International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) assesses, around two-thirds of the 514 primate species are threatened with extinction, driven by agriculture, hunting, human infrastructure and the climate crisis.
Experts fear that images of primatologists interacting with animals can undermine conservation efforts by inadvertently driving demand for the illegal primate pet trade and encouraging the public to take selfies with monkeys, orangutans and lemurs.
Primates are not the only animals that have been negatively affected by the social media age. In Costa Rica, selfies with wild animals have been banned in an attempt to protect sloths, which have been illegally used as props for tourists.
Laëtitia Maréchal, a primatologist at the University of Lincoln who helped devise the new guidelines, said: “When you see a presenter trying to pet a primate on TV, it is human psychology to want to replicate that. The guidelines are not to point a finger at people but to help people be aware of the consequences.”
Siân Waters, a macaque specialist at Durham University, heads the IUCN specialist group for human-primate interactions that devised the guidelines. Waters said she had noticed the effect of social media posts and magazine articles in her work studying the endangered Barbary macaque.
“Sometimes people will ask us if we can get them a pet macaque. We noticed an increase in the number of people asking us that whenever there was a picture in the paper of a Moroccan celebrity or French celebrity with a Barbary macaque as a photo prop in the picture,” she said.
“A lot of people are very well intentioned when they post these photographs, but the problem is how they are perceived. The context can get lost very easily on social media.
“It might have a very clear conservation message which says, ‘Don’t keep primates as pets’ with an image of someone holding a confiscated pet macaque or a confiscated pet chimp. But in actual fact, that context is lost almost immediately as that is shared all over the world.”
The primatologist Jane Goodall issued similar advice last year after an image of a young chimpanzee scrolling on a mobile phone went viral on social media. Her institute has stopped using images of Goodall interacting closely with primates.