Costa Rica’s gorgeous biodiversity has made it a haven for wildlife tourism. But in the age of social media, the impact on the wild animals themselves has not always been a positive one. In a 2017 study, Costa Rica was identified as one of the world’s top 10 countries where tourists take selfies in direct contact with wildlife—a practice that is rife with dangers for the humans and also one that has terrible consequences for the animals.
The Humane Society family of organizations has been fighting irresponsible tourism offerings around the world, including those situations in which wild animals are thrown into close contact with people looking to interact with them and pose for photos. In the United States, for example, we have investigated roadside zoos where tiger cubs are bred indiscriminately, torn from their mothers and mistreated for tourists to cuddle and take photos with. In South Africa, we have turned the spotlight on such tourist attractions as “walking with lions” safaris that exploit captive-bred young lions who ultimately end up at canned hunting facilities. And in India, we have launched educational campaigns on ending elephant rides in the state of Rajasthan.
In Costa Rica, we are partnering with the government on a campaign called #StopAnimalSelfies that seeks to make tourists allies in the fight against this problem by educating them about the cruelty and risks involved in taking selfies in close contact with wild animals. The campaign was on a hiatus because of the pandemic, but it was recently revived on World Wildlife Day on March 3.
Costa Rica has a global reputation as a leader in environmental protection and it has comprehensive wildlife protection laws. Under a regulation that HSI/Latin America helped draft, the nation prohibits keeping wild animals as pets and the feeding of animals in the wild. The law also stipulates that wildlife rescue centers must be nonprofit and closed to the public and that tourists can visit sanctuaries or commercial zoos open to the public for environmental education purposes only, and not for selfie taking or other problematic practices.
But there are more than 200 captive wildlife facilities in Costa Rica, and ensuring that they are all following the law and best practices can be challenging. In zoos, sanctuaries and so called “rescue centers”, as well as at certain popular tourist areas such as Tárcoles River Bridge, Puerto Caldera, Mangrove of Quepos, Manuel Antonio National Park, Cahuita National Park and the Arenal volcanoes, foreign and national tourists are offered direct contact with wild animals like two-toed and three-toed sloths, white-faced capuchin monkeys, toucans, snakes and scarlet macaws, among many others. The sloths are particularly popular because of their “smiling” faces and slow movements, which make them relatively easy for people to handle.
The interactions offered include hugging, petting, caressing and feeding the animals—all practices filled with risks because the scared animals could bite or scratch or attack the people holding them. As we now know all too well, close interactions with wild animals can also place people at a high risk for contracting diseases.
For the animals themselves, such contact can result in immense stress and suffering. Animals are often ripped from the wild to be exploited as tourist props and the tourist selfie industry has in fact led to a growth in the illegal capture of wild animals from their natural habitats in Costa Rica. Babies are taken away from their mothers and the parents are even killed at times. Such indiscriminate poaching puts wild populations of these animals at risk. A whopping 61% of the species at these attractions are listed as threatened.
Animals stolen from the wild are forced to live in wholly unnatural conditions and often do not survive. Even animals who are confiscated from exploitative situations can end up in pseudo-sanctuaries where they continue to be used for photo ops.
Research shows that tourists who participate in close contact with wildlife often have second thoughts about having done so. A 2019 study found that many tourists who engaged in activities like riding elephants and swimming with dolphins experienced “travel guilt” and said they would not do it again.
No one needs a selfie to enjoy the beautiful wildlife in nations like Costa Rica. There are plenty of activities like bird-watching, whale watching and hiking in forests that tourists can participate in when they travel. Those who do realize that seeing animals in their natural environment can be far more joyful and gratifying than a selfie with a scared animal at a facility that mistreats them.
For those traveling to Costa Rica, the government and its #StopAnimalSelfies campaign has the perfect solution: a selfie with a cute plush toy that you can post to social media with this message: “I don’t mistreat wild animals for a selfie. #StopAnimalSelfies.” It is a great way to show your love for wildlife and to ensure that a few moments of your friends’ attention on social media during your vacation do not end up as a lifetime of suffering for an animal.