Wildlife selfies – Are we Instagramming animals to extinction?

‘Selfie’ has become a much derided word; a symbol of all that is superficial in the age of social media and smartphones. But a 2017 report by the charity World Animal Protection (WAP) has revealed a darker side to selfies – with evidence that they are encouraging the abuse of wildlife, and even pushing some species towards extinction.

How can selfies harm wildlife?

As a tourist, you should never interfere with wildlife, either by touching it, picking it up, feeding it or coming too close. Approaching wildlife can scare it, as well as transmit diseases. Feeding wildlife can be harmful if inappropriate food is provided. It also encourages behavioural changes as animals seek out people in the hope of receiving food. This in turn leads to habituation, and animals that are not afraid of humans may stray onto roads, farmland and villages, where conflict can occur and the animals may be harmed or killed.
Any form of wildlife photography must always be approached with this is mind, but the issue with selfies is that, by nature, these involve much closer contact with the animals. Competitive tour companies realise this type of encounter is in demand, and guides might encourage tourists to get closer to animals than is advisable. In the worst case scenarios, animals have been captured and tied up or caged so that they can be handled and photographed by tourists.

Where is this problem occurring?

The Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon were the areas of focus for WAP. This may be a particular hotspot for unethical encounters as, unlike on an African safari for example, Amazonian wildlife is well hidden amongst the jungle vegetation. Out on the savannah, travelers in search for great photos will need a decent camera and a zoom lens. In the rainforest, however, a zoom is near useless, as any creature more than a few metres away will be obscured by dense foliage. African safaris also don’t particularly lend themselves to selfies; you can’t really pose next to a lion or a buffalo for the perfect profile photo.
The Amazon presents a whole menagerie of photogenic and harmless yet elusive species, from sloths and spider monkeys to toucans and anteaters. Even the ‘scarier’ species, such as caimans and jungle cats, can be deterred from attacking by having their mouth tied closed or being caged. In the Brazilian region of Manaus, 94 percent of tour operators were found to be offering the chance to use wild animals as photographic props.

Examples of unethical behaviour

The WAP report makes for depressing reading. Captive sloths are tied to trees, and will likely die within six months. A giant anteater is beaten by its owner, ocelots are kept in tiny cages, and toucans have horrific wounds on their feet. One hotel was reported to be keeping a manatee in a small tank, while tourists were encouraged to swim with wild pink river dolphins, clustering around them in lifejackets. As well as being cruel, capturing these creatures also threatens their survival; one in five of the species identified by WAP was classified as ‘Threatened’ by the IUCN.

Another danger of these practices is that the tourists themselves may be harmed. Docile sloths actually have a surprisingly fast swipe – and huge claws. Monkeys and rodents can deliver nasty bites. Tying an animal up does not make it safe. On the contrary; a caged, trapped animal will be defensive, aggressive and frightened.

Why is this a problem now?

Between 2014 and 2017, there was almost a 300 percent increase in the number of wildlife selfies posted to Instagram, with over a quarter of these showing people hugging, holding or otherwise inappropriately interacting with the animals.
It is impossible to know, of course, if this corresponds to an actual increase in the number of unethical wildlife selfies, or if these photos are just more widely visible now that these platforms exist. But it is easy to assume that apps such as Instagram, along with the ubiquity of smartphones and the peer pressure created by social media, do compel travelers to post ever more ‘impressive’ vacation snaps – including swimming with pink dolphins and cuddling baby sloths.

What you can do

Before booking a tour, ask your tour company if they allow contact with wild animals. If, once in the field, your guide encourages you to hug, touch or hold a wild animals, report this to the tour company and hold them to account on social media or review sites if they do not act. Report any captive wild animals. Don’t feed wild animals, or use food to lure them closer so that you can take pictures. Only take photos or selfies of animals which are in their natural environment, free to roam, and at a safe distance. Sign up to WAP’s Wildlife Selfie Code.

Incredibly, following the publication of WAP’s report and a subsequent campaign, Instagram launched a new ‘wildlife warning’ page which pops up when users search for terms such as #slothselfie. This page educates users about how these types of photos can harm animals. Given that the social pressure created by sites such as Instagram may be one of the reasons that users feel the need to post this kinds of photos in the first place, this new kind of pressure – through the creation of a moral code – could also compel them to stop. Campaigns and petitions really can work.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: AdA Durden] [Wildlife selfies intro: Frontierofficial] [Leopard: Frontierofficial] [Turtle: Adam Bautz]