Episode 3: The hidden cost of the perfect selfie

From pop-up beluga whale pools in Russian parking lots to sloth hugs in the Amazon, wildlife tourism is a big business. But animals are suffering for it. National Geographic writer Natasha Daly helps us navigate the murky space found at the intersection of conservation and consumption.

Photograph by Kirsten Luce

From pop-up beluga whale pools in Russian parking lots to sloth hugs in the Amazon, wildlife tourism is a big business. Travelers are crisscrossing the globe for a chance to encounter some of the world’s most magnificent creatures. But animals are suffering for it. National Geographic writer Natasha Daly helps us navigate the murky space found at the intersection of conservation and consumption.


PETER GWIN (Host): Natasha Daly is a writer here at National Geographic. And last year she spent a month in Thailand reporting a cover story for the magazine on wildlife tourism.

NATASHA DALY (WRITER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC): So I was at a captive tiger facility and I remember there's this young American boy. I think he's about eight years old, sobbing because he didn't want to go into the tiger cage. And his mom kept saying to him over and over you know go in go in. Don't be so afraid it's gonna be fine.

GWIN: It’s gonna be fine. I mean sure, it’s a tiger. But it’s in a cage!

DALY: The boy didn't want to do it but he eventually did because his mom sort of made him and he stood there the whole time terrified, sobbing. And what really struck me is that instead of saying OK you don't have to do it that's fine. His mom forced him to do it and then said it'll be worth it for the photos. And he came out and he wouldn't even look her in the eye. He just stormed off. He was really upset.

GWIN: Natasha says, when she saw this, something clicked.

DALY: I remember looking at him thinking like he kind of has a normal, natural reaction to this. I feel like I'd be really afraid too. So it's strange that that was the only time I saw someone reacting in what seems like a really logical way to being in a cage with a massive tiger.

GWIN: I mean, in this instance, it sounds totally crazy. But then again, for some people, it could be a bucket list thing, like skydiving. And I don’t know, if I had the opportunity to get up close to a tiger, would I pass it by? It really makes you think.

DALY: If you step back and look at it like why are we so comfortable with putting ourselves next to these predators.

GWIN: I’m Peter Gwin and this Overheard at National Geographic...a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.This week: how selfie culture has helped create an industry that might not be so great for the animals we admire. More on that after the break.

GWIN: Long before Natasha reported on wildlife tourism, she engaged in it.

DALY: You know how when you're remembering something from your past you're not sure if you're remembering a photo you've seen or you're actually remembering the thing?

GWIN: Natasha’s got that andhe showed me the photo.

GWIN (on tape): So you definitely look like you're having a ball here you've got the big kid smile like the look at me.

DALY: Yeah.

GWIN: I’m on the back of a giant elephant

DALY: Obviously I don't remember this. I think I was probably three and a half. But I am having a great time and we're all we're smiling. This is a I'm not sure where but I think probably a zoo in the Toronto area where I'm from.

GWIN: It’s not just Natasha on the back of the elephant. She’s sitting up there with her mom and brother. They all look really happy. And Natasha says, at the time, they probably assumed the elephant was having a good time too.

DALY: There's this idea that I found as I, as I talked to tourists over and over again that this experience which you view as special and exhilarating and fun is also fun for the animal. No one wants to think that what they're doing on vacation is helping to hurt an animal. That's not even something that I think anyone wants to entertain the possibility of.

GWIN: No way. We want to make memories on vacation, do things we can’t do at home, maybe snap a picture that will make the best holiday card ever, or just experience nature. Natasha says wildlife tourism ticks all these boxes.

DALY: Wildlife tourism in itself is a neutral term. It can run the gamut from taking binoculars out into you know a national park and looking for birds to you know going on a boat and whale watching off Cape Cod to going on safari in South Africa to look at wildlife in the savanna.

GWIN: So, observing animals in their natural habitats. Sounds totally cool. I mean, I love whale watching. But Natasha says, there’s a side to wildlife tourism that goes beyond observing from a distance. It also includes getting closer.

DALY: You know snuggling a baby baby tiger cub, posing with a large adult male tiger, riding an elephant, watching bears perform in a circus.

GWIN: But bears, elephants and tigers -- they’re wild animals. We’re not supposed to be close to them. So steps have to be taken to make it possible for us to interact with them. I mean, how else would it be possible for a boy to get into a cage with a tiger?

DALY: Many tigers have their claws removed. Some are drugged to make them docile enough to interact. These are predators. They are wild animals that can kill you instantly.

GWIN: But, I mean, anything for a photo, right?


It turns out, our appetite for sharing our animal encounters has gone through the roof. A recent study by World Animal Protection found that there was a nearly 300 percent increase in the number of animal selfies popping up on instagram feeds in the last few years.

DALY: So that just showed that it was this explosive shift towards not just wanting to see animals but wanting to show yourself having this exotic, once-in-a-lifetime encounter.

GWIN: I’m guilty of it. A few years ago, I was running on a beach in Delaware, and there were these people raising money for a kangaroo rescue operation (at least that’s what they told me) and they had baby kangaroos with them, in Delaware. And I thought I’ve got to go get my kids. They have to see this too. As my girls crowded around these cute little kangaroos, my first reaction was to pull out my phone and take a picture, right? I mean, that’s just what we do these days. Social media encourages it. But, turns out, there’s another side to the story.

ERIN VOGEL (PSYCHOLOGIST): I get concerned that in certain situations people start to see animals more as props than as living beings.

GWIN: Erin Vogel studies how social media affects our daily lives. And she says that our online profiles are less like photo albums, and more like declarations of identity: our opportunity to show off the best versions of ourselves, especially when we travel.

VOGEL: We want to portray ourselves as adventurous spontaneous exciting people.

GWIN: And Erin says, wildlife tourism helps us do that.

VOGEL: If you go to an exotic place and you get a picture with an exotic animal that most of your friends probably haven't had the opportunity to see, and to do, then that can make you look a certain way that can be really attractive.

GWIN: And social media provides that in an instant.

VOGEL: We get this immediate social reward. So when we post something, if we step away just for a few minutes we might come back to a bunch of likes and comments on the posts from other people; and that feels like an endorsement not just of what we posted but of who we are as people.

GWIN: Natasha says, those wildlife selfies have helped create a major money maker.

DALY: This is an industry that spans the globe. There is no country on earth, that I am aware of, where it doesn't exist at all. And we decided to focus on a few hotspots around the world where our understanding was that this industry was very deeply embedded in the fabric of the local economy and the tourism industry

GWIN: One of those hotspots is Thailand.

DALY: So there are 3,800 captive elephants in Thailand and the vast majority of those elephants are in the tourism industry.

GWIN: This isn’t necessarily new. Thailand has a long history with elephants. They’re deeply woven into the culture, and they’ve also been an important part of the economy.

DALY: Elephants in Thailand are classified as domestic livestock. So the same as donkeys or cattle. They've been tamed for thousands of years in Thailand and used to do logging, to do various sort of work with humans for a really long time.

GWIN: But in 1989, the Thai government banned logging on millions of acres of land. Which meant the elephants and their keepers were out of work. And it’s not easy to feed and house a hungry, unemployed elephant.

DALY: So ultimately what you found is that many elephants and their owners were kind of going into the cities and owners were begging. And it was, I think there's not a single person who would say that that situation was ideal for anyone involved.

GWIN: So the Thai government stepped in.

DALY: And that's sort of when the tourism industry emerged. And the Thai government had a sort of initiative called Bring Our Elephants Home. And that was the objective to get some of these elephants that are begging in the streets in Bangkok back to the rural countryside. And the way to do that was to establish a new form of enterprise.

GWIN: And that new form of enterprise--it has a number of things going for it.

DALY: So not only is it's an improvement over keeping elephants you know in Bangkok begging on the streets you now have brought them into a situation that is you know many would say it's it's an improvement for their lifestyle but it is also a huge money maker for the industry and for the Thai government ultimately.

GWIN: The elephant tourism industry took off. And suddenly there was a demand for MORE elephants.

DALY: You do have this very lucrative breeding industry of baby elephants. And I think that comes from the fact that tourists increasingly want to interact with babies. And so they're willing to pay money for it.

GWIN: So the government subsidizes captive elephant breeding. After all, tourism accounts for about a fifth of Thailand’s gross domestic product. Natasha says you get a sense of how popular these attractions are the very moment you arrive at an elephant camp.

DALY: The first thing you'll probably notice is that there are tons of buses in the parking lot, because many of the visitors going to these camps are going there through tour agencies.

GWIN: A lot of the camps are located in areas that sound pretty breathtaking, like the province of Chiang Mai.

DALY: There’s a lot of greenery, just the nature of these camps in Chiang Mai, which is mountainous leafy, beautiful, very verdant part of the country.

GWIN: Sounds like a great place for an elephant. But Natasha says, the elephants aren’t roaming free in this lush landscape. At least not the captive ones. They’re usually kept in stables.

DALY: All the elephants are pretty much always chained. It's the easiest way to kind of control and corral massive animal like an elephant. So usually a chain is around the ankle and it's tethered to a pole in the stall.

GWIN: In some camps, as tours come through, elephants are brought out for photos.

DALY: A really kind of big move that was popular with tourists is that you'll sit between elephants will like cross their trunks and then you'll sit on the trunks and the two elephants will hoist you up in there and then you can get your photo taken. And often it's pandemonium often you have like one to a group has just arrived of 50 people and they're all clamoring to get that perfect selfie with the elephants.


GWIN: Visitors also ride on the elephants, and the elephants perform tricks in shows.

DALY: Typical tricks will be running around playing a harmonica bouncing a basketball and shooting a net throwing darts at a dartboard. Demoing different ways to lift logs, like almost paying an homage to the logging industry of yore. And the tricks when you see one the first time you're like kind of like wow. But then when you start to watch more or more shows you see that the tricks are actually pretty repeated throughout all the shows in many different places all over.

GWIN: And Natasha says, the elephants do this all day long.

DALY: I think a key thing I noticed was the monotony and I think like the isolation.

GWIN: Elephants are social animals.They roam with their families in the wild. But in captivity, their closest relationship is often with their human caretaker: the mahout.

DALY: I talked to many mahouts who said I don't see them as an elephant or a pet. I feel like their part of my family.

GWIN: But even when the mahouts own the elephants, they can’t always treat them how they want. Because they often don’t own the camps where they work.

DALY: When you're in a camp-like environment where you're employed by the camp owner, that elephant’s employed, you may not have a choice if the elephant doesn't want to do something you may have to force that elephant to do it anyway

GWIN: Natasha said she saw this happen a lot.

DALY: Sometimes if an elephant doesn't want to do something the mahout won't force it to, but you know in other cases um who would whack it with the hook. And so then the elephant would kind of do what they're going to do.

GWIN: Natasha talked with dozens of mahouts and she says one conversation really stuck with her. The mahout was in his thirties and his whole family had worked with elephants.

DALY: He spent hours talking with me about how his life had changed from when he was a little boy and his father was a mahout to now. So when he was a kid they had way more land in the area. They were able to kind of take the elephants down, let them like hang out in the forest for the day, bring them back. They didn't have to keep them on chains that were a metre and a half long. He said to me I don't want to keep my elephant on a chain that's a metre and a half long but there's so little space like it's it's the only option.

GWIN: The mahout also said he had to feed his family.

DALY: He said he really wished it wasn't the case that he didn't have to lease elephant to a camp down south to make money but that's the reality of making money in the industry.

GWIN: But there are some signs that that industry is changing. Recently, some camps have begun to respond to a new kind of consumer demand.


GWIN: Supakorn Tananseth says his family has been in business for more than 30 years. They own ChangChill - an elephant camp that’s an hour and a half west of the city of Chiang Mai. At ChangChill, there are no elephants lifting people with their trunks for photos, or throwing darts. Supakorn says the reasons for not having those attractions are simple.

SUPAKORN: [speaking in Thai]

GWIN: He believed there was enough demand from tourists to provide a different kind of experience.

SUPAKORN: [speaking in Thai]

GWIN: Supakorn says, it’s a win-win situation. It’s good for the elephants, the tourists, and his business.

DRINYA KENYON (WORLD ANIMAL PROTECTION): I mean it's really important for a ChangChill to be successful.

GWIN: Drinya Kenyon helped Supakorn transform ChangChill. She works for the animal welfare organization World Animal Protection.

KENYON: If it's successful in a sense that it's profitable and sustainable then we can truly showcase ChangChill as profitable and sustainable, like you know elephant friendly business model in order to convince other elephant camp to follow suit.

GWIN: World Animal Protection provides ChangChill with financial and technical support. They’ve helped build a physical infrastructure that makes it possible for tourists to observe elephants. They also train guides to answer questions and tell stories.

KENYON: With observation only activity. It's basically the key is storytelling. So the guide has to has to be highly knowledgeable in order to keep the audience, the visitor engaged.

GWIN: Drinya says they also teach mahouts how to train elephants through positive reinforcement. At Changchill, the mahoots still carry bullhooks, but she says, they only use them in case of emergency.

KENYON: If you don't want them to go that way, they can just tell the elephant to to back off to stop doing it. But if she still doesn't respond to that, then we’ll just give them food to lure them to go where we want them to be.


GWIN: But Drinya says, transitioning elephant camps isn’t an easy job.

KENYON: The most challenging part for me is basically working with business people. And trying to steer them in the direction that we want them to see, because their priority is just to future proof their camp. Right?

GWIN: They want to future proof their elephant camps, because it’s a business. Even the owner of Changchill, Supakorn Tananseth told me that his family owns two other camps, and they are pretty conventional. He says that if Changchill’s transition is successful, they’ll consider eliminating the hands-on elephant experiences from his family’s other camps. But for now, there are still plenty of tourists interested in getting their photos taken with elephants and seeing them do tricks.

JOSHUA PLOTNIK (PROFESSOR, HUNTER COLLEGE): You know the issue is I think much more complicated than people think.

GWIN: Joshua Plotnik teaches at Hunter College in New York. He studies animal cognition. And he’s spent years working in Thailand with Asian elephants.

PLOTNIK: I wish all elephants could be free. But we can't take all of these captive elephants and release them into the wild. So we have to find some sort of solution for these animals and in many cases it does seem that tourism works.

GWIN: Joshua says he’s deeply concerned about the welfare of elephants. But he also worries about the camp owners who could lose the income that helps support their families. That money also helps keep the animals fed and cared for. In fact, Joshua worries some of this elephant activism could backfire, especially if Thai camp owners feel like foreigners are trying to shame them.

PLOTNIK: It will only encourage them to say you know what? If this is how you think then we're not going to work with Westerners anymore we're going to target tourists that care less about welfare and that will unfortunately hurt the elephants much more than it will hurt the people that are taking care of them.

GWIN: Joshua thinks completely eliminating the more hands on experiences - that’s just not realistic. Instead he says incremental change is a better starting place.

PLOTNIK: Look, if you keep an elephant on a very short chain this isn't high quality welfare. So let's increase the length of this chain. Let's allow the elephant to move a little bit more freely, to interact more socially with other elephants in your camper your facility instead of using the hook freely to to scare or to punish an elephant use the tools very sparingly.

GWIN: Joshua works with the organization Asian Captive Elephant Working Group. Their aim is to make sure basic needs are met.

PLOTNIK: Let's make sure these elephants have adequate food. Let's make sure these elephants have adequate water. Let's make sure these elephants have some level of freedom of movement, right? That means that if they have to live in a confined space, right? If you have an elephant camp in the middle of a city in Thailand for instance right? So they have some natural habitat but you can't let them freely roam because that's dangerous. Let's try to increase the amount of time they have during the day to move freely, or to interact with other elephants, or give them enrichment.

GWIN: Enrichment, like toys or puzzle boxes that hide their food.

PLOTNIK: This is a way of trying to exercise the elephant's mind and exercise the elephant's body. So give them as natural an experience as you can but be realistic about what you can actually do.

GWIN: Joshua says, that if the elephant tourism industry is going to change, it’s going to take input from all of the key stakeholders: mahouts, veterinarians, scientists, the government, and of course, the camp owners.

PLOTNIK: They're not going to suddenly say, “You're right. Let's release our elephants into the wild or let's give our elephants to a sanctuary. The sanctuaries will take better care of our elephants.” That's not happening. Because again this is such a complicated situation. It can't simply be solved by cutting off the money that's going to these places. It doesn't work.


GWIN: So, it’s complicated. That’s something Natasha found in her reporting, too. She visited a town in the Peruvian Amazon called Puerto Alegria.

DALY: There we encountered dozens of wild animals being held in makeshift cages under homes and tourists were coming in, sometimes 50 or 100 tourists a day, brought in by boat to hold these animals for 20 minutes get their photos taken and leave.

GWIN: Hotels and nearby resorts bussed in tourists, eager to engage with exotic animals.

DALY: There were sloths. There were caymans. There were anacondas. There was a giant anteater slurping up pink yogurt off the deck. There were parrots with their wings clipped so that they couldn't fly away. There were turtles. There was a manatee in a pond.

GWIN: A year and a half after Natasha visited Puerto Alegria, the Peruvian authorities caught wind of the operation. And they stepped in.

DALY: They brought in two cargo planes lent from the Peruvian air force and they brought in the Peruvian coast guard and this whole array of authorities kind of came in one day they did a raid on this town with the objective of rescuing the animals.

GWIN: All in all - they rescued 22 animals, including the manatee.They didn’t arrest anyone. But they did tell people there would be arrests if they continued to capture wild animals.

DALY: So the local NGO in the region immediately stepped in after the police left because they think this is a crucial thing, it's like ultimately you could say you're taking away these people's livelihood by rescuing these animals and they are making huge tips off of these tourists sometimes 200, 300 tourists a day.

GWIN: So they started working on a plan.

DALY: And they decided to set up a look culture museum a very kind of modest museum showcasing artifacts from their indigenous heritage. Local music cooking classes et cetera. And they sent a few months kind of setting this up and they were you know really excited about it, it looked wonderful and they put in all this work and they established a tourism organization. And kind of the lead guy who used to capture animals became the president of the new tourism organization. So it really illustrated this transition that this town really collectively committed to.

GWIN: New jobs. New focus. This all sounds good.

DALY: But what kind of ended up happening was that the people weren't coming the tourists weren't coming anymore. And as it turns out what was really happening was the hotels and tour agencies who used to funnel them there instead diverted them to other spots down the Amazon River where people had kind of filled that void by collecting animals from the jungle and keeping them in captivity for selfies.

GWIN: Ah, so we’re back to the selfies. Natasha says the people in Puerto Alegria continue to struggle.

DALY: So it's almost like a whack a mole situation it's like OK well you put all these resources into rescuing 22 animals that town did the right thing and they stopped. But then you have this other stuff popping up, so ultimately you're you're saying OK what's the solution to all this.

GWIN: It doesn’t seem all that clear.

DALY: I don't know what what the sort of ultimate incentive is to transition. And I think, I think it really does come down to what visitors are willing to pay for.

GWIN: So ultimately, tourists need to ask themselves a difficult question. How much am I willing to pay for an awesome selfie? We’ll have more after the break.


GWIN: Natasha Daly traveled around the world to look at how animals are treated in the captive wildlife industry. She even saw a pop up aquarium in a parking lot in Russia. You can find a link to her cover story in our show notes. We also share some tips on how to have an ethical encounter with wildlife on your next wild vacation. And some of our photographers share how they captured those breathtaking images that you see in the pages of National Geographic of wildlife in their natural habitat.

You can find all of that and more in our show notes, which are right there in your podcast app.


Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, and Robin Miniter. 

Our editor is Ibby Caputo. 

Michelle Harris fact checks our episodes. 

Our Deputy Director of Podcasts is Emily Ochsenschlager. 

Overheard’s theme music is composed by Hansdale Hsu. He engineers our episodes with additional help from Nick Anderson, Jay Olszewski, and Burleigh Seaver. 

Special thanks to: Than Hang Pham, Jeremy Dalmas, Alex Boyesen, and Interface Media Group.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. Whitney Johnson is the director of Visuals and Immersive Experiences. And Susan Goldberg is our editorial director. I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next week.