In 2016, in the desert state of Rajasthan, a man had a narrow escape while he tried a selfie attempt with a python. Last year, an elephant in the eastern state of Odisha trampled a man to death after he tried to snap a selfie. In the same year, an Indian cricketer was fined for posting pictures on social media of him and his wife posing in front of endangered Asiatic lions in Gir.
With similar incidents in the southern part of the country, the Karnataka state forest department has decided to crack down on visitors who flout rules and make stopovers while travelling on roads inside protected areas and disturb wildlife.
The state forest department has notified a fine that runs up to several thousand rupees for those who violate rules in all protected areas of the state.
“We were prompted to levy a fine following growing complaints that visitors were pulling over, getting out of their vehicles, clicking selfies, walking about and even feeding animals. They ignore signages,” Punati Sridhar, principal chief conservator of forests, Government of Karnataka, told Mongabay-India.
Sridhar said the trend of stopping vehicles, getting down and taking selfies with wild animals is one of the major issues that the department is facing with respect to management of people passing through protected areas in vehicles.
“This is elephant country and so elephants do move across corridors and are found grazing close to highways. So, many people get down from their vehicles and are tempted to take photographs disregarding the rules and endangering their own lives. This is a big problem particularly in Bandipur tiger reserve,” Sridhar said.
Stopping vehicles inside protected areas, feeding animals inside protected areas are offences under Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
In compliance with the new order, forest department personnel will be required to log entry-exit time of vehicles and monitor how long they spend inside protected areas. Those who reach the exit beyond the indicated time will be fined and the same will increase depending on the delay.
“Patrol teams have been pressed into service in Bandipur and BRT Tiger Reserve to monitor people wandering inside. Gradually, we will bring all protected areas under patrolling. When people unwittingly engage with animals where they have been instructed not to, they put both themselves and the animals in harm’s way,” Sridhar lamented.
GV Reddy, chief wildlife warden of Rajasthan informed Mongabay-India that the state forest department is planning to issue instructions on similar lines as Karnataka.
“We have strict policy of no walking or getting down in tiger reserves,” Reddy said. “We levy heavy penalty if somebody is found walking with in tiger reserve. However, we have no such strict enforcement so far. But we do get complaints from Bharatpur on selfies, particularly with pythons. So this is a good idea to have an enforcement across all protected areas, even in parks where tourist numbers are low.”
Earlier this year, tourists clicking selfies with olive ridley turtles during their mass nesting in Odisha’s Rushikulya had stirred up a controversy leading to the forest department banning mobile phones and visitors to the site of hatching of the endangered species.
Following Karnataka’s intervention, in neighbouring Kerala, famed for its backwaters, environmentalists have written to the authorities to emulate the step.
Living on the edge with the ‘killfie’
Ponnurangam Kumaraguru, a principal investigator of the study “Me, myself and my killfie: Characterising and preventing selfie deaths”, said that since March 2014 as many as nine wildlife selfie-related deaths were reported across the world, including five in India. This is out of a total of 220 selfie-related casualties since March 2014.
“About four percent of these casualties is related to wildlife. These are classified as ‘dangerous’ selfies according to our study. We have built an App, called Saftie, which can help mark the photo dangerous when you are taking it,” Kumaraguru, associate professor, at the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi, told Mongabay-India.
According to a recent report by animal protection body World Animal Protection, prevalence of wildlife selfies on social media has surged 292% since 2014.
Shubhobroto Ghosh, wildlife projects manager (India), World Animal Protection, said that the move by Karnataka forest department is welcome as long as it doesn’t intrude on ethical forms of wildlife photography. “We are alarmed with this proximity to animals in the wild that is on the rise in India,” Ghosh said. “There have been tragedies where people have died clicking pictures with elephants as well as the growing trend of a section of a snake rescuers recklessly posing with snakes and getting killed. These are educated, young people. It is high time the government takes note.”
Subhendu Mallick, founder of Snake Helpline, an Odisha-based voluntary organisation that helps “public in peaceful co-habitation of snakes”, echoes Ghosh on tackling the daredevilry and brazen attitude that he feels perpetrates selfie trends among snake rescuers.
“We have framed guidelines on snake rescue and rehabilitation that includes doing away with bravado and stunts, taking selfies with snakes and dissuades a casual approach to handling snakes. We have a zero tolerance on posting photos on social media. Some people also let uninformed public pour milk on rescued snakes and put pictures on social media. Snakes don’t drink milk,” Mallick told Mongabay-India.
Talking about the Rushikulya olive ridley turtle photo ban and the arrest of an Indian television actress who had posted photographs of a cobra coiled around her online, Mallick said strict actions, like those enforced by the Karnataka forest department, are strong deterrents for the public who do not understand that they put the animal under stress.
“So when the animal bites or attacks, there is retaliatory action by people. There is more need of awareness,” Mallick said.
To click or not to click?
Tom Moorhouse, whose research focuses on animal welfare and species conservation consequences of the human usage of wildlife for recreation, notes an interaction with animal could be having a negative impact if the animal did not come to a person on its own and isn’t free to leave.
“If you are in a position to have a selfie taken with an animal, and the animal did not come to you of its own volition and isn’t free to leave ( if the interaction is in a captive environment or the animal is being coerced) then it is likely that the interaction is having a negative impact,” Moorhouse, Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford, told Mongabay-India.
In the majority of cases, taking a photograph from a distance will be fine, so long as the animals in question haven’t been harried by tour operators, he said.
“These can be issues with safaris and with dolphin/whale watching boat trips, for example. But such photo-tourism, if keeping a respectful distance can be beneficial through using tourist revenue to preserve habitats, and through educating the public,” Moorhouse explained.
Selfies, on the other hand, require extremely close interactions between humans and animals, the researcher observed.
“If the animals are non-domestic (wild) then the question arises of what stimulates them to be in such close contact. Often there is a degree of unseen coercion of the animal for the purposes of pleasing tourists,” he said.
Moorhouse stresses that it is very important to remember that the benefits of eco-tourism only arise if the money goes back to promoting conservation and/or promoting animal welfare.
So how should tourists tell the difference?
Moorhouse said if tourists don’t wish to be involved with practices that could harm animal welfare or contribute to declines in species’ conservation statuses, they should ensure that they only attend venues that do not allow their animals to be touched.
“There are some beneficial venues that will permit touching, most venues that genuinely prioritise animal well-being above profits will typically disallow such close interactions and require tourists to remain a respectful (and safe) distance from the animals.
“By contrast, selfies and close interactions with animals are so appealing to tourists that venues trying to make a profit from their wildlife are very unlikely to disallow these interactions,” Moorhouse added.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.