New guidelines say primate selfie pictures posted online lack context, and can harm conservation work


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Photos or videos can draw the attention of millions of people to non-human primate conservation and welfare. However, if the context of the images is inappropriate, unclear, or lost, people may draw mistaken conclusions about the content. These mistaken conclusions can have unintended, negative consequences for primate welfare and conservation. The potential for the dissemination of images without appropriate context is a particular concern on social media.

Illustrated by Ferdinandus Eko | BNF

A new publication from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Primate Specialist Group Section on Human Primate Interactions has set out guidelines for interacting with primates, specifically. It urges all scientists, researchers, animal care staff and volunteers, tour guides, and government agency employees who work with primates to avoid posting online any photos of themselves in close proximity to primates, as these can undermine conservation efforts. Co-authored by BNF International co-director, Dr Susan M Cheyne, she stresses that this is now the time to really take responsibility of what we post online and what message we primatologists and conservationists are sending to the general public.

The reason is that pictures lose context once they enter the online world, which can cause people to draw mistaken conclusions about the circumstances of the photo. They may want similar photos themselves, which leads to a host of problems including people wanting primates as pets, or interacting with primates in the illegal pet trade.

Images of people holding or standing close to primates do not convey the physical risk posed by such interactions to both parties. They can undermine local efforts to combat poaching and pet-keeping “by showing precisely the forms of human-primate contact that rescue centers, sanctuaries, NGOs and government agencies actually work to discourage.” Furthermore, such images lead people to view primates as “merely sources of entertainment, and thereby underestimate their biodiversity value and threatened status, which can then undermine conservation efforts.”

The guidelines recommend not publishing photos of a primate in a carer’s arms; not showing primates being hand-fed, played with, or interacted with by a human unless they have proper personal protective equipment; ensuring a minimum distance of 23 feet (7 meters) between humans and primates in photos; and, in images promoting primatology as a profession, ensuring that “the context is obvious by including your facemask, gloves, binoculars, notepad, or similar equipment in the image.”

The guidelines go on to ask any high-profile individuals or celebrities who may have a previous image of themselves interacting closely with a primate to issue an appropriate one and an explanation as to why the original image was problematic.

Even Jane Goodall’s institution has stopped using photos of Goodall interacting with primates in an effort to send a clearer message to online viewers. A spokesperson told the Guardian, “We’ve learned a lot over six decades of Jane’s research and work with chimpanzees. We now know that viruses like COVID-19 are ones that can affect humans and primates. This kind of imagery supports the idea that it is OK to have these kinds of physical interactions with chimpanzees and with other primates.”

Borneo Nature Foundation supports these guidelines, and we encourage all our collaborators and supporters to adopt these guidelines for the welfare and conservation of primates and all wildlife. Guidelines will be available on the HPI website in Bahasa Indonesia soon.