In the Amazon, animals are being illegally captured and held in captivity to lure in tourists that might want to snap a sweet selfie with a sloth or a squirrel monkey. A report published in October by the Nature Conservation detailed the harmful consequences of wildlife ecotourism, pointing out that this practice is not only illegal, but deadly for the animals captured to entice sightseers. And it's a practice that has been well-documented on Instagram - there are currently thousands of photos under the #slothselfie hashtag alone. But this week Instagram has decided to inform its millions of users that all that's cute isn't necessarily wholesome.
Instagram announced on Tuesday that when users search certain wildlife hashtags, they will see a pop-up window created to educate them on animal abuse. For instance, if you search for #monkeyselfie, which has thousands of photos, you will see this message:
Animal abuse and the sale of endangered animals or their parts is not allowed on Instagram. You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behaviour to animals or the environment.
From there, you can continue to browse the posts or learn more. The latter option navigates you to an Instagram Help Center page about wildlife exploitation. National Geographic reports that there are hundreds of hashtags that will prompt the warning. The hashtags are in English as well as languages in countries where this type of wildlife ecotourism is commonly found.
"The list of hashtags was determined together with wildlife experts," an Instagram spokesperson told Gizmodo. The spokesperson said the hashtags include #lionselfie, #tigerpet, #exoticanimalforsale, #koalahugs and #koalaselfie. Instagram declined to share a complete list of the hashtags with Gizmodo. We have reached out to the company's spokesperson to find out why Instagram will not publish the complete list.
"We care about our community, including the animals and the wildlife that are an important part of the platform," Instagram spokeswoman Emily Cain told National Geographic. "I think it's important for the community right now to be more aware. We're trying to do our part to educate them."
Awareness and education are inarguably crucial steps toward addressing the issue - but the photos still run rampant on Instagram. While selling endangered animals on Instagram violates Facebook and Instagram's terms of service, Karmele Llano Sanchez, program director at International Animal Rescue Indonesia, told The Dodo this year that the organisation finds it "extremely difficult for [us to get Facebook and Instagram] to respond to our claims or to delete these postings". This year, Facebook apologised after allowing its users to advertise baby hedgehogs on its marketplace. They blamed it on a "technical issue".
If nothing else, the pop-up warnings signal an incremental change on Instagram's part in fighting the illicit wildlife activities that have manifested cutely on its platform. That incremental change, of course, is undoubtedly a result of Nature Conservation's damning report as well as Silicon Valley's recent push to put its best face forward.