DeFINitely Hot: Going wild about Wildlife Tourism in National Geographic

Wildlife tourism is about to step into the spotlight due to a new article that will appear in the June issue of National Geographic that was announced by wildlife photographers and National Geographic itself on various social media channels. Animals are a big draw and especially for National Geographic and professional wildlife photographers, they mean big business. Shared content that gains most likes and comments on their pages is animal-focused. People love wildlife and love to get close. It is therefore not surprising that wildlife-selfies with rare and exotic animals had a chance to flourish: We all know images picturing elephant rides, or people kneeling next to drugged tigers. And it’s horrible. It is heart-breaking. It’s the wildlife tourism in such facilities that are called ‘sanctuaries’ or ‘havens’ the authors aim to disenchant. Animals suffer for likes and followers on social media as people want to appear socially attractive and adventurous when getting close to wildlife that is large, rare and/or potentially dangerous. I’ve seen horrible scenes in facilities where people were given the chance to feed and interact with kangaroos. They were poked, chased or pulled by their ears. My instincts told me to rush by, yelling at them to ‘get tfo!!!!’. But this wasn’t just that day. It’s every.single.day.

People are just real dipsticks when left alone with wildlife.

 I’m not going to repeat the article in detail here since I think it’s worth reading when you love animals and travelling. Instead, I want to point out what the article doesn’t address, which is disturbance and harassment of animals in their natural habitat for photos and videos that are likely to find their way to social media channels such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Because frankly, this issue is not limited to captive facilities. It can be witnessed on a daily basis along bird and seal colonies where animals try to raise their young, only to be disrupted by people who approach too closely to get their best shots. It can be seen during shark dives where animals are touched or being manipulated otherwise (keyword tonic immobility). It’s present on Quokka Island in Australia that attracts thousands of travellers who want their selfie with this adorable marsupial. And it’s important that we address that too.

On social media, wildlife is mistreated as rides or photo props and it’s time we pay wildlife the kind of respect again that it deserves. What pisses me off when it comes to selfies? It’s not about the animal anymore. It’s about you, you and you. It’s not ‘look at that beautiful manta ray’, it’s about rubbing a ‘look at ME! Be jealous, because I did this’ right into your face. Wildlife encounters should be humbling. They’re not your props, they’re spirits of their own. Act like it!

What leaves me fluttered is that professional wildlife photographers take a huge part in this contemporary phenomenon because followers get inspired and try to reproduce images they have seen, yet often do not take self-responsibility for it. They post selfies with charismatic megafauna or even initiate physical contact with animals and spread the word that this is perfectly fine. Same goes for researchers or those who claim to be ‘animal advocates’. And people seeing this will think it is okay because ‘they know what they’re doing’. Well no, they don’t. They have no clue that they are influencing how people approach and interact with wildlife. Plus, it’s extremely risky to turn your back on sharks just to get your picture-perfect selfie. Same with any other wildlife species that may become aggressive or defensive when feeling threatened by our presence.

So let’s all take a step back.

I get it. It’s all about must-do’s and bucket lists these days, and there’s nothing wrong with that if it’s a heart-felt wish to experience particular animal species.  But I hope that the article will be a wake-up call for travellers who seek close interactions with wildlife and that this will also have an impact on how animals are approached in their natural habitat. It’s a decent step in the right direction, however, it needs to be reminded it’s only dealing with one aspect of wildlife tourism and that this issue will need some sort of self-reflection.

I’m looking forward to sharing my results as part of my doctoral thesis on how people perceive the role of social media in wildlife experiences in the future. I’m also proud that my Instagram account on marine wildlife tourism has just reached the 10K mark which confirms that respectful and sustainable human-wildlife interactions are a thing and that it’s not about getting close at all costs. Nowadays, people are also more concerned about potential impacts but often the desire to get close to animals attenuates any objections. We as educators, journalists and scientists have definitely some more work to do.

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