National Geographic reporter Natasha Daly traveled to the Amazon to confirm the World Animal Protection’s findings. She denounces that officials in Manaus, Brazil, have been actively clamping down on the use of wildlife as tourist props. “By the time I was there in mid-August, a lot of tour operators had stopped going to locations where the animals are brought out,” she said. But the practice persists in Puerto Alegria, Peru, where she saw 20 species brought out for tourists in three days. Tourists embarking on Amazon trips from nearby Leticia, Colombia, often spend time in Puerto Alegria.
World Animal Protection, an advocacy group, issued a report saying animals like sloths suffer when they’re kept in captivity for tourists to hold and photograph. Instagram is educating users about the issue by responding to hashtag searches like #slothselfie with this warning: “You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behaviour to animals or the environment.”
“We want tourists visiting the Amazon to know that if they care about wildlife, they should not use animals as photo props on their vacation,” World Animal Protection’s global wildlife adviser Neil D’Cruze said in an email interview. “The reality is that these ‘wildlife selfies of a lifetime’ actually involve significant animal suffering.” He said animals presented to tourists have typically been pulled from natural habitats, are kept in “unsuitable conditions” and are handled by dozens of visitors a day, with tourists “typically unaware of the stress and injury” the creatures experience.
D’Cruze says the solution lies in educating travelers. He saluted Instagram’s animal selfie warning as well as efforts by TripAdvisor, which since 2016 has declined bookings for attractions where tourists come into physical contact with captive or wild animals. D’Cruze also said there’s “enormous potential” for developing tourism in the Amazon around alternatives like stays at jungle lodges or experiences with indigenous culture.
One challenge in steering tourists away from these selfie encounters, Natasha Daly said, is that Amazon wildlife is elusive, and day trips where sloths, kinkajous and snakes are offered up for photos make it easy for visitors to see them. An alternative experience might involve staying in a jungle lodge for a few days, but that’s more expensive for travelers and takes more time and planning. Still, she said, educating consumers about these issues may impact their choices, especially among animal lovers who may not realise the harm in petting and photographing creatures. “As soon as an activity crosses the line from observation to interaction, it’s probably going to be bad for the animal,” she said.