Scientists (and Others) Urged Not to Take Photos With Primates

New guidelines say pictures posted online lack context, harm conservation work.

Jane Goodall with stuffed monkey
Primatologist Jane Goodall poses with a stuffed toy monkey, which sends a clearer message to viewers.

Getty Images / Robert Gray / Stringer

In recent years there has been growing pressure on tourists not to take selfies with wild animals. But now the call to avoid animal selfies has extended even to the professionals who work with them. 

A new publication from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 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.

The reason is that pictures lose context once they enter the Internet 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. 

The IUCN guidelines explain that primates are illegally caught from the wild and used as photo-props for tourism, and adults are often killed to obtain a baby.

"The primate’s teeth may be removed to stop them from biting. The individual primate(s) in an image may be extremely stressed. For example, nocturnal primates such as slow lorises are extremely susceptible to daylight and flashlight exposure when used as props ... Unscrupulous businesses breed ‘exotic’ wild animals, including great apes, as photo-props ... These animals are often kept in poor conditions which the public may be unaware of."

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."

All primate "messengers," as they're called in the document, have an obligation to think about photos differently and commit to new guidelines that reinforce the work that matters so greatly, especially with two-thirds of the 514 primate species assessed by the IUCN facing extinction due to agriculture, hunting, human-built infrastructure, and the climate crisis.

Primatologist Dr. Joanna Setchell, who was involved in writing the guidelines, told Treehugger that they are hugely important in a world where images travel so quickly.

"If I publish a photograph of me cuddling a monkey, it can have unintended consequences of leading people to think that primates make good pets (they don’t), and making people want to have their own selfie with a primate. Primates are wild animals. Moreover, three-quarters of primate species around the world are in decline, and about 60% are threatened with extinction. We need to protect them and their habitat, not publish cute photos with them."

Dr. Felicity Oram, another co-author of the guidelines, acknowledges that primates, like humans, are naturally social creatures and that selfies may seem harmless, but it's crucial for people to realize they're not.

"While in a captive, rehabilitation or rescue situation there may sometimes be a valid reason for close contact, images taken in these circumstances often circulate without reference to the original context. This, then, risks people misunderstanding that any close contact is helping wildlife. As a behavioral ecologist, I know this is misguided because what nonhuman primates actually need today is more natural habitat space!"

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, 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."

Last word goes to Dr. Oram, who says that supporting primate conservation requires being "respectful of our respective dignities and mutual health by maintaining good social distancing and never feed wild primates."

View Article Sources
  1. Waters, Siân, et al. "Best Practice Guidelines for Responsible Images of Non-Human Primates." Section for Human Primate Interactions, 2021.