The #animalselfie you take, Profits the Black Market!

Fig 1- Kim Kardashian hugging a Koala during her 2014 Australia Vacation. Source: https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/wildlife-selfies-good-and-bad-1.4340944

Yes, the selfies you take hugging or petting wild animals promotes animal cruelty and sustains the animal selfies black market. The age of selfies is upon us. With every activity we find ourselves pausing to take a selfie. If you didn’t document it, you didn’t do it they say.

With selfies come a gnawing pressure to post unique photos; food, sunsets, parks or cute animals1. Instagram has more than 800 million users which is approximately 10 percent of the world’s population1. The business model of social media sites monetizes likes, igniting a need to increase traffic onto our personal pages1. With all the frenzy that comes with social media, we find ourselves doing crazy stunts, exposing more parts of our bodies, travelling to exotic places and posting many adorable animal photos and videos. Viral videos and photos gain us more social recognition which as social beings stimulates the reward system of our brains1.

Animals, we consider cute, trigger the release of oxytocin and dopamine in the brain causing a pleasure effect1. In other words, animals make us happy encouraging us to trust more which improves our social bonds and intimacy1. Studies have shown that these effects improve our emotional, physical and psychological well-being which surprisingly makes us more productive1.

Try watching a video of a cute animal at work and experiment for yourself (tell your boss it’s a social experiment and loop them in). Photos and videos of animals have a higher social standing on social media2. This has led to an increase in wildlife selfies online. Well-renowned celebrities have selfies of themselves with tigers, snakes, koalas among other wild animals3. The ripple effect of these photos have increased wildlife selfies with more than 290% in the past few years3.

Fig 2- The effects animals have on the human brain. The cute features increase our empathy towards them. Source: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3244601/The-science-CUTE.html

In some cases, photos of animals online have improved conservation initiatives2. These photos increase recognition of endangered animals hence increasing donation to their conservation3. Additionally, postings of camera trap footage online increase tourist traffic to these conservation areas2. The funds collected improve conservation work and community development initiatives. An animal like the quokka of Australia has benefitted from selfies2. Selfies of tourists with these marsupials surfaced online which led to them being branded ‘The World’s Happiest animal’2. Consequently, tourism in Rottnest Island, the World’s largest host of quokkas, increased which interestingly improved their conservation2.

A study conducted by Veronica Phillips, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Western Australia, revealed that there was a higher population of quokkas around tourism dominated areas than in the wild2. Moreover, the quokkas in these areas had larger bodies and reproduced a bit earlier in the year2. However, it is good to note that the effects of tourism in the long term have not been studied yet, therefore, there is still much we don’t know2.

Fig 3- Quick facts about the Quokka. Source: https://facts.net/nature/animals/quokka-facts

With the increased demand for animal selfies by tourists, zoos and animal parks offer these services at a small fee3. Some animals like big cats are actually bred for the sole purpose of being petted by humans3. These trends have led to animals being separated from their parents and natural habitats at a young age4. Unfortunately, the effects of selfies on animals can be detrimental to their behaviour, breeding and birth rates4. As humans, we don’t fully understand animal behaviour hence we mirror our emotions onto them. A distressed animal could look the same as a happy animal3. Tourists inappropriately interact with these animals ignorant to the stress they are causing them. Chronic stress increases the heart rate of the animal thus deteriorating their health status4.

Fig 5- What not to do while interacting with wildlife. These are the top ten disastrous wildlife attractions according to a study by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation and Research Unit (WildCRU). Source: https://www.worldanimalprotection.us/news/booking-vacation-summer-hoping-see-some-wildlife

Tour operators in towns that are gateways into the Amazon have been documented illegally taking animals from the tropical rainforest4. They do so to cash in on the fee tourists are willing to pay for photo opportunities3. The animals are passed from one tourist to another which is uncomfortable for them. Flashes of light and movement stresses the animals yet they have no option of retreating4. These animals are subjected to chaotic and noisy environments spiking their stress hormones3. Some of them are kept under captivity in harsh conditions while being fed low-nutritious meals4.

The stress inflicted on them could lead to a reduction in their birth rates thus reducing their survival rates4. Evidence shows that baby sloths taken from their natural environment die a few months later3. Imagine yourself in those conditions, restrained, away from your family and home, poorly fed, and subjected to constant sensory stressors like light and noise; how cruel and lonely is it?

Fig 4- Effects of taking selfies with sloths. Image by Nicolas Reusens/Getty Images. Source: https://slothconservation.com/ecotourism-selfies-animals-travelling-responsibly/

 Our urbanization and infringement into natural habitats, has us sharing our environment with wild animals. Photos and videos of people trying to take animal selfies then being confronted with aggression from the animals keep surfacing online3. People go out of their way to approach wild animals resulting in injuries and even death in some situations3. This has led to some animals being branded hostile; influencing our perception and attitudes towards them3. Seeking animals in their habitats affects their “normal” behaviour4. In Oamaru, tourists have been seen trying to pick penguins up on the shore disrupting their hunting and preventing them from feeding their chicks4. Disrupting animals could drive them away from their feeding or breeding grounds4.

To combat this issue, the World Animal Protection (WAP) released a wildlife selfie code in 20175. The code has instructions on safe ways of taking photos of animals. The photo should be taken a safe distance away from the animal5. They should be in a position to freely move in their natural environment5. You should not hug or feed the animal5. Moreover, Instagram generates warnings on some ‘hashtags’ to notify the user that the photo could be a damaging environmental practice3.

Fig 6- The Wildlife Selfie Code. Source: https://www.worldanimalprotection.or.ke/wildlife-selfie-code?from=international_en

In my opinion, more needs to be done. These efforts do not really influence human behaviour against taking selfies. Policies and laws protecting animals from close human interaction should be put in place. Sensitization of the online community needs to be done through sponsored ads informing the public of the effects of taking selfies with wild animals. Social media sites should give comprehensive warnings and flag all variations of hashtags since “#monkeyselfie” prompts a warning yet “#gorillaselfie” doesn’t3. Social media sites can be used as tools to sensitize the public on unsustainable environmental practices and their effects on wildlife and habitats. The selfie is not worth dying for, let’s protect these animals, shall we?

References

  1. Vogel E, Rose J, Roberts L, Eckles K. Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. 2014;3(4):206-222..
  2. Saved by Selfies? Biology Article for Students | Scholastic Science World Magazine [Internet]. Scienceworld.scholastic.com. 2017 [cited 14 November 2020]. Available from: https://scienceworld.scholastic.com/issues/2017-18/121117/saved-by-selfies.html#1040L
  3. Opinion | That cute animal selfie you took on vacation encouraged animal abuse [Internet]. NBC News. 2017 [cited 14 November 2020]. Available from: https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/cute-animal-selfie-you-took-vacation-encouraged-animal-abuse-ncna827911
  4. ‘It’s scary’: wildlife selfies harming animals, experts warn [Internet]. the Guardian. 2019 [cited 14 November 2020]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/03/its-scary-wildlife-selfies-harming-animals-experts-warn
  5. Butler A. How to take safe wildlife selfies [Internet]. Lonely Planet. 2017 [cited 14 November 2020]. Available from: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/articles/safe-wildlife-selfies-world-animal-protection

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