The Sad Truth About Wildlife Selfies

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Leopard at N/a’an ku sê (Naankuse) Wildlife Sanctuary in Namibia, Africa

Wild animal selfies - we've all seen people have them, or even had one ourselves. I often scroll through my Facebook or Instagram feed and lay eyes upon photos of people I know, smiling alongside a majestic animal, be it a tiger, a leopard or a bear. But what if I told you that sadly, animal selfies are cruel to the animals?

As the trend for animal pictures grows, it's becoming more and more concerning just how many people don't realise the damage that their images are causing for the animals involved.

I've put this guide together with the goal of educating people on the dark side of wildlife selfies and also how we can act more responsibly around wildlife and take part in activities which actually benefit animals.

So, What's The Problem with Wildlife Selfies?

There are numerous reasons why wildlife selfies are dangerous for wildlife which we will delve into in more detail below.

The issues caused by unethical wildlife tourism reach far greater than you might imagine. Below we will explore the true cost of that cute wildlife selfie you have been dreaming of snapping.

1. The Animals are Often Kept in Cruel Conditions

The conditions that some animals have to endure in order for you to have a quick cuddle of them and take photos are quite frankly horrific.

A famous example of the terrible conditions that animals have been forced to endure could be seen at Thailand's infamous Tiger Temple, essentially a tiger theme park which offered opportunities to cuddle and bottle-feed tiger cubs and taking photographs alongside adult tigers. The tigers were were chained and drugged so that the animals were docile. Ever wondered why the adult tigers were always lying down and sleepy in photos alongside tourists? Drugs.

Although Tiger Temple may have been shut down, there are countless other parks which operate in a similar way, such as Phuket Zoo.

It's not just tigers who suffer as a result of wildlife tourism. Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage which claims to be a sanctuary for elephants in Sri Lanka is a popular destination for travellers. Images on Instagram showcase the elephants bathing in a river and tourists have opportunities to stroke them, bathe them or merely get draw-dropping pictures besides them. Travel influencers with millions of followers have taken selfies alongside these elephants. However, why it may be fun and games for tourists, these displays are not good for the elephants.

Visitors have reported and photographed elephants at the orphanage which are tied up in chains. These chains have led to serious wounds on the animals' legs. Some of the elephants are even chained up in solitary confinement for up to 6 months. The keepers reportedly use a tool called an 'ankus' (which is essentially a spike on a stick) in order to train the elephants, threatening them with the sharp utensil if the elephants do not obey.

The same terrible treatment can be said for any elephant which is forced to take tourists for rides. Elephant riding is simply unethical.

An elephant I photographed in a national park in Sri Lanka - wild, as it should be

2. You May be Supporting Canned Hunting

In Africa there are ample opportunities to visit a park which offers you the opportunity to get hands-on with lions. Sounds amazing, right? Whether this is cuddling adorable cubs to walking alongside adolescent lions, the amount of organisations that offer this opportunity is crazy.

But what if I told you that the lions you are cuddling or walking alongside will one day be sold to a big game hunter to shoot? And because the lion has been habituated and sees humans as a friend rather than a threat, the lion will be an incredibly easy target for the hunter.

In South Africa alone there are over 8,000 captive-bred lions across 250 breeding facilities which all await this terrible fate. But the problem isn't just limited to South Africa. I have seen lion walks being offered by reserves in Zimbabwe, Zambia, The Gambia and Senegal - and these are just the countries I have looked into.

So by visiting a facility and paying to interact with the lions, you are supporting the canned hunting industry.

Lion at N/a’an ku sê (Naankuse) Wildlife Sanctuary in Namibia, Africa

A lion at an ethical sanctuary in Namibia which actively discourages photos with their animals

3. The Animals May Have Been Illegally Trafficked

Photographic evidence has been captured of wild animals being stolen from their natural habitat and then being sold at markets across South America. It is from markets like this where many animals are purchased in order to be used to generate money via wildlife selfies or hands-on wildlife experiences.

This is a huge issue in South America where animals are being snatched from the Amazon rainforest, many being captured by loggers as deforestation takes place.

If there was no demand for wildlife selfies and close interaction then the demand for purchasing wildlife would undoubtably decrease. People see animals as an easy way to earn a living - it isn't just huge facilities profiting from animal exploitation.

4. You May be Supporting Cruel 'Tiger Farms'

Shocking evidence has found that zoos or facilities across Asia which offer opportunities to take selfies with tigers are in fact 'tiger farms'. Tigers are bred at these facilities and are used as a tourist attraction whilst the tigers are young and cute. Behind the scenes, things are much darker than they outwardly appear.

There are many tigers kept at these facilities which viewers don't see, which are being prepared for slaughter. Even the tiny cubs that are being cuddled and bottle-fed will at some point move to the behind-the-scenes facilities in order to succumb to a cruel and senseless end.

This cruel practise is fuelled by high demand for tiger parts in countries such as China.

Stock image of a tiger from Unsplash

5. You are Encouraging Unnatural Animal Behaviour and a Dependence on Humans

Taking selfies with wildlife in their natural wild habitats becoming increasingly common. There's no doubt that these animals have far better lives than their caged counterparts. However, there are still issues with getting so close to wildlife. For starters, we can transmit diseases to these animals and cause them great discomfort by being so close. How would you feel if someone stomped into your home and tried to get close to you?

Many people feed wild animals to encourage them to get close. Feeding wildlife is a bad practise. Not only could the food be damaging for the animal (feeding ducks random bits of food like bread, popcorn etc has led to obesity and deprivation of nutrients in so many animals) and for the environment (feeding by humans often promotes overcrowding of species which leads to habitat degradation), but the animals become used to human company and some even become reliant on humans as a source of food. A wild animal losing their fear of humans is a terrible thing as it puts their lives in danger (not all people are good) and encourages the wildlife to act aggressively. Heard of the aggressive monkeys at Monkey Forest in Bali who frequently attack people?

5. You Are Unknowingly Encouraging Other Tourists to Support Animal Exploitation

Even if your selfie taken with a wild animal was completely innocent - be it taken at a genuinely ethical sanctuary or even in the wild - you are still promoting animal cruelty. How? Other people will view your image and may aspire to take a similar image. Not knowing the context behind the image and being oblivious to the cruelty that often takes place in order for people to take wildlife selfies, they are likely to visit an unethical zoo in order to get their snaps. Even if you try your best to explain that the image you possess was ethical, there is still a risk that tourists will go down the unethical route in order to get their dream image.

Caracal Walk at Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary Namibia

A caracal at an ethical sanctuary in Namibia which actively discourages photos with their animals

Are All Organisations that Offer Wildlife Selfies Bad?

Yes. If a facility is promoting taking photographs of you alongside their animals it is highly likely they are exploiting their animals. A genuine organisation would not promote this activity.

Are All Organisations that Offer Hands-On Wildlife Experiences Cruel?

No, not all organisations that take-in animals are created equal.

Genuine sanctuaries and orphanages which are a refuge for injured and orphaned animals do exist. However, the ethical places may not be so easy to find. Just take a look at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage which claims to rescue elephants but then uses them as tourist attractions.

Whilst there are undoubtably many genuinely ethical sanctuaries and animal orphanages out there, it is best to assume a place is more likely to be harmful for wildlife rather than beneficial, rather than the other way around. Through careful scrutiny and research you can then uncover which wildlife sanctuaries are genuine.

Over my years of travel I have encountered a handful of ethical sanctuaries that genuinely care for their animals and are doing their part in helping wildlife conservation.

N/a’an ku sê wildlife sanctuary is a glowing example of an ethical sanctuary. They offer opportunities to volunteer at their reserve where you can spend several weeks looking after and learning about the animals in their care. The sanctuary is also open to day visitors who wish to take part on a half day or full day activity. Some of the activities include hands-on interaction with animals such as their cheetah and baboon walks. A good sign is that the sanctuary specifically states that you cannot take images of yourself alongside their wildlife.

Another example of an ethical sanctuary is the Elephant Transit Home in Sri Lanka, a haven for elephant orphans and injured elephants. Tourists can visit the sanctuary and view feedings of the baby elephants. The sanctuary strictly prohibits any tourists from getting close to, touching, feeding or taking photographs alongside the elephants in their care. One of the most incredible things about this sanctuary is once an elephant is fully recovered from their injury or the orphan has grown up, they release the elephant back into the wild in the neighbouring Udawalawe National Park.

Elephants on safari in Udawalawe national park, Sri Lanka

Wild elephants in Udawalawe National Park - they could have once been rescued by the Elephant Transit House before being released back into the wild

How Can You Tell is a Sanctuary is Ethical

If you are considering visiting an organisation which offers hands-on wildlife experience, here is a check-list of things to look out for to determine if the experience is exploitative to the wildlife or not.

1. Does the organisation promote or charge for wildlife selfies?

This is a big no-no. Avoid like the plague!

2. Are the animals tied up or restrained at all?

Look at images on the organisation's website, social media pages and also online reviews. Look for any sign of restraint on the animals such as a chain, rope or even a leash. Also see if any online reviews mention seeing these items. If you see any mention of this, avoid!

3. Are the animals sleeping or docile in photographs?

Look at images on the organisation's website, social media pages and also online reviews for any evidence of the animals laying down in images alongside tourists. If there are, avoid!

4. Where are the animals kept? Is it in a natural environment?

If the animal is in a large enclosure that resembles that of its natural habitat, this is a good sign. However, if the animal if in a room, a tank or a small cage or in any form of human environment, this is a bad sign. It's not natural to keep an animal in these conditions and will cause distress to the animal. Avoid!

5. Is there a constant stream of baby animals at the sanctuary?

Whilst baby animals are of course genuinely rescued from time to time, if there is a constant and steady stream of baby animals at a sanctuary, you have to question whether or not the 'sanctuary' is breeding the animals. A real sanctuary would never breed a wild animal as any animal bred in captivity will likely spend their entire life in captivity which is against a true sanctuary's ethics.

On the other hand fake sanctuaries and zoos often breed wild animals. Tourists interact with them as cute babies and as they age they are then sold on. The animal could be purchased for canned hunting, to be slaughtered and turned into Chinese medicine or even sold to the exotic pet trade.

Seeing constant baby animals at a sanctuary is a big red flag.

6. What kind of animals will you be interacting with?

Some fully-grown animals are incredibly dangerous, even when they have been raised by humans. These animals are not fit to have hands-on interaction with as the danger for tourists is too great. Animals which fit this mould include: lions, tigers, leopards and bears. Therefore if hands-on interaction is mentioned with any of these animals, I would avoid. There is a chance the animals have been drugged. Even if they haven't been drugged it is completely irresponsible to allow people to get so close to these animals.

Does your sanctuary pass all of the above?

If the organisation which you wish to visit passed all of these questions then great, they may well be a true haven for a wildlife. The most important thing is to research, research, research! Read as many online reviews as you can and look at photographs taken by previous visitors. These tell you so much. Also carefully read through the organisation's website to learn more about how the organisation supports conservation.

African Wild Dogs at Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary Namibia

African wild dogs at an ethical sanctuary in Namibia

What Activities can You Do Which Benefit Wildlife?

So you now understand the dangers of wildlife selfies and would like to take part in wildlife tourism which is not only ethical but could be beneficial for wildlife and conservation. Here are ways in which you can have an amazing experience around wildlife without contributing to their exploitation:

1. Visit a Genuine Wildlife Sanctuary

Genuine sanctuaries are a safe haven for injured or orphaned wildlife. Without these organisations wildlife which are in trouble would be left to fend for themselves and likely die. These organisations need our support as often they rely on charity donations and visitors in order to keep going.

Follow the checklist above to find an ethical sanctuary. Many sanctuaries offer volunteer programmes so you can really get stuck in with helping the wildlife.

Do your research to find a programme which works for you. I volunteered at N/a’an ku sê wildlife sanctuary in Namibia and would highly recommend the volunteer experience. If you are interested in this programme I have written an in-depth guide to the volunteer experience here.

Cheetah at Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary Namibia

Cheetahs at N/a’an ku sê wildlife sanctuary in Namibia, waiting for their dinner

2. Go on Safari

Safaris are a great way to see animals where they belong - in the wild. But, as with sanctuaries, not all safaris are strictly ethical. There are countless private reserves across Africa which offer big game hunting or wildlife selfies. Do your research on any reserve you are considering visiting.

If you are unsure if a private reserve is ethical or not, a safe bet is to go on safari in a national park.

Done right safaris are a form of positive wildlife tourism. The money generated by the tourist industry goes into the upkeep and protection of the national park you are visiting.

The COVID-19 pandemic meant that safari lodges across Africa had to close down and even when open, tourist numbers were low. This had negative impacts for conservation efforts as the lodges and parks didn't have the resources to keep anti-poaching units going, as a result the number of animals poached increased. Furthermore, safari parks are a great source of income for locals. If the industry isn't providing enough income for the local population then there are risks that reserves could be replaced by other revenue-generating streams, resulting in the loss of valuable natural habitat for wildlife.

Therefore supporting national parks is a fantastic way to help wildlife conservation.

giraffe on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia, Africa

A giraffe in Etosha National Park, Namibia

Final Thoughts

I hope you found this article useful. More importantly, I hope it helps animals in future. If we stop visiting these cruel places, they will eventually shut down. But in order for that to happen, we need to spread the word.

I don't blame people who take selfies at these cruel places - they are uninformed. Many of these unethical organisations market themselves as safe havens for wildlife meaning that unless you are well-informed, it's easy to fall into their marketing ploys and believe you are supporting good causes.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever had an animal selfie?

Ella McKendrick on Black Rock Viewpoint, Kenmore Scotland

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