As experts discuss about the dangers of climate crisis and continuous habitat loss at the International Penguin Conference in New Zealand, they also warned about another problem that endangers the many lives of wildlife – taking selfies.
Experts believe that taking that “perfect selfie” with the animals is affecting and disrupting animal behavior.
Professor Philip Seddon, director of Otago University’s wildlife management programme, said the normalization of taking selfies with wildlife was harming animals. It was causing physical and emotional stess, interrupting feeding and breeding habits, and potentially lowering birth rates.
“We’re losing respect for wildlife, we don’t understand the wild at all,” he said during the global convention last week.
“The trouble with wildlife selfies is the images are often appearing without any context – so even if the message is promoting conservation or an ambassador programme, that message is lost and all people see are someone hugging a penguin, and want to do that too,” he added.
Seddon takes this issue seriously and even forbidden his students from posting pictures of themselves with local wildlife when they were studying and working, as he is fearful it will add to the rise of wildlife selfies online.
“We have an increasingly urbanized population around the world who are alienated from the natural world and whose access to wildlife is commodified and sanitized and made safe. So we’re seeing these very strange behaviors that seem weird to us as biologists – such as posing your child on a wild animal,” Seddon said.
The International Penguin Conference reportedly turned down a lucrative deal with a Dubai company, because of its use of wildlife selfies in its promotional material.
Researchers at World Animal Protection analyzed wildlife selfies for a 2017 report found that there had been a 292% increase in the number of wildlife selfies posted on Instagram from 2014 to 2017, 40% of which were described as “bad selfies.” This means someone was holding or inappropriately interacting with a wild animal.
A wildlife selife can be described as “good” if there is no contact between an animal and a human, the animal is not restrained or held in captivity used as a photo prop.
Philippa Agnew, science and environmental manager at the Blue Penguin colony in New Zealand, said selfies have an “indisputable” impact on penguins, which is why they ban any electronic recordings by tourists and staff.
“The back light on cellphones these days and the noise and the movement and flash of people taking selfies really stresses the animals,” she said. “Even though that animal doesn’t necessary look stressed, more often than not, they are.”
Seddon said they are looking at ways to use selfies with wildlife for good. One of their ideas is to target Instagram influencers and spread how to safely interact with the animals.
“Any image touching an animal is sending the wrong message,” he said. “We have to reinforce the fact these animals are wild species – they’re not here on our terms. They’re in a human-modified world, but not to the point where we feel we can touch them.”