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Travel Why geotagging your Instagram photos can have unintended consequences

In South Africa, signs are attached to fences along safari routes asking photographers not to share the location of rhinos, which are targets for poachers.

Frank van den Bergh/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Last November, the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board launched a marketing campaign asking visitors at the picturesque valley to think twice before they geotag photographs they post on social-media sites.

“Tag locations responsibly. Keep Jackson Hole wild,” was one campaign message to get people to consider the potential impact their photos might have on fragile ecosystems or wildlife. “One little tag. One big problem,” is another that refers to the onslaught of Instagram-hungry crowds that descended on the Wyoming area last summer.

GP photo tagging, or geotagging, embeds digital photos with latitude, longitude and even altitude data. This makes it possible to pinpoint the subject’s precise location, all of which means previous off-the-beaten-path natural wonders are becoming Instagram-friendly commodities. All these extra visitors – hoping to get their own perfect shot – can unwittingly cause environmental damage, disrupt animal habitats, put themselves in danger and lead to more work for rescuers.

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“In recent years, Jackson Hole and areas in Grand Teton National Park, specifically Delta Lake, were seeing tremendous increases in foot traffic and hikers as a result of Instagramming and more specifically, geotagging,” says Kate Sollitt, executive director of Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board. She added that it was a “difficult time” for park officials, who reported damage to terrain as well as an increase in hikers going off trail and getting lost.

“The idea behind the campaign is not to discourage visitors from visiting our parks and experiencing our natural splendour, but to encourage our visitors to plan ahead … so they are better prepared for their adventure and ultimately have a better experience,” Sollitt says, referring to visitors who have an image in mind of an outdoor excursion, but no clue of what clothes, equipment, etc., they might need to successfully pull it off.

The “hot spotting” of beautiful locales – when a location gets geotagged, is posted on social media and then goes viral – is an issue in other places too. In South Africa, signs are attached to fences along safari routes asking photographers not to share the location of rhinos, which are targets for poachers.

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Last summer, a farmer in Millgrove, Ont., closed down his sunflower farm after swarms of people invaded his property. Last week, flower lovers lamented the trampling of hundreds of apricot-coloured poppies that sprouted due to Southern California’s wet winter. And in Banff National Park, the locals now call three glacially fed lakes the “Reddit Lakes” – referring to the social news and discussion website – because of the vast numbers of people who show up each year to take selfies beside the turquoise waters of lakes Peyto, Moraine and Louise after learning about them on one of the website’s forums.

“We haven’t done anything official, but we support the hashtag #nogeotag,” says Hillary Young, senior Alberta program manager for Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.

“We are certainly not against promoting our beautiful natural spaces, but when people visit any region with ecological sensitivity they should be responsible," she says.

“When you take a photo and post it to social media ask yourself, ‘Are you encouraging bad behaviour, even unintentionally?” Young says. “Do you want to encourage people to set up camp or campfires where they’re not allowed? Do you want people feeding the animals or climbing mountains they might not be properly prepared to take on?

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“Mountain-side rescues – which are extremely expensive – are steadily increasing and we attribute it to photos on Facebook, Instagram et cetera. Instead of tagging the rock you’re standing on, how about you just tag the general area.”

In the hands of the average person, geotags narrow a geographic search. In the hands of poachers in South Africa, they have become a tool that endangers animal’s lives.

Cathy Dean, chief executive of Save the Rhino International, a 25-year-old agency based in Britain, says she used to play down geotagging’s impact because every safari already widely reports the number of Big Five animals (lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffaloes) it has on its reserves.

She changed her tune a month ago when new research proved it’s possible – in fact, easy – to build profiles of individual rhinos and then map their home ranges and “density hot spots” simply using the geotagged images published on social media.

“Our world today – whether we like it or not – is as much about sharing an image on Instagram of what you have done, as actually doing the activity in the first place,” Dean says. “Technology is only as good as the people who use it and we need to be more vigilant.”

When Jackson Hole launched its campaign late last year Sollitt says feedback was mixed.

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“People didn’t understand the full intent of what we were trying to get across … which is to preserve and protect our natural assets now and into the future.” But now they’re seeing more locals and visitors following their slogan, “tag responsibly, keep Jackson Hole wild,” she says. “We’re also seeing other communities follow suit with Bend, Oregon, using tag responsibly, keep Bend beautiful.”

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