Liking Wildlife Content Online May Affect Species’ Welfare in the Wild: Primatologist
Wed, April 21, 2021

Liking Wildlife Content Online May Affect Species’ Welfare in the Wild: Primatologist

Efforts to protect animals have gradually changed, more so with the use of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, which help generate information about the planet and the creatures living in it / Photo by: BlueOrange Studio via 123RF


Efforts to protect animals have gradually changed, more so with the use of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, which help generate information about the planet and the creatures living in it. People can simply scroll through their smartphones if they want to learn about endangered animals and the environment. With the way wildlife imagery trends online, people would think that it raises awareness about conservation. But renowned primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall shared that liking wildlife content may affect the species’ welfare in the wild.

The potential harm social media does wildlife

Dr. Goodall, an expert on chimpanzees who travels nearly 300 days every year to different countries to spread her message on the importance of individual action to conservation, has raised her concerns together with the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA) about a young chimpanzee named Limbani. This story, which appeared in the nonprofit media outlet The Conversation, details that Limbani has more than half a million followers on Instagram. The account shows photos of the animal skateboarding, eating popsicles, and hanging out with other species. He also lives under the care of the Zoological Wildlife Foundation.

Chimpanzees in the human world

While the comments on Limbani’s photos are almost always positive, his story is not so simple. Regardless of how widely loved his Instagram account is or how well he is treated, his exposure online may not be for his best interests. NAPSA said that the behaviors seen in the videos of Limbani are “in direct opposition to the advice of reputable and experienced primatologists.” They raised concerns that the public may erroneously consider that chimpanzees are suitable “pets.”  This also drives the illegal trade of live animals.

German database company Statista has shared the distribution of seizures of illegal wildlife trade in the world from 2005 to 2014. The statistics showed that 35% of seizures of wildlife or wild product worldwide were of rosewood, 18% elephants, 9% assorted reptiles, 6% agarwood, 5% pangolin, 3% rhinoceros, 3% marine turtles, 2% tortoise and freshwater turtles, 2% parrots, 2% big cats, 2% raptors, 1% sturgeon, and 1% coral.

Demand drives crime

One Green Planet, a platform for the eco-conscious generation, moreover published that the rate at which the animal species are disappearing from the Earth is alarming. For example, between 35,000 to 50,000 African elephants are poached every year. There are also nearly 5,000 tigers kept in American backyards and only around 3,000 tigers living in the wild. Rhinos are also victims of illicit trade. Every day, three rhinos are poached because of the belief that their horn can treat illnesses, such as cancer. In the past decade, over one million pangolins have been traded for their scales and they are then sold as bushmeat. The Asian elephants are also at risk of extinction. One-third of their population are held in circuses, zoos, and are used in a tourist attraction. This means 30% of them are held in captivity. Overall, the illegal wildlife trade generates between five to 20 billion dollars yearly.

Wildlife content encourages private ownership of animals

As “misleading” wildlife content is seen by people, it encourages private ownership that results in more animal suffering, NAPSA added. They also believe that there is a direct correction between human contact to chimpanzees and stress throughout their adulthood, including aggressive and antisocial behavior, depression, and self-harm. Zoonotic diseases may also be easily transmitted between humans and primates. For instance, infant chimpanzees are somewhat manageable but they can grow manipulative, rebellious, and strong. This makes it impossible to properly care for them in a human household.

Zara Bending, an Associate at the Centre for Environmental Law in Macquarie University and a Board Director of the Jane Goodall Institute Australia, also shares that the smiling chimpanzees we see on Instagram are often mistreated and are under stress. Performing animals, like the smiling chimps, are taken from their mothers while they are young and are physically disciplined. They undergo training but they are likely to spend their retirement in breeding facilities and roadside attractions. We, as humans, may associate the “chimp grins” with happiness. However, research has shown that they are, in reality, a sign of submission and fear. The trauma that animals suffer as they are forced to perform is usually clear.

Florida-based chimpanzee sanctuary Save the Chimps’ director of care Andrew Halloran also warned, “anytime you see a viral video of an animal acting unnaturally, be suspicious.” The excessive use of social media can also harm seals, birds, and local wildlife. These animals also need to rest and should not feel stressed or threatened by people. Humans are allowed to enjoy a few moments with the animals but their location should not be listed. There should be a balance between harmful habits and enthusiasm for wildlife lovers and photographers alike.

Affecting their status in the wild

Previous research shows that the prevalence of animals in entertainment and media may cause viewers to think that the species’ population is thriving in the wild, undermining the urgency and the need for in-situ conservation. The protection afforded by zoos against disease and predators may help animals in captivity live longer than in the wild, but it is not always the case.

Let us consider the elephants, which are some of the most intelligent mammals in the world. They are affectionate, perceptive, and social animals that depend on close contact with other elephants to thrive. In captivity, they are usually kept alone or in units with two or more elephants and are deprived of socialization as compared to their natural environment. Because of unnatural conditions and stresses, they may die before the age of 40 because of chronic health conditions.

Our ability as humans to shape the world is unparalleled compared to other species. Shared videos and photos of animals may resonate with us for a short time but its effects last longer for some species. May we all be reminded to channel social media for good, such as responsible tagging. This prevents poachers from using geotags from tourists that contain the GPS location of valuable animals.