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Instagram helps to fight animal abuse, exploitation with new hashtag alert system

By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer
December 22, 2017, 8:51:04 AM EST

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Instagram recently announced a new initiative to take action against animal abuse and exploitation with a hashtag alert system.

The social media network Instagram works with wildlife groups such as World Animal Protection, World Wildlife Fund and TRAFFIC to identify and take action on photos or videos that violate Instagram's community guidelines, such as posts depicting animal abuse, poaching or the sale of endangered animals and their parts.

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Tourists make selfies with panda Yuan Zi, father of the new panda born Yuan Meng is pictured at the zoo. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

"[Instagram] encourage[s] you to be mindful of your interactions with wild animals, and consider whether an animal has been smuggled, poached or abused for the sake of tourism," said Cassandra Koenen, head of Wildlife Campaigns at World Animal Protection, an international non-profit agency.

"For example, be wary when paying for photo opportunities with exotic animals, as these photos and videos may put endangered animals at risk," Koenen said.

In October 2017, Instagram was alerted that cutting-edge image recognition research undertaken by World Animal Protection showed a 292 percent increase in the number of selfies with wild animals posted on the site since 2014.

More than 40 percent of those photos showed particularly harmful interactions with wild animals - someone hugging, holding or inappropriately handling a wild animal.


Two young models pose in front of an elephant, ridden by a bunch of their colleagues, during their visit at the Swiss Circus ''Knie'' in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP PHOTO/Martial Trezzini)

"World Wildlife Fund and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, have been working with Facebook and Instagram to advise on illegal wildlife policies and to assist with training material development around endangered animal content," said Gia Grein, wildlife crime program officer for TRAFFIC and World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

This hashtag alert provided a great opportunity to combine wildlife trafficking awareness and the functionality of social media to educate users about illegal wildlife trade.

"WWF and TRAFFIC sent in nearly 250 hashtags associated with illegal wildlife products or selfies that may be associated with animals smuggled from the wild," Grein said.

Selfies don't just come at the cost of the animal's freedom since a simple selfie could quickly turn into a life-threatening situation for the eager tourist. There is always a level of danger and uncertainty around wild animals if they feel threatened or are protecting their young.

Two tourists were attacked by bison while taking pictures in Yellowstone National Park, a woman was killed by a lion in South Africa while shooting photos from inside a vehicle, a man was trampled to death by an elephant while taking a selfie at Nuapada and many more cases.

There are currently hundreds of hashtags such as #SlothSelfie and #MonkeySelfie on Instagram.

Following meetings between World Animal Protection and Instagram, the popular social media site announced that when one of their 800 million users searches for a hashtag associated with harmful behavior to animals, they will receive a pop-up alert stating:

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 behavior to animals or the environment.

The alerts will also provide links to WWF and TRAFFIC for users to learn more.

Users can visit a page where Instagram warns them to consider whether an animal has been smuggled, poached or abused for the sake of tourism. Users are told to be wary when paying for photo opportunities with exotic animals, as these photos and videos may put endangered animals at risk.

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Grein said there are a few key functions of the hashtag pop-up alert.

One goal is to educate users about illegal wildlife trade and potentially detrimental selfies so they don’t unknowingly partake.

Once people are educated, they are able to spread the word to others about illegitimate tourism operations that may be fueling wildlife trafficking. This also allows people to report endangered animal products.

Another main goal is to create a deterrent effect for criminals who exploit the platform for illegal wildlife trade.

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"It’s great to see social media companies stepping up in this way to ensure that endangered species aren’t exploited online for animal selfies or illegal wildlife trade," Grein said.

With Instagram's community of over 800 million users, it holds the power to change the conversation around the use of animals. Even if the cruelty isn't right in front of you, there is most likely cruelty that's behind the scenes to get that animal to comply, according to wildlife experts.

“We congratulate Instagram on taking this important step towards educating its users about wild animals that are suffering for selfies and for recognizing that animal abuse happens both in front of and behind the camera. The reality is these wild animals are suffering terribly,” Koenen said.

To learn more about posts that encourage harmful behavior to animals, visit Instagram's Wildlife Exploitation page.

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