By Craig Pratts, Lucia Ferrary, Janella Borrell & Jess Leaper

This month, the AWCP will be launching a zoo-based campaign to help raise awareness of the detrimental effects of wildlife selfies, especially close-contact selfies, with wild or captive animals.

Platforms such as Instagram host hundreds of thousands of wildlife selfies. Researchers at the World Animal Protection discovered a 292% increase in the number of wildlife selfies posted on Instagram between 2014 and 2017. Up to 40% of the images posted were described as “bad selfies” – meaning someone hugging, holding or inappropriately interacting with a wild animal.

The normalisation of wildlife selfies is harming animals. Not just by causing physical and emotional stress, but also by interrupting feeding and breeding habits and even potentially lowering birth rates. Conservationists working with the IUCN, raised the issue at a recent BIAZA (British Association of Zoos & Aquaria) AGM in June, urging zoos to think carefully about the impacts of visitor selfies with zoo animals on their wild counterparts. The manager of the AWCP saw that zoos could potentially do something to help raise awareness of this issue.

Wildlife selfie images are often appearing without any context – so even if the message is promoting conservation or it is taken in a zoo or conservation management situation, that message is lost and all people see is someone hugging a wild animal. Photos like this have been proven to increase people desire to keep primates as pets.

The AWCP have decided to raise awareness of the issue, both through the use of fun photo props and also during any animal experiences held at the park. Using a series of hashtags, information boards and popular photobooth-style props dotted around the park, they are aiming to discourage ‘bad’ selfies with animals by giving visitors the facts, but also offering a fun alternative and a way for people to further help the cause by using the carefully chosen hashtags to raise awareness.

Jessica Leaper, AWCP Park Manager, has since been invited to join the IUCN Primate Specialist Group, Section on Human Primate Interactions (SHPI). She hopes to help build a bridge between zoos and conservationists on this issue. “The selfie craze seems to be here to stay; it is infiltrating many areas of young people’s lives, so rather than condemning all selfies, the AWCP (and hopefully other zoos) will try to use this to spread awareness of the issues facing animals in the wild,” says Jessica.

Gibraltar summer students at the AWCP have this year been carrying out surveys and questionnaires with visitors to the AWCP to gauge just how serious the issue is, before the educational props are used at the park. The students also visited the Upper Rock to see how the situation was with the macaque/tourist interactions. The initial findings were quite telling, especially for the Upper Rock. Visitors to the wildlife conservation park tended to have a more sensitive approach towards the animals but on the Upper Rock the findings were very different. There were several occurrences of ‘bad’ selfies, indicating the need for more awareness of the potential negative impacts of these photos.

Although Gibraltar macaques are generally able to choose their interactive ‘victims’ and are free to move away, in the markets of Marrakesh, young macaques are held on chains for tourist photos and selfies. Sian Waters, Vice Chair of the IUCN SHPI group, works directly with communities in Morocco as part of her Barbary Macaque Conservation Awareness project (BMAC) and actively works to stop these harmful tourist interactions with wild macaques and the use of baby macaques as tourist photo props.

It is possible that close-contact selfies with Gibraltar macaques have a negative effect on tourists’ perceptions of wild macaques in Morocco, encouraging this type of interaction.

Visitors to the park will be encouraged to resist the temptation take selfies, and also to utilise the hashtags: #SelfieAware, #SelfieSelflessly to stop the use of ‘selfish’ selfies with both captive and free roaming wildlife.

This summer the AWCP was fortunate again to have summer students, paid for by Gibraltar Government to lend a hand during their summer break from University. Two Zoologists, Selina Mellin and Lucy Fitzpatrick managed to create a fantastic Bug Hotel in the lemur walk-through exhibit with the help of AWCP Primate Keeper, Lucy Chivers.

Selina also returned later in the summer to carry out some research on the group of confiscated and ex-pet African Grey parrots at the park.

In August three more students arrived; Geologist, Craig Pratts, Psychology student, Lucia Ferrary and Biochemistry student, Janella Borrell. This second group of students arrived at the park just in time to carry out control studies for the ‘selfie’ project under the guidance of Social Scientist intern, Ben Dahan. Mornings were spent at the park helping out with the animals and afternoons either at the park, Cable Car or the Upper Rock carrying out research.

10am – A typical day for AWCP summer interns, such as ourselves, begins with the usual husbandry tasks. These include standard jobs, such as cleaning tables, watering plants and maintaining the cleanliness of animal enclosures.

As well as this, we are also given the opportunity to assist in other unique and interesting activities, which begin with animal feed preparations that take place in the cabin. Each animal has its own specific diet, which must be prepared in a precise way. For example, the otters’ diet consists of raw fish and meat. The lemurs and marmosets eat selected fruits and vegetables. We are also given the chance to work alongside the friendly and diverse staff at the AWCP. We were surprised to find out that there were currently no locals working here, so the staff members all came from different backgrounds. Nevertheless, everyone working here has one thing in common, their love and passion for animals.

11am – One of our daily tasks includes cleaning the walkthrough, where the ringed-tailed lemurs and peacocks are situated. These are not the only lemurs present at the AWCP, there are also some brown lemurs in another area of the park.

The ring-tailed lemurs originate from Madagascar, where the fruits contain a low sugar content and therefore, we try to mimic their natural diet. Normally, in the wild, these animals spend up to 75% of their time foraging for food, whereas here in captivity, these animals know that they will be fed daily and so they are much less active than normal. Hence, we try to encourage them to forage for food by scattering their meals throughout different areas in the walkthrough exhibit.

As previously mentioned, aside from lemurs, there are also peacocks in the walkthrough. When we first began cleaning this area, these animals were apprehensive and would keep away from us, which indicated that they were wary about our presence. However, the more time that we spent in there, the less that they seemed to notice us and they began to stick close to us, also giving us space to clean. This indicated that they slowly became more comfortable around us. It was interesting to see how these animals would interact with each other and with their surroundings, as well as with the people that would enter the walkthrough exhibit.

12 – The rest of the day consists of research into the feasibility of a zoo-centered public educational campaign, aimed at raising awareness of the negative implications attributed with taking and posting close-contact photos with wildlife; in other words, ‘selfish selfies’. This is being conducted by the AWCP, together with the IUCN Primate Specialist Group.

This study is being piloted this summer at the park, and so it’s our responsibility to gather the appropriate data. Being university students, we found that the skills that we have learned during our time there proved beneficial, and this meant that we were able to contribute positively to the project at the Wildlife Park.

We collected two data sets: Wildlife Park and Upper Rock. We could then compare them in order to decipher if there is any difference in the way people approach animals in captivity, as opposed to those in the (semi) wild (the macaques in the Upper Rock). We filled out daily surveys to see how many people took pictures with these animals, to compare with the amount of those who entered the walkway/were present at the Upper Rock.

Additionally, we looked for participants who were willing to fill out questionnaires to gauge how active these people are on social media and how likely they would be to post pictures of themselves with animals on these social media sites.

1pm – During our observations at the Upper Rock, by St. Michael’s Cave, we found that the overwhelming majority of tourists were taking photos of the animals by themselves in their natural habitat. However, we also found that a significant number of people were trying to stage a photo by incentivising the animal to come closer to take a photo with them. We found that one of the ways in which they did this was to offer a piece of food. The main problem with this, especially with the Barbary macaques, is that they will become habituated and subsequently change their behaviour.

The macaque’s natural diet largely consists of leaves, roots and shoot, which are in abundance in the area and so, there is no competition. However, when tourists introduce other food sources such as crisps or fruits, this creates artificial competition amongst the primates. This causes the macaques to become increasingly territorial and aggressive.

There is an increasing trend of people taking and posting selfies with animals on various social media platforms. The large majority of people are unaware of the negative implications of taking such photos. From our preliminary investigations, we found that people viewed taking photos as a positive thing, as they could share their experience with the animals with their family and friends. This behaviour is what this study is trying to change.

The fact that people are taking such photos without regarding the welfare of the animal is what would be considered a ‘selfish’ or ‘unaware’ selfie. The implications of such photos are that they encourage individuals from other countries to mimic them. This could lead to the mistreatment of wild animals. In some cases, animals are chained up or provoked using food sources, in order to allow people to take ‘selfies’ with them. Hence, these animals are mistreated by certain areas so that they can make money. It is also fuelling the illegal pet trade, making primates seem like attractive pets.

There is an innate desire in all of us to connect to nature. Wildlife parks and zoos across the world help people reconnect with wildlife in a safe and accessible arena, helping to spread awareness and the conservation message. But the wildlife selfie craze has run amok and is now a risk to wildlife and conservation efforts.

This research project will shed some light on the implications of taking these ‘selfish’ or ‘unaware’ selfies, and hopefully in the future people will be more conscious about the wellbeing of these animals and the negative consequences that their actions could cause.