No doubt about it: animals are among the Internet’s biggest attractions. A study published earlier this year found that people who own dogs either post pictures or talk about their dogs online six times per week. In addition, one out of ten dog owners has a social media account devoted just to their favorite pooch.
Dogs share this spotlight with other animals. Ludwik, a guinea pig who lives with his owner in Poland, currently has 235,000 followers on the photo-based social media site Instagram. Another Instagram celebrity is Esther the Wonder Pig. In 2012, Esther’s owners adopted what they thought was a mini pig, which would grow no larger than 70 pounds. To their surprise, Esther grew to be a hefty 670 pounds. Currently, 428,000 followers keep track of Esther’s adventures on her owners’ farm.
While household pets or farm animals aren’t bothered by celebrity, some wildlife advocates warn that other animals are. National Geographic and World Animal Protection conducted a study about the growing popularity of wildlife tourism in the Amazon in South America. When people travel there, they often want to take selfies with local animals. They hope to post a picture online of themselves holding an exotic animal like a cuddly-looking sloth or swimming with a rare pink river dolphin. Unfortunately, the study found that many animals that pose with tourists are illegally captured and kept in cages so tourists can take pictures with them.
Starting this week, Instagram is taking action to combat this problem. When someone searches for animal photos related to wildlife tourism, they may be directed to information about how many wild animal selfies are possible only because of the mistreatment of animals. For example, if someone clicks on a hashtag such as #slothselfie, they will receive the following message: “You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behavior to animals or the environment.”
These warnings are not limited to animals that live in the Amazon. For example, if someone searches for koala selfies from Australia, they will receive a similar warning. In addition, Instagram searches from people trying to buy or sell exotic animals will lead them to messages about the dangers of selling wild animals. Messages will not be restricted to English-language searches. Instagram is targeting hashtags in languages spoken in countries such as Thailand and Indonesia. Both are places where harmful wildlife practices are a growing problem.
Instagram is not releasing a list of the hashtags it has targeted. Instead, the company wants Internet users to discover these messages themselves as they surf their site. Also, the company is concerned that if they publish a list of hashtags, it will allow buyers and sellers participating in illegal sales to change their hashtags in advance in order to avoid these warnings.
“We care about our community, including the animals and the wildlife that are an important part of the platform,” explained Instagram spokesperson Emily Cain. “I think it’s important for the community right now to be more aware. We’re trying to do our part to educate them.”
Instagram’s program is primarily aimed at wildlife selfies. World Animal Protection reports that the number of wildlife selfies online has grown almost 300 percent since 2014. Unlike pets or farm animals, wild animals do not like being repeatedly handled by people. Even if those animals seem happy or friendly, studies show that it can be hard for a tourist to tell if an animal he or she is posing with is really healthy.
Many times wild animals that appear in selfies have been captured illegally. They are also kept under conditions that are especially unhealthy. Sometimes young animals, such as lion and tiger cubs, are taken from their mothers much too early, in order to pose for pictures. So that wild animals are tame enough to work with tourists, they must undergo a long and difficult process.
Wildlife advocates hope that Instagram’s program will also cut down on the problem of people illegally selling wild animals online. While it is not possible for people to buy and sell wild animals on the popular e-commerce site eBay, social media sites like Instagram and Facebook allow buyers to meet sellers online and then continue sales through private e-mails. Wildlife crime officer Giavanna Grein hopes these warning screens will make it harder to deal in wild animals on the Web. “Maybe someone who’s been selling live animals on Instagram will get the popup and think, OK, this is going to get a lot harder for me,” she said.
Cassandra Koenen, head of wildlife campaigns at World Animal Protection, who worked on the list with Instagram, hopes the warnings will make people take a moment and think. “If someone’s behavior is interrupted, hopefully they’ll think, Maybe there’s something more here, or maybe I shouldn’t just automatically like something or forward something or repost something if Instagram is saying to me there’s a problem with this photo.”
While wildlife advocates applaud Instagram’s new program, they hope that eventually more can be done. Some advocates want to see language about animal welfare added to Instagram’s guidelines of what its users are permitted to post online. Other groups plan on working with Instagram to help train its employees to spot posts involving endangered animals. Instagram’s Emily Cain says that the company’s hashtag program is only the first phase in their effort to combat illegal wildlife practices.
“Social media has not yet really woken up to the full scale and extent of the nature of illegal wildlife trade that’s being used and promoted [on social networks],” said Crawford Allan, a senior director at the World Wildlife Fund. “For Instagram to really step up now and recognize it and take strong measures, I think is very significant. And it will set an important yardstick for others in social media to think about and follow.”
Images and Sources
Dog photo: Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Morris
Dog photo license: public domain