Wildlife selfies – A conservation crisis

Picture This: Wildlife Selfies - a conservation crisis

Text Charene Labuschagne

From the Autumn 2022 issue

“When it comes to conserving wildlife and the environment, it’s more important to be outspoken than unspoken.” ― Paul Oxton

Imagine travelling the lengths of this planet, enduring long layovers, leg cramps and perhaps a chair-kicking child – all worth it for that highly anticipated moment when the wheels of a steel bird touch the tarmac and you are on African soil. A sigh of relief. Your holiday has just begun and you are undoubtedly off to the far corners of Namibia in search of rugged landscapes, natural wonders and untamed wildlife. 

You are sure to find breathtaking scenery, mountain ranges, valleys, bushveld and desert. But where are all the untamed animals National Geographic told you about? In this scenario, they are in captivity posing for selfies. 

There are roughly 16 threatened or endangered mammal species found in Namibia. This list includes both black and white rhino, African elephant and lion, giraffe, as well as leopard and cheetah. We can agree that these few mammals are quintessential to the safari experience and sighting at least one of them in their natural habitat is on almost everyone’s bucket list. 

Due to their endangered nature, many of these animals are in captivity. In the case of orphaned rhino calves, many of whom lost their life givers to poaching, their captivity is (or should be) for the purpose of raising and rehabilitation. Many mature rhinos are also in captivity and kept under close surveillance to help protect them against poaching. Cheetah and leopard, on the other hand, are often captured wild and relocated to captivity for posing threats to the local livestock farming industry. Instead of hunting the animals, they are sent to wildlife reserves. Additionally, many wild cats are rescued from the exotic pet trade and given a home in sanctuaries. Cheetahs have a hard time breeding in the wild, causing their population to plummet, and because it is highly illegal to breed them in captivity, the species has reached a sort of genetic bottleneck as more enter nature reserves.

In isolated cases, animals in captivity require human interaction. Rhino calves, for instance, need to be fed and nurtured by humans in order to survive the lack of their mother’s milk. Mature rhino often have rangers by their side, armed and prepared to defend the animal in a poaching situation. Some might require medical attention, justifying otherwise unnatural human interaction. 

There are however, no other reasons for wild captive animals to be intentionally tamed. They definitely should not be habituated when their captivity is under the condition they be rehabilitated and released. As you can imagine, it is merely impossible to authentically reintroduce wild animals to their free roaming, natural state when they have become accustomed to human interaction. Wildlife rehabilitation means aiding injured, orphaned, displaced or distressed animals to survive when they are released back into their native habitats. Providing medical care, arranging suitable release sites and humanely resolving human-wildlife conflicts is the backbone of rehabilitation efforts. Part of this effort is to undo the processes that make the animal encounterable and reinstalling a fear for humans in order for it to be successfully and safely released.

In the last two years (read pandemic), the tourism industry in Namibia and the world at large have been clutching at straws to rehabilitate a sector that is the bread and butter of so many households and individuals. We have had the opportunity to reevaluate the sustainability of our tourism model and make necessary changes to the way we operate. Unfortunately, some organisations have resorted to offering unique animal encounters in an attempt to sustain the large amounts of food the animals consume and roaming space they require, subsequent to keeping up with our times of Instagram-worthy experiences. 

Proximity-based activities currently offered in Namibia include physically interacting with rhinos, like sitting on their backs. Petting or walking with wild cats is also common, hand feeding giraffes is gaining popularity, and images of people hugging baboons frequently feature on social media. While elephant encounters such as riding and bathing are not on our roster just yet, the trend suggests it is the next species to fall victim to such activities. These activities require wild animals to become accustomed to human interaction, and their availability for tourists and locals alike can only be defined as unethical wildlife tourism.

Namibia’s conservation efforts have fostered the founding of game reserves in order to safeguard our abundant wildlife. It is under particular circumstances that wild animals are kept captive. Custodians of Namibian conservation strive to maintain the free-roaming nature of our fauna. The very last thing we want for our tourism and wildlife industry is to morph into a zoo, the likes of which is known to sedate, constrain and inhumanely handle animals for photo opportunities. 

Not all sanctuaries are created equal. There are accreditation organisations like the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) that evaluate the practices and operations of animal rescue centres with strict protocol on environment, activities and handling. Unfortunately their evaluation and greenlighting has yet to reach Namibia, making it everyone’s individual responsibility to research and question the operations of reserves and sanctuaries.

Not cool

Often, close encounters are marketed in the interest of conservation education. The sanctuary would sell the experience of engaging and taking photos with endangered captive animals, and the funds raised are said to sustain their maintenance and research. When an individual snaps a shot of a captive wild animal and shares it on social media, there is an opportunity to educate people on the conditions of their captivity, their conservation status and the valuable research conducted by the sanctuary. While the availability of these encounters makes it possible to keep endangered animals in safer environments, this message rarely comes across to the masses in a selfie snapped in isolation and taken out of context. The comment section is flooded with messages of envy, attraction and the word ‘cute’ and the experience is chased by a whole slew of people craving a photo opportunity. The chances of sharing valuable information are negligible.

You may not consider yourself an influencer, but even a handful of followers, when exposed to an image of riding a rhino or walking a cheetah, are directly influenced. Close contact is made desirable and safety is assumed. Whether you have 40 or 40 thousand followers, they see your experience and may venture to replicate it without the education and resources to know any better. Pictures of people interacting with endangered animals are not a prerequisite to engaging individuals in wildlife education. On the contrary: images of contact-based encounters, no matter how well intentioned, promote unethical wildlife tourism. 

Regardless of how docile a wild animal appears, their instincts are innate and accidents do happen. Not if, but when a wild animal becomes distressed from human interaction and harms someone challenging their boundaries, the animal bears the brunt and may be euthanized for threatening the human’s life. In 2016, one day after his 17th birthday, the male silverback gorilla Harambe was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo after a three-year-old climbed into the animal’s enclosure. 

The images we share on social media have a direct impact on the way our audiences perceive wildlife, their suitability for close human interaction as well as their conservation status. In a survey conducted in 2018, researchers asked members of the general public to view four images of wild cats in different settings and respond on the desirability of interacting with the animal, its conservation status and its suitability as a pet. When shown an image of a wild cat being petted by a human, respondents were more than twice as likely to perceive the animal as fit to be photographed with tourists, compared to being shown an image of a wild cat in its natural habitat. 

Often when people posting images of unethical wildlife tourism are confronted, they defend their post by claiming the interaction was consensual, that the animal was not visibly distressed and that they may have willingly approached the person in question. That is a condition of their captivity, however, and completely unnatural. If you feed a wild animal out of the palm of your hand often enough, they are sure to approach in the future because in their mind ‘human equals food’. This is termed baiting, and it is counterintuitive to a wild animal’s rehabilitation. To the untrained eye, behaviour of this nature may come across as harmless, yet it is never in the interest of the animal. Not only do these activities perpetuate ideas of animals as performing spectacles, but subsequently bolster consumptive tourism regardless of ecotourism ideals. It harms their eligibility of ever being released and poses wild animals as catalysts of their own exploitation.

The two- and three-toed sloths of South America are captured by locals to pose for photos with tourists. Within a tour group, the animal is passed around and selfies are snapped day in and day out. When the sun sets and the tourists leave, the sloth is tied to a tree with rope, only for it to be untied and man-handled when the next group of visitors arrive. It is a matter of fact that the mere approach of humans as well as handling causes a significant rise in sloths’ blood pressure. These animals are favoured for their relaxed nature and face marking resembling a smile, which is often mistaken for comfort around us humans. The truth is, regardless of the visual cues given to us like approaching for food or staying around while we engage, we cannot know for certain that our presence is comforting to wild animals. It is best to respect their wild nature and avoid putting captive animals in stressful situations for a personal popularity contest and a couple of likes.

Fortunately, the surge in unethical wildlife tourism in Namibia is still reversible. Only a handful of locations currently offer proximity-based encounters, yet it is paramount to our collective conservation efforts that these activities be nipped in the bud, sooner rather than later. Organisations that sell these experiences might continue to do so, but as a travelling guest or adventure-hungry local you have the opportunity to keep them accountable. Rather than investing in unethical practices like photo opportunities or hand feeding, try looking into where you can donate to the research and development done by ethical wildlife trusts and foundations. An organisation’s website as well as their social media platforms will give you insight into whether their activity offering is ethical or not. Any mention of interacting with captive wild animals should send off alarm bells. Additionally, have a look at the images they are tagged in. The sanctuary may not post selfies with their animals, but guests and volunteers who took part in unethical activities might tag the organisation’s profile. 

During game drives and nature walks you can insist that a safe distance is kept from wild animals. Respected guides follow strict protocol when it comes to animal encounters, like rhino sightings. The guide will constantly evaluate the demeanour of the animal during an encounter and establish a window of time in which photos can be taken from a distance. As soon as the guide notices that the animal is disturbed by human presence the sighting and photo opportunity is concluded. No distance encounter with a free-roaming animal should last longer than 30 minutes. Not all guides follow these rules and might bargain on a tip for getting guests closer to a wild animal. If your guide veers off the track to chase a wild animal, or keeps you or the vehicle in proximity to an animal for an extended period of time, it is completely within your right to demand consideration for the landscape and free-roaming wildlife. You might be tempted to let it slide at the expense of a great photo or the desires of your tour group. Rest assured that speaking up in these compromising situations aids Namibia’s conservation efforts in tangible ways. The more guests insist on ethical practices, the less organisations will risk safety and conservation in the name of wildlife tourism. 

There are good selfies, and then there are bad selfies. Researchers at World Animal Protection discovered a 292% increase in the number of wildlife selfies posted on Instagram between 2014 and 2017. When analysing the photos, 40% showed people ‘hugging, holding or inappropriately interacting’ with a wild animal. These are ‘bad selfies’. Although there is an incredibly blurry line between the good and the bad, better selfies feature no contact between the animal and human. In better selfies the animal is not restrained or held captive, they are in their natural habitat, and a safe distance is maintained. 

Volunteers, vets and handlers have unique interactions with wild animals in their line of work. And while wildlife reserves depend on the donations from volunteers and respectable work of vets and handlers, it is in the best interest of conservation that these interactions are not abused for photo opportunities. Volunteers who offer their time and money to learn about rehabilitation and conservation in Namibia are vital to the maintenance of sanctuaries. It becomes a problem when their experience tending to orphaned and injured animals destined for rehabilitation is shared on social media, sending mixed messages of what people can expect and demand from animal encounters. As for vets who do valuable work on wild animals, photography is a great tool for documenting these procedures. There is an opportunity to educate people if they do wish to share it on social media. However, the captions of images on Instagram in particular are rarely read, so the very image itself must say everything it needs to. It has become far too simple to re-share a picture and have messages of conservation get lost in the bewilderment of an exotic encounter. 

It comes as no surprise that in our increasingly digital age, the souvenirs we bring back from travels are photos – more than anything else. And what a wonderful souvenir it is to entice our friends, family and followers to invest in ethical wildlife tourism in Namibia. Perhaps the most important question to ask ourselves is why we need to feature in a photo with wild animals for it to be Instagram-worthy. What lengths are we willing to go to in order to tick sighting these threatened and endangered animals off our bucket list? Namibia’s abundant wildlife in their natural habitat is already as picture perfect as it can get, so it is time we sacrifice the aesthetics, hold each other accountable and safeguard the free-roaming wildlife population for generations to come. Now THAT is Instagram-worthy!

This is how to do it


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