EleFact Friday: Photographs and Wildlife

We frequently get asked questions about whether the elephants here at sanctuary ask for affection – which they do at times – and how close we generally stay from the girls to get photographs. For this week’s EleFact Friday, we’ll talk about how close we get to the elephants and how taking photographs with wild animals in general can be a harmful practice, if not done properly.

We try to give the elephants as much space from humans as possible, but because they need care and checkups, we do have direct contact with them. For instance, we have to be close enough to Bambi to give her daily eye drops. Bambi learned from positive reinforcement training how to lean in so that we can reach her. But there is always a barrier between elephant and human when this happens. There are other times when the elephants indicate that they’d like affection, which we give them while remaining on the other side of the fence. Keeping a distance from the elephants gives them the opportunity to live most of their lives without human interference. So, when you see videos from us that are close up, they are almost always zoomed in to give the elephants as much space as possible. We share primarily photos and videos taken at a distance because of these studies that show that up-close photos can create a perception that elephants want frequent touch and we don’t want to encourage untrained people from doing something the elephants wouldn’t want from strangers. There are times when elephants will walk away if they see their picture being taken and you are not really present with them, which is one reason we like to give them the space they’re entitled to. 

Recently, scientists have been studying the effects that photographs and selfies have on animal welfare. Most of the people who would want to take a photo with an elephant or other wild or captive animals, are wildlife lovers who want the best for the animal. They perhaps want to have a once-in-a-lifetime moment with an animal one-on-one. But, like the elephants at Elephant Sanctuary Brazil, those animals likely had to suffer being torn from their parents as children for the purpose of tempting tourists – whether in a zoo or circus. Even if the animal was rescued and in sanctuary, their pasts still impact their daily lives. Science says it’s possible that when humans move through an animal’s habitat, they can cause stress reactions and the same study shows it can alter the animal’s behavior. 

Research shows that the more people have these sorts of interactions with wild animals, the more likely others are to want to do the same. Sharing photos of animals in these situations encourages anthropomorphism, which takes away the true identity of the animal. Scientists tell us that social media perpetuates this as people share photos, not knowing or not caring about the context in which the pictures were taken. The discomfort the animal feels isn’t immediately evident to the viewer. We urge you to be aware that the images you see of human and wildlife interactions were possibly not taken under ideal conditions. Taking a selfie with an animal might be exciting, but it isn’t worth the potential trauma that could be inflicted on that animal as a result.

If you’d like to read more about this subject, you can access one story here:

Photo of Rana at breakfast with a mouthful of hay



  1. REPLY
    Sherry says

    Wild animals are just that, wild! Never trust a wild animal. Keep your arms, hands, legs and feet within your body range. I believe wild animals can learn to trust people for one reason
    or another, but you know most people can’t be trusted! I love animals they are God’s creatures and they are beautiful and should be respected. These are my thoughts.

  2. REPLY
    Carol says

    Very interesting…it reminds me of the elephant sanctuary in Thailand founded by Lek Chailert. She has frequent physical contact with the elephants and they run to her for hugs and petting. She also sings to them.

  3. REPLY
    Carey says

    I agree that this new selfie craze is doing a lot of harm, it’s a bit like going to a zoo, most thinkof themselves as animals lovers and it never crosses their minds that they could be participating in damaging behaviours for these poor captive wild animals. However it also interesting that others interact very closely with some of the elephants who seem to want them with them. I wholeheartedly understand that elephants who have always been subservient to human domination deserve the space and respect they get at GSE, and they are blossoming with same species company as it should be.

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