Social media is driving the suffering and exploitation for some of the world's most iconic animals in the Amazon, according to a new report.
Wild animals, including sloths, crocodiles, and anacondas, are being used as photo props for selfies by tourists across Latin America.
International charity World Animal Protection's (WAP) investigations have uncovered that animals are snatched from the wild - often illegally - and used by irresponsible tour operators, who injure wildlife to entertain tourists.
WAP's investigators have found evidence of cruelty being inflicted on wild animals, including; sloths tied to trees with rope not surviving longer than six months, toucans with severe abscesses on their feet, and Caiman crocodiles restrained with rubber bands around their jaws.
The investigations focused on two gateway cities of the Amazon: Manaus, Brazil and Puerto Alegria, Peru.
Steve McIvor, CEO at World Animal Protection says: "The wildlife selfie craze is a worldwide phenomenon fueled by tourists, many of whom are unaware of the abhorrent conditions and terrible treatment wild animals can endure to provide that special souvenir photo.
"Behind the scenes wild animals are being taken from their mothers as babies and secretly kept in filthy, cramped conditions or repeatedly baited with food causing severe psychological trauma."
The report also found a 292 percent increase in the number of wildlife selfies posted on Instagram between 2014 and now.
Global Wildlife Advisor, Dr. Neil D'Cruze from WAP added: "The growing demand for harmful wildlife selfies is not only a serious animal welfare concern but also a conservation concern – our online review of this kind of practice in Latin America found that over 20 percent of the species involved are threatened by extinction and over 60 percent are protected by international law."
She said: "It’s really important to do your research on wherever you’re going on holiday. Often the problem is that people go to these places and don’t think.
"Speaking from my own experience, I went to Australia when I was younger, and there was an opportunity to hold a koala, so I thought 'why not'.
"But while it might just be one picture for you, it could mean a lifetime of suffering for the animal.
"Check out the World Animal Protection website, where they can direct you to more ethical alternatives or places where you can see animals in a safe and compassionate way."
Lynch advises tourists to check that they're a safe distance from the animal; that the wild animals are in their natural habitat, not enclosed; and that they’re not being baited for food.
She adds: "Instagram is the main target of this campaign, because this is a really popular place for people to share their wild animal selfies. They also currently have no community guidelines in place for ways to take ethical photos with animals.
"The audience can also do a pretty good job of telling each other what’s right and wrong. I’ve seen this happen a few times, where people have posted pictures riding elephants, for example, and have then later taken it down after comments from more vocal users.
"We need to show people that cruel wildlife selfies aren’t cool, and that they actually show ignorance – which is not something we should be advertising on our social media pages."
Tackling the issue
WAP is calling on relevant governments to enforce the law, and ensure that travel companies and individuals who are exploiting wild animals for tourism in the Amazon abide by the existing laws.
The charity is also launching a Wildlife Selfie Code for tourists to learn how to take a picture with wild animals without causing any harm.
WAP is currently in discussions with Instagram on how they can take action to protect animals on their platform.