A man lying next to a lion taking a selfie on his mobile phone

How to take responsible wildlife selfies

Visiting Africa’s wild areas and being involved in conserving wildlife on the ground is a dream for many. After your trip, you will have many once-in-a-lifetime photos of your experience that you will no doubt be bursting to share with family and friends – including great selfies showing you in action! 

These days, social media platforms make it easy to share your experiences with friends and family. Photos speak louder than words, yet sometimes the message that a photo sends is not what you intended – this is especially true for selfies taken with wild animals. Here, we share our top three tips for ensuring that your photos have the best possible outcome for wildlife conservation.

Social media presents enormous opportunities to share positive conservation messages, but it also has a dark side – for wildlife and people. Sites like Facebook and WeChat in China have become platforms for the illegal trade in wildlife parts (e.g. rhino horn) and live animals as pets (e.g. cheetahs). The exotic pet trade, in particular, has boomed as wild animals have become easier to buy through these online platforms. Seemingly innocuous wildlife selfies have contributed to this by making interactions between humans and wild animals seem ‘cool’ and ‘trendy’. 

A man sat on top of a chained elephant taking a selfie on his mobile phone

In response, Instagram has made a laudable effort to educate their users that post wildlife selfies. We found some great trending hashtags for you to use on Twitter or Instagram that will advertise your wildlife selfies in all the right ways – see the photo captions below for our top tips.

It may seem like you have no role to play in preventing the animal cruelty associated with lion cub-pettinganimal rides, or catching and selling baby wild animals as pets, but you can make a difference using the photos you post on social media. 

Here are our top three Dos and Don’ts to ensure that your wildlife selfies make a positive contribution.

1. Don’t visit wild animal-petting centres; do your research before travelling

In many countries around the world, including South Africa, wildlife-petting centres are thinly disguised as “wildlife sanctuaries” that usually include a story about contributing to conservation. Some of these places have very believable tales about rehabilitating wildlife for introduction into the wild on their websites. A few are real wildlife rehabilitation centres doing good work. How do you know the difference?

Our tip: do your research before going on your trip. 

First, look up the name of the facility you are considering and the name of the director or lead researcher of the facility. Find out as much as you can about the facility or operation by reading their website and independent reviews of the experiences they offer. Ask about the animal species they work with, and how their operation contributes to conservation. You can fact-check these statements by consulting authoritative conservation websites like the IUCN Red List.

An ACE student bottle feeding baby rhino at Care for Wild Africa

Second, do some research on the species that are being rehabilitated in that facility, with a few questions in mind: 

  • Can this animal be released into the wild after being handled extensively by people? 
  • If the centre breeds these animals in captivity, is this a recommended conservation action for this species? 
  • What qualifications do the staff at the facility hold: For rehabilitation, is there a vet on site? For conservation-related projects, do the staff hold conservation biology degrees? 

Answering these questions may take a little digging, and we suggest that you use several different websites from the most reliable sources you can find. These include, but are not limited to, the IUCNMongabay, and Africa GeographicGoogle Scholar is also useful for looking a little closer at species conservation claims – it works just like regular Google, but only shows results from peer-reviewed scientific research.

Rhinos can be rehabilitated and released into the wild. Orphans such as this one have lost their mothers due to poaching and still require bottle feeding. Our Instagram caption suggestion: #WildlifeRehab.

2. Don’t handle wild animals unnecessarily; do explain your wildlife selfies

Wild animals in captivity are easily stressed when too many people crowd around them to touch them or pick them up and ‘cuddle’ them. Although this varies from species to species, the best rule of thumb for anyone without a detailed understanding of captive animals is to handle them as little as possible.

The staff of any captive facility must be properly qualified and trained, as they will know how much interaction their species need (e.g. highly social animals like meerkats need interaction more than solitary carnivores like wild cat species), and what stresses them. Nonetheless, any animal handling comes at a risk – wild animals are unpredictable by nature, and even with guidance on how to handle them, you may be bitten or scratched.

The exotic pet trade is driven largely by people wanting to show off their wild pets to friends. When you return home with a host of enviable photos of close encounters with wild animals, expect your friends to want similar experiences! The photos you took may have been under all the right conditions and for all the right reasons, but you have little control over where your friends and distant acquaintances go on holiday. In their desire for a ‘cooler’ selfie than yours, they may visit projects similar to Thailand’s infamous Tiger Temple which has since been shut down, or equally cruel elephant riding schemes. How do you prevent this?

Although lions can successfully be kept in captivity with minimal stress to the animal (provided the interaction is carefully monitored by professional staff), they remain dangerous predators. Lions are threatened by the canned lion hunting and lion bone industry. Consequently, selfies with captive lions should be shared with caution. Our Instagram caption suggestion: #PetTrade; #LionsAreNotPets.

Our tips: only ever release photos of you handling wild animals to a small group of friends who you know will think before booking their next holidays. In the caption of any of these photos, include some of the following points for clarification: 

  • This animal is not a pet; 
  • These animals do not make good pets, for the following reasons…; 
  • The centre I visited does the following conservation and research work with this species… You can include any other points about your experience or the centre you were working at to reinforce these points

3. Don’t put yourself or the animal in danger; do take selfies responsibly

In the quest for ever-better selfies, tourists around the world have put themselves and animals in danger. This can happen with either captive animals (see the dangers of handling them mentioned above) or wild animals that have been pressured into responding aggressively to people. Many lessons can be learned from these incidents – do not underestimate the danger of captive wild animals, do not feed wild animals, and do not pressurise them by approaching too closely. When these rules are broken and people are injured or killed, the result is often just as bad (or worse) for the animal involved – the death sentence.

On wildlife-related holidays in Africa, knowing when you are getting too close can be difficult, unless you are accompanied by an experienced guide, ranger or tracker. These people have spent thousands of hours observing wild animals in their natural habitat and they know when an animal is feeling uncomfortable or behaving strangely. Unfortunately, there are increasing numbers of unscrupulous guides that push the animals’ boundaries to try and secure good wildlife selfies for their guests. How do you ensure that you don’t over-step a wild animal’s boundaries?

Close encounters with wild elephants are certainly possible in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. This photographer knows to keep his distance and remain calm. Our Instagram caption suggestion: #WildEncounter

Our tips: travel with companies that employ experienced staff members with high ethical standards. If you are unsure about how experienced your guide is, tell them before you go on a drive or bush walk that there is no pressure to get too close to animals. While you are viewing animals, talk to your guide or ranger about their behaviour and ask how they are reading the animal’s mood if you get any closer.

These conversations will take the pressure off the guide to get too close and will help you understand animal behaviour better for any future encounters you may have. A good photo of an animal behaving naturally in its environment is even better than a wildlife selfie!

Mobile tents in the Okavango with an elephant behind them

African Conservation Experiences Offer More Than Great Wildlife Selfies

ACE offers you the chance to get up close and personal with a host of different species during our Wildlife Care and Rehabilitation and Wildlife Veterinary Experiences. We have investigated all of these facilities beforehand, so you have peace of mind when choosing these experiences. Nonetheless, we welcome you to follow our advice and do your research – if you have any questions about our projects, we will be more than happy to answer them.

If observing and studying animals in their natural environment is more up your alley, then have a look at our Wildlife Research and Management or Game Ranger Conservation Experiences. The people you will work with on these projects know wild animals so well that you will never have to worry about getting into dangerous situations. You will have ample opportunities to learn how to approach and react to wild animals – a valuable skill to have for your return trips!

This is a great example of a wildlife selfie with elephants behaving naturally in the wild. Our Instagram caption suggestion: #ResponsibleSelfie

ACE volunteer viewing elephants from the vehicle

Become an Ambassador for Wildlife!

We encourage all our travellers and volunteers to share their knowledge and experiences as widely as possible with friends and acquaintances. You could even write a blog about what you learned and share it on social media. In this way, we can use social media platforms as a powerful tool for educating friends and family about wildlife conservation in Africa. 

#ResponsibleSelfie #NotEntertainers #NotAPet #ConservationCrew