, consider how the photo may have been captured. Do not support photographers who undertake unethical practices.
    • Staged photography is possible without the use of unethical practices. However, photographing herps in situ is always preferred. Such photos are able to provide so much more ecological context.
  6. Equality of life
    • Learn to appreciate every life form with equal importance. A commonly seen herp has an ecological role of equal importance to that of a rare herp. Treat all life with the same amount of respect you give people.
  7. Learn to stop
    • Recognize when a subject is stressed out and when it is time for you to move away to avoid further stressing it out.
    • When herping in groups, minimize the amount of disturbance you cause for the animals and give way to other photographers. Don’t clamor for shots. This will ensure smooth, sustainable photography.


  1. Habitat damage
    • Refrain from cutting/plucking any leaves. A solitary leaf could be the essential cover for an insect against predators. Cutting leaves to unblock the photograph can result in the death of the organisms that they shelter.
  2. Littering
    • Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.
    • Always keep a spare plastic bag in your backpack to store any litter you may generate during your field trip.
  3. Personal Behaviour
    • Do not smoke.
    • Do not make loud noises/ play loud music while herping


  1.  Publicising photos
    • Before posting photos of the rare subject that you have just shot, consider the potential impact on the creature’s habitat. Poachers may get excited on seeing your photos and hunt for the subject.
    • If you do share photos online, remove EXIF data from the photo. EXIF data contains (amongst other things) GPS information. This data is easy for a poacher to access and exploit. One way to minimize this is to disable GPS tracking on the camera being used. Alternatively, remove sensitive data in post-processing.
    • It is advisable to embargo photos of rare animals for enough time for the animals to move on before making the photo publicly available.
  2. Obstruction
    • When someone else is shooting, do not obstruct their view and do not stand behind the subject as you may become the photo’s background.
  3. Disturbance
    • Noise and sudden movement can scare away skittish herps especially frogs and lizards. Watch where you step and be quiet when others are shooting.
  4. Trophy Shots
    • Trophy shots and selfies with subjects are disrespectful to animals. Avoid doing this and discourage members of public from doing so as well.
  5. Education
    • If you spot others engaging in any unethical acts, be tactful in informing them. You can educate them on why the act is unethical and how they should behave.
    • If they are not compliant, report them to the relevant authorities. Do NOT attempt to take the law into your own hands.  This only serves to aggravate the situation.
    • For offences within the parks and nature reserves, call the NParks hotline at 1800-471-7300.
    • If it is safe to do so, tactfully document unethical behaviour with your camera to aid in any subsequent investigations.

Sharing of photos online is commonplace. These are scenarios that one would face sooner or later, either as a photographer, website owner or internet user.

  1. The Internet is unreliable
    • Do not wholly trust what you see on the internet. Even some reputable sources can have errors, always cross refer multiple sources or ask an expert on the subject.
    • Please credit the identification source. Proper identification can sometimes be complicated work, so credits should be due. ID credits also allows others to follow up with discussions.
    • Avoid identifying a subject unless you are absolutely certain or have consulted an expert who is certain. Identification is based on a specific set of characters. Subjects that appear “identical” in photos should not be assumed to be the same species. Conversely, subjects that look radically different can actually be different morphs of the same species.
  2. Image/Photo Distribution
    • Always assume that the photographer of any photo owns the copyright. It is NOT OK to:
      • Upload a copy of the image to your own website/page without explicit permission from the owner.
      • Resize, crop or manipulate the original image in any way not explicitly permitted by the owner.
      • Remove or replace any existing watermarks. Handling of watermarks should only be done by the copyright owner.
    • Locate and contact the image owner
      • Do a reverse image search to find other sites hosting the image. READ the content of the sites to find the owner of the image, and look for the photographer’s contact. The photographer put in a lot of effort and money to produce the image.
    • Avoid wrongful credit
      • Never credit “Google Images”, image aggregators, or a news agency.
    • Pass when in doubt
      • If in doubt, do not use the image.



The board above is an excellent summary of the rules when it comes to visiting any green space in Singapore. All parks under NParks will have these boards posted at the entrance listing what you can and cannot do. Do abide by these rules. You’ll have a great time!


Bay, N. (n.d.). Macro Photography Ethics. Retrieved March 19, 2015, from

We would like to thank Mr Nicky Bay of Macro Photography in Singapore for allowing us to adapt his page on ethical macro photography. We would also like to thank all the people who gave us advice on what we should include in this page!

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