Tourism, selfies, and animals: are you traveling responsibly?
The tourism industry is a huge business. By 2020 it is estimated that 1.5 billion people will be traveling the globe as tourists, but here we want to highlight a particular trend that is rapidly growing in popularity; ecotourism. As most of the human population now lives in urban environments, surrounded by concrete jungles, they have easily become disconnected from nature and the wildlife that it contains.
Ecotourism and green tourism are gaining popularity because they offer an opportunity for people to immerse themselves in the landscape, adventure, sports, and of course animals. It allows us to get back to nature.
Ecotourism as a tool for conservation
Tourists arrive at a place looking for nature, this provides jobs and economic opportunities for local people, and thus local people make an effort to preserve the natural resource. A great example of this is the Pantanal in Brazil, where a new study published in Global Ecology and Conservation has revealed that jaguars are worth 60 times more to tourism than the cost the big cats inflict on ranchers.
Local communities are making the realization that jaguars are more profitable alive, and therefore ecotourism is starting to prevail above other economic activities that have a highly negative impact on the environment (such as logging, hunting or mining). It is a win for jaguars, a win for the environment, and of course a win for the local people.
The dark side of wildlife contact and sloth selfies
Of course, not everything is great when we mix tourism and animals, and many times visitors are not aware of the negative environmental impact that some tourist activities can produce. The international NGO World Animal Protection estimates that around 110 million people a year visit attractions that offer entertainment with wild animals.
This is a dangerous trend as over 550,000 wild animals are currently being held captive in order to supply the ever-increasing demand. In addition, photographs of people directly interacting with these wild animals often unintendedly endorse exploitation and mistreatment via social media.
The animals used have typically been snatched from their natural habitats, usually drugged, mutilated and are forced to survive in horrendous captive conditions.
(Note: Sloths do not sleep 20 hours!)
According to research completed by World Animal Protection (which counted the number of “selfies” showing people interacting with wild species that were published on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram), since 2014 the number of photos showing people with wild animals increased by 292% on Instagram alone, and sadly more than 40% are photos where the person embraces, holds or interacts inappropriately with the animal.
Going to an exotic destination this summer?
The situation in Latin America in particular is very alarming. It was found that 17 of the 20 countries that are part of the region offer tourist attractions with wildlife. Of the 249 wildlife attractions identified, 54% offered direct contact with wild animals, 34% used food to attract the animals and 11% gave the opportunity to swim with them.
40% of the selfies were taken by people from the Western Hemisphere including the United States, The UK, and Canada. The situation is aggravated when celebrities share to their millions of followers their own photos hugging animals because some fans tend to emulate the behavior of their influencers.
The curse of being cute, slow, and having a constant smile
The three-fingered sloth (Bradypus variegatus) is one of the most “liked” creatures in social media, occupying 3rd place in the most photographed species worldwide. It is therefore not surprising that these sloths are one of the most desired species for tourist who travel to Latin American countries.
Due to the sloths’ delicate nature and physiology, they are very vulnerable to human contact and usually don´t survive more than a few weeks in these dreadful conditions of captivity and management.
Unfortunately 70% of sloth photos on Instagram show people hugging, holding or using them as accessories.
Hugging selfies show animals as docile and friendly… And this makes people want them as pets.
The pictures of humans interacting with wildlife also encourage the idea that any species can be domesticated. Domestication is a very complex process, it took us more than 10.000 years to domesticate wolves into dogs! Certainly, you won´t domesticate a sloth or any wild species in a couple of years, even generations.
And finally, these activities encourage illegal wildlife trafficking, either for the purpose of ecotourism or to acquire them as pets. This is exacerbated in the case of the three-fingered sloth whose reaction to physical contact is to remain paralyzed, which makes it a convenient animal to pose with and take such photographs.
In addition, the sloth´s characteristic and perpetual “smile” is often mistakenly assumed to be an expression of joy or happiness, rather than a simple result of the animal´s facial musculature and coloration. As a result of all of this, it is wrongly believed that they are good animals to have as pets.
The regions that maintain the most “exotic pets” are the United States and the European Union. Sloths are the most trafficked animal from Colombia causing (along with other associated problems such as deforestation and loss of habitat) the decline of individuals in that country. You can read more about the pet trade issue in our previous Thinking about a pet sloth? blog entry.
Some sloths might not be so adorable…
Another related problem is the predisposition to invade the space of the animal in protected areas or national parks. Members of SloCo in the South Caribbean of Costa Rica have been witnesses over the past years to people bothering animals, offering them food, and even breaking the branches to lower the sloths from trees.
The two-fingered sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni) differs from the three-fingered sloth in that it is capable of a fast and aggressive reaction, with long, sharp teeth that can cause a serious injury. By not realizing this defensive behavior of the animal, many people are also exposed to risks such as injuries or infection. In the following video, you can see how hard it is (0:40 min) for professionals and rescuers to remove a sloth in an urban area.
The way we travel matters: Be a Responsible traveler
The campaign #IamResponsibleTraveller seeks to promote awareness about these issues. Never pay or participate in activities where you can hold or touch wildlife, avoid attending shows that exploit animals, and don’t purchase animal parts (“trinkets”) as souvenirs.
Being a responsible traveller is not only about being careful when you take a personal photograph without touching animals, it goes deeper than that.
Consider travel as a learning opportunity
First of all, think of traveling as an incredible experience to understand other cultures, idiosyncrasies, being empathetic and not judgemental, and to connect with what makes us humans: the same fears, loves, and hopes. And with the threat of Climate Change and a mass extinction event happening right now, we as humans need to be connected more than ever in our history.
As we have seen, bad tourism can produce a lot of suffering and harm – so how can we make a positive impact in the places we visit? It’s actually quite simple: learn some greeting words in the local language, be respectful with the culture, buy local and handcrafted products, share stories with members of the community, appreciate and care for the environment, the animals, and the people… And always, apply the wildlife selfie code.
Any small action can produce a big impact!
And when it comes to wildlife, visit shelters, rescue centers, and sanctuaries in order to support conservation initiatives to reintroduce animals back into the wild. You can even apply for volunteering (voluntourism?)! But always do your research about these places, make sure that the “rescue center” is not a facade or a tourist trap!
And of course, we highly recommend above all hiking and exploring the wild, and looking for the animals in their natural homes. After all, that´s the “real thing” and the best way to be in contact with nature.
But I still want to take a selfie with a sloth!
Ok, we understand, maybe a trip to the Amazon or the amazing rainforest of Costa Rica is a once in a lifetime opportunity and you really want to have a memento with your favorite animal. Just remember that you can still have a self-portrait without hurting the animal or being part of the awful industry that exploits them! Remember to always stick to the Selfie Code!
But what about my selfie stick?
Can I still use it to get my phone or camera to pose close to an animal? It won’t be ME next to the animal, just my device, so technically I’m not invading the personal space of the animal, right?… Well, you actually are.
When sloths open their arms like that, they are trying to look bigger, and they do this when they feel in danger, threatened of attacked. In other words, the sloth in the picture is showing a clear sign of stress. So even if you use an element like a selfie stick, you are still having direct contact with the animal. So keep it away too!
All of us together will make the difference to end animal cruelty
Incredible and ethical experiences of getting close to wildlife are possible. For example, you have the Pantanal in Brazil to see jaguars hunting caimans, or Costa Rica to see sea turtles nesting in Tortuguero, you can even birdwatch in the park of your city! All of these activities are regulated, so there is good tourism management in order to protect the environment and the resources. Make sure to always support sustainable tourist destinations, because YOU are the demand, so your choices are important.
But you still feel hopeless when you see the number of people participating in tourist attractions based on animal exploitation? We have some good news: a lot of people once aware of the abuse behind these attractions are willing to change. Most of them are animal lovers, and as soon as they know the damage that their actions can cause, they stop supporting these places.
In the South Caribbean of Costa Rica, SloCo is raising awareness of these issues by establishing permanent signage in high tourist areas to promote responsible “sloth tourism”, and to educate people on what they should do if they see a sloth being offered for holding or photo opportunities. You can read more about in The Pet Trade and Sloth Tourism blog entry.
The way we changed Instagram
Thanks to over 250,000 supporters of the Selfie Code Campaign by WAP, Instagram launched a “content advisory page”, to educate users about the issues these photos cause for wild animals. When users search for hashtags like #slothselfie, they will be presented with a warning message that tells them the “funny” selfies and photos they are searching for may be associated with encouraging harmful activities to animals.
The world is changing – fewer people support shows involving animals for entertainment and zoos are becoming scientific centers and sanctuaries. Tourism will change too: it is developing not to be a shallow activity, but to make people come together, to connect us with our humanity and with nature, that after all, is everything our civilization is standing on. So go on your vacations, enjoy your destination, and love the animals and the people!
Spread the word, share the message! Make your family and friends join this campaign in order to protect wildlife from being harmed as a tourist attraction! #TheHugIsNotLove #RealLoversDontHug #Summer #BornToBeWild #DislikeAnimalAbuse #Selfie #Love #Sloth