Take only photos, leave only footprints: Why sustainable tourism is so important for Wiki Loves Earth

Wiki Loves Earth was created to collect a comprehensive database of free photos covering nature protected areas across the world. Yet, another ultimate goal of the contest, arguably not a less important one, is to attract attention to preserving nature. For that, it is crucial that participants take the approach of sustainable tourism and, while taking photos, help nature objects, not harm them. In this article, the Australian Wiki Loves Earth team shares their experience on how to ensure that, and we put this experience in the international perspective.

Australian experience: Take only photos, Leave only footprints

By Australian WLE Team

Over the last few years, Wiki Loves Earth participants have captured many stunning photographs of unique protected places. The world has captured something that had already been lost, whether it to fire, flooding, or some other natural event. We have also lost places due to human activity, such as the construction of roads or trees cutting. Other reasons are more subtle, be it seed collectors searching rare plants, or insect collectors who are looking for that one unique specimen. Another subtle impact is that cultural desecration of the sites which is causing offense to the Indigenous communities.

When Wikimedia Australia joined Wiki Loves Earth, we took a stance of “Take only photos, Leave only footprints”. It’s a saying attributed to the Baltimore Grotto, which was concerned about what impact their activities would have on the environment they want to enjoy. When we started to review Wiki Loves Earth submissions, this motto informed our decision to disqualify photographs whose authors obviously stepped over that mark. For example, we rejected photographs taken on top of rock Uluru, where the Indigenous owners ask that people respect the site’s cultural significance and don’t climb it.

“One mans trash”. This photo was taken on a dive at Rye pier, Victoria which is part of the Mornington Penninsula and Western port biosphere reserve. Katieleeosborne, CC BY-SA 4.0

In 2018, we decided to keep the “only footprint” concept, but we also chose to highlight what happens when it isn’t followed. In the photo named “One mans trash”, we can see an octopus taking shelter in a can. The can is likely there because fishermen throw open tins of cat food into the water to attract fish. Another image, “Bush fire in the Blue Mountains”, depicts a controlled burn or cold fire, which is used to prevent uncontrolled summer fires. The impact on the environment is not as grave as an uncontrolled bush fire which wipes away most of the flora and fauna. However, controlled fire still causes harm, has an impact on breeding, flowering, and seed production, even though it protects people’s property and lives.

View of the Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains. Julienicholls95, CC BY-SA 4.0

This year, we ask that participants practice the idea of Take only photos, leave only footprints when creating those magical images of our environment, which are so important to have a record of what might one day be lost. We encourage Wiki Loves Earth participants to help reduce the impact of man while taking photos by either taking away the rubbish or contacting the local authority and reporting things that are causing harm. That piece of glass you walk past today may start the fire next summer that will destroy the last stand of Wollemi pines.

Australian experience in the international context

While Australia is perhaps the only country which has adopted “Take only photos, Leave only footprints” as an official policy, a lot of local Wiki Loves Earth organizers and participants have been working hard to ensure the contest helps nature rather than disrupts it. There have been similar initiatives from the contest’s organizers in Spain, the Netherlands, and other countries.

There are examples of Wiki Loves Earth participants doing their governments’ job in attracting attention to the poor condition of natural parks, as well as helping maintain nature protected objects. For instance, we’ve seen such a situation in Ukraine, where some of nature protected objects suffer from underfunding and lack of maintenance. While such activity is not covered by the rules of Wiki Loves Earth, we strongly encourage any help for nature protected objects our photographs can do.

No matter the country, the main thing WLE participants should remember: The contest exists to help nature, not to harm it.

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