How Social Media Killed the Elephant: When Nature Meets Geotagging

Imagine you’re on a safari in the African Serengeti, a once in a lifetime trip. You have planned for months to go on a wildlife safari, probably put down a hefty payment in hopes of seeing some animals, and flew halfway around the world. Your guide is optimistic that they will find an elephant somewhere on the reserve. As you clear a cluster of trees, you hear a series of gasps from your fellow tourists – there is a herd of elephants right ahead of your truck! You excitedly take out your phone, open the camera, and find the perfect angle for the photo where the elephant herd is clearly visible behind your smiling self. What you don’t realize, however, is that there is a darker side to your selfie that may mean death for the very elephants you came across the world to see. The culprit? Geotagging.

Four giraffes are seen huddled underneath a tree with the shadow of a jeep extended on grass and dirt in the foreground.
Seeing and photographing incredible animals such as giraffes is an amazing experience, but there are potential pitfalls to documenting the experience. (Photo credit: Lindsey Popken)

 

Geotagged photographs are those that link your image to the specific location in which you took the photograph. Geotagging can provide data as specific as the exact latitude and longitude of the photo. Your phone’s GPS may be at fault, and your location can be shared with or without your knowledge. It’s unsettling to think that your exact location can be discovered through a photograph. It’s even more unsettling to discover that this feature has not only been utilized by safaris to guide their tours to the best animal sightings, but also by another group with a less innocuous intention – poachers.

 

A drawn map of Africa is in the background with 5 different images of endangered animals. Each animal's photo has a crosshair overlayed on top.
Many of our cherished animals are being poached annually at alarming and tragic rates. (Source: African WIldlife Foundation)

 

When a tourist uploads a photo of a wild animal that poachers wish to target (think elephants, rhinos, and tigers), the poacher can download location data from the photo to track down that animal, including the exact time and location of when the photo was taken and uploaded. If poachers are unable to extract the exact time and location, they can use the image to deduce where the animal is located based on the setting of the picture, such as a certain mountain range or unique tree. What started as a simple photograph taken by a tourist thrilled to have seen such an iconic animal, can result in illegal poaching. With millions of animals poached around the world every year, it is worrisome to think about how popular social media platforms contribute to such tragedies.

 

An image taken from instagram with the user's name redacted. The image shows a gorilla sitting in shrubbery with another gorilla peeking out from bushes in the background.
The “Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park” line above the Instagram image is an example of geotagging. (Source: Instagram, but anonymous for privacy)

 

Geotagging has also been shown to fuel environmental-related degradation and exploitation of people who live in or around a popular tourist destination. Someone’s beautiful Instagram or Facebook post may encourage others to visit the same location. Yet, places with too many tourists often face environmental degradation, excess waste and litter, and a marginalization of locals who can no longer afford to live there due to skyrocketing prices. These negative results of tourism are particularly harmful for areas within a larger geographic region, for example a certain hot spring in Yellowstone National Park that is very ecologically sensitive and ill-equipped to handle large numbers of visitors.

An image of the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.
Image taken at Yellowstone National Park. Note the long line of people waiting to take a picture at one particular spot. (Photo credit: Abigail Keller)

 

To address concerns about how tourism can harm the environment, there has been a rise in ecotourism, defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” according to the International Ecotourism Society. Companies are starting to take notice of reports that criticize the downsides of tourism, but research has yet to fully acknowledge or understand how social media and geotagging are contributing to negative phenomenon ecotourism aims to alleviate.

The problem of poachers taking advantage of excited and unaware tourists, or the one of too many tourists visiting a scenic location may seem too overwhelming to solve . It calls into question our obsession with social media: the constant desire to take the best photograph to capture the amazing feeling you are experiencing when visiting a beautiful place. The point of critiquing the downsides of geotagging is not to shame anyone; it’s merely a call for being more responsible when taking and posting social media posts.

An Instagram image of a warning sign hanging from a metal gate. The sign reads: "Please be careful when sharing photos on social media. they can lead poachers to our rhino. Turn off geotag function and do not disclose where the photo was taken."
Wildlife reserves have started posting warnings to visitors about the dangers of posting images of the reserve on social media. (Source: Travel+Leisure)

 

Luckily, there are some potential solutions to offset potential harms from geotagging:

  1. While on vacation visiting a scenic location or wildlife, consider taking geotagging out of the equation. Follow this link to find out how you can turn off geotagging for your device!
  2. If you do wish to make note of your location in your social media posts, avoid using an overly specific location indicator. Instead of putting the exact name of the wildlife reserve or national park location you were at when the photograph was taken, just name the region or state you visited.
  3. People who view your account may be inspired to emulate the behavior and practices they see in the image. Therefore, Leave No Trace, a Center for Outdoor Ethics, encourages safe and respectful practices like not getting too close to an animal when taking a photo, which can inspire others to do the same!
A graphic taken from the Jackson Hole News and Guide reads: "How many likes is a patch of dead wildflowers worth? Tag locations responsibly. Keep Jackson Hole wild."
Local tourist boards are running geotagging awareness campaigns. (Source: Jackson Hole News and Guide)

 

Of course, when visiting a beautiful location and seeing some amazing animals, you could also consider not taking a photograph at all. Being in the moment is just as meaningful, and can mean that the animals and scenery you are entranced by stay safe and healthy for generations to come.

Happy travels!