• Diego Balbuena

Your Steve Irwin complex promotes illegal wildlife trade

Updated: Apr 22, 2020

Travelling to foreign countries to watch wildlife in their natural habitat can be an incredible experience, if done responsibly. Unfortunately, most tourists are not aware of the illegal market behind some of the activities they do; some of them even do them to help wildlife and promote conservation, not realizing that posting photos manipulating wildlife actually promotes wildlife trafficking.

Trafficked Sunda Slow Loris juvenile (Nycticebus coucang), their teeth are forcibly removed to avoid venomous bites – Photo: Dr. Karmele Llano Sánchez of the International Animal Rescue (IAR)

When I was young, I loved to watch Steve Irwin’s show, the Kratt brothers, and other shows that taught about wildlife and conservation. However, I wasn’t aware of how his way of showing nature could have a negative effect on wildlife, mainly in third world countries. I will not deny his love of nature or disrespect his life’s work as peta does, as I believe he has done a really good job to protect nature.

More and more, people are learning about the great problem of irresponsible wildlife tourism, as NatGeo has been recently featuring a few articles about the subject. So how does one become part of the problem even though their intentions are for the good of wildlife, just like Steve’s? By posing manipulating wildlife, like Steve did, you promote the illegal market of the wildlife selfies.

Browse through the #SlothSelfie hashtag on Instagram and, after the animal cruelty warning, you’ll mainly see white people posing with different sloth species. I can assure you, most of those sloths are trafficked or were rescued from traffickers. But the problem doesn’t stop there, as probably most of those tourists just aren’t aware of the problem.

Biologists and veterinarians alike, also promote irresponsible wildlife tourism unwillingly. People who work in zoos or rescue centers (and I mean real rescue centers, I’ll talk more about this later) get close and personal with the animals they care for, it’s part of their job, and it’s totally fine. The issue arises on how people view the image, as all they see is a woman having the time of her life by carrying a sloth, and they will probably want that same experience. Of course, it’s not her fault how people view the photo, but if you work with wildlife you have to understand that you are indirectly promoting irresponsible wildlife tourism by posting this kind of content. If you want to prove a point by doing so, I believe you could add a description about where this animal came from, where was it rescued from, and how people should not pose with animals like that just for fun.

I also recently checked the #Kinkajou hashtag, looking for photos of the species. This animal is highly sought after as a pet, probably thanks to Paris Hilton, so it’s commonly trafficked as a tourist attraction and for their meat. Most of the pictures I found where of them in cages or homes, as a nocturnal arboreal mammal, it’s not that easy to photograph them in the wild, so I got worried. There were also a few pictures of vets/zookeepers posing with them and others of white people (I thought they were tourists, but then got in an argument with one of them because she wasn’t a tourist, she worked in a rescue center, so white people applies) handling them outdoors. I’m sure they have the best of intentions to help animals, but if you scroll through the comments they are full of people eager to have that same experience, and they are obviously willing to pay for it. If there’s a buyer, then there’s a seller, and most of these sellers are wildlife traffickers.

Volunteering/working in animal rescue centers is a really attracting job for foreigners, but not in a single of these photos do they mention where the animal was rescued from.

Real rescue centers do not allow tourists to manipulate wildlife, and those that do either do it for the profit, or ignorance. Workers, however, can do it to help the animals (although you should probably be trained on how to properly handle wild animals, zookeeping is a profession), but that doesn’t mean you have to pose with them for pictures. Unfortunately, it’s all about the likes.

Posting a photo of a rescued animal eating will definitely have less likes than a photo of you handling it, but you won’t be promoting carrying sloths or kinkajous as a “cool experience”, as in most cases it’s not for the animal (see lorises above). Using animals as touristic props stresses them, and no, you’re not the only one doing it, there’s hundreds of you every week or so.

But what about researchers, like biologists working in the field, are we not allowed to capture and pose with wildlife? Think of the message: why are you doing it?

Are you doing it to measure and gather data of the species? Then why do you need to take a photo of you handling it?

Are you capturing it to be able to photograph specific parts of the animal for scientific purposes? Still no need to pose with it.

Are you capturing the animal for the “experience”? Then it’s not about the animal, is it?

Are you capturing it for media attention and likes? Of course you are.

I’m an early career biologist, in no way am I a seasoned and experienced researcher, but every time I’ve posed with wildlife, it’s been for myself, not really for the animal. We’ve caught reptiles and amphibians during expeditions before, and I’ve posed handling snakes. Of course, it was for research, but I was not aware of this problem back then, or else I would have not done it. In other places, we’ve caught them for research purposes, and later posed with them for the experience, not for the animal well-being.

I’m not against capturing wildlife for research and conservation purposes, just don’t act like it’s not about the likes.

Right now, in Madre de Dios, Peru, a lot of foreigners are buying land and working on ecotourism, conservation, and research. I believe it’s a great initiative, if done responsibly. They attract tourists and volunteers who look at their instagram photos where they handle snakes (mainly) and other wildlife, and obviously want to do the same. What worries me, however, is that in not a single post have I seen some of them gather data of the animal, they just capture, pose, and release, or at least that’s what it looks like. If they are doing research, they are not communicating it well.

If you come to the Amazon looking for a wildlife experience, I suggest you book a tour to the jungle and appreciate wildlife free, in their natural habitat. If you are looking for a more “hands-on” experience as some businesses advertise, then I suggest you volunteer/work in a research or rescue center, and avoid posing with rescued animals. If you’re just looking for likes on your instagram pictures and don’t really care about indirectly promoting wildlife trafficking, then please, get a cat.

#wildlife #wildlifetrafficking #manipulatingwildlife #wildlifetrade #pettrade #wildlifetourism #illegal #steveirwin