This year, if you are striving to be more considerate of wildlife while on your summer travels and hikes, but still want to enjoy, observe, and photograph the wonder and beauty our planet has to offer, there are some important things to think about.
When we humans get too close to wild animals (like when we take wildlife selfies), we aren’t just putting our bodies and lives at risk—we are also affecting all the living creatures around us. Here’s what scientists and wildlife experts want you to consider.
Animals are just not that into you
Thanks to conservation efforts and environmental activism, wild animals that were once on the brink of extinction have made impressive comebacks. Some North American examples include wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, beavers, and black bears. While this is great news, it also means that people and animals are living in much closer quarters than before, especially as human development continues to expand.
Conservation researcher Kathy Zeller’s research on radio-collared black bears in central and western Massachusetts can give us some insight into how animals react to this increasingly cramped living situation. According to Zeller, black bears tend to avoid populated areas, except during times when their natural food sources aren’t as available (usually in the spring and fall seasons).
During these lean seasons, bears would venture closer to developed areas in search of other sources of food like bird feeders and trash cans. Even though bears aren’t nocturnal by nature, they would only forage at night to avoid contact with humans.
“People who are scared of bears may be comforted to know that most of the time, black bears are just as scared of them,” says Zeller.
Wild animals will turn up in unexpected places
It’s not uncommon for recovering species to show up in their former natural habitats—but unfortunately, humans aren’t always happy about this.
Veronica Frans, an ecologist that studied formerly endangered sea lions in New Zealand, reported that during the breeding season, the animals would show up on local roads or even in people’s backyards.
To help locals prepare for unexpected sea lions that move inland during the breeding season, Frans and her colleagues created a database that found and mapped potential breeding grounds all over the New Zealand mainland. Their work also pinpointed potential challenges for the sea lions, like roads and fences, that could hinder their inland migration.
“When wild species enter new areas, they inevitably will have to adapt, and often will have new kinds of interactions with humans,” Frans writes. “I believe that when communities understand the changes and are involved in planning for them, they can prepare for the unexpected, with coexistence in mind.”
Your presence has a huge impact
Even if you and your travel buddies follow the US National Park Service guidelines regarding the appropriate distance to maintain from wild animals (25 yards from wild animals and 100 yards from predators like bears and wolves), a scholarly review of hundreds of studies demonstrates that human presence can still have an impact on many different wild animals at much longer distances.
Conservation scholars Jeremy Dertien, Courtney Larson, and Sarah Reed, who all conducted the review, report that “animals may flee from nearby people,” which could “decrease the time they feed and [make them] abandon nests or dens.” Less obvious effects on animals that detect human presence, like increased heart rates and elevated levels of stress hormones, could “have serious consequences for animal’s health and survival.”
According to the scholars’ review, the distance at which human presence starts to affect wildlife depends on the species. That said, large animals usually need more distance and can be affected by humans that are up to 3,300 feet away (more than half a mile). Smaller mammals and birds will experience behavioral changes when people are within 300 feet.
Don’t take wildlife selfies, even if you’re a scientist
Wildlife selfies have resulted in the death or serious injury of many people around the world. For instance, a traveler in India was mauled to death by an injured bear in 2018 when he stopped to take a selfie with the animal.
However, it’s not just tourists who are at risk. Even scientists who have been granted special permissions to handle wild animals to conduct field research use their privileges to take personal photos with the creatures.
“I have witnessed the making of many researcher-animal selfies, including photos with restrained animals during the scientific study,” reports ocean scientist Christine Ward-Paige. “In most cases, the animal was only held for an extra fraction of a second while vigilant researchers simply glanced up and smiled for the camera already pointing in their direction… but some incidents have been more intrusive.”
She then goes on to relay a time when researchers “tied a large shark to a boat with ropes across its rail and gills so they could measure, biopsy, and tag it.” The shark was “restrained for an extra 10 minutes while the scientists took turns hugging it for photos.”
In Ward-Paige’s opinion, scientists who take part in this encourage the public to take wildlife selfies, even if they don’t have any scientific training or understanding of animal behavior. This undermines the warnings from entities like the National Park Service and puts both animals and humans in danger.