*This post was updated on April 6th, 2017.
I get a daily alert from Vogue magazine (I know, shocking!). Today, I clicked on a link to check out model Emily Ratajkowski’s vacation photos from Mexico and was shocked to see her Instagram holding a baby sea turtle. This is bad for so many reasons. I am writing this blog to draw attention to this issue and ultimately get her to remove her Instagram post, and instead post a new photo explaining why this type of post is so bad for sea turtles and all endangered species.
- All species of sea turtles are endangered or threatened. While I am not sure what species this is*, all are in danger of extinction and are extremely vulnerable to threats, especially those from humans.
- In the United States, endangered species are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which sets guidelines to protect the species for their recovery. You cannot kill, harm, or harass the animal (which includes picking up and touching!) as this interferes with the recovery of the species. There are severe consequences for violating the ESA including severe fines and even time in prison. Simply harassing an endangered animal can carry a fine of $10,500. The ONLY way to interact with an endangered species is through a license or permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While I understand this occurred in Mexico, the same concepts apply**.
- Sea turtles use moonlight to orient themselves to the ocean. Bright lights on the beach are a huge threat to sea turtles as they outshine the moonlight, confusing babies and preventing them from getting to the ocean safely – they can go the wrong direction and never make it to the ocean. Ratajkowski used a flash to take a picture of this baby sea turtle, which disturbed others on the beach even if she placed this one in the water successfully. Given that she used a flash, and is not with professional researchers, she likely also had other lights to go to the beach at night, making the impact even larger.
- Sea turtles do not need our help making it to the ocean! Quite the opposite, simply our presence is a threat to them. Picking them up and “releasing” them in the water is NOT helping them. For the reasons mentioned above, this is much more disruptive and downright harmful to the survival of the hatching sea turtles.
- She has over TWELVE million followers! She is setting a terrible example and sending the message that this is okay to touch and harass endangered species.
PLEASE join me by tweeting this blog to Emily Ratajkowski (@emrata) asking her to take down her sea turtle post and instead post a new message saying why it is important to NEVER touch an endangered or threatened species. #EmilyHurtsTurtles
With the rise of social media, there is a culture of selfies with animals, and while I am the first to admit they are super cute (and I have my own selfies with animals) – NEVER disrupt or harass wildlife (endangered or not) to get the perfect animal photo for your Instagram photo.
But Not So Fast…
It has been brought to my attention that Ratajkowski may indeed be part of an official sea turtle conservation program and is likely not interfering babies found on the beach and their ability to make it to the ocean. Conservation is not so black and white! I have been tweeting back and forth with sea turtle scientist Dr. Catherine Hart (@cehart03) and she explained to me that in Mexico, many of the beaches are already disrupted from development and tourism that when the sea turtles lay their eggs, conservationists work with local communities to collect their eggs and relocate them into facilities where they can be protected from poachers. Sea turtles are poached around the world not only for their beautiful shells which can be carved into sunglasses, jewelry, and other trinkets, but also for their meat and eggs. Rather than run the risk of a nest being disrupted by poachers, these conservationists raise the babies in protected environments and then often release them with the help of the public. This not only ensures the babies are protected, but also raises awareness on sea turtle conservation as a whole. Seriously, who can resist these babies turtles?
Hart even suggested that by model Ratajkowski posting videos encourages people to care about them and may even dissuade them from wanting sea turtle leather handbag. She told me that these programs have been so successful that Olive Ridley sea turtles (the species featured in Ratajkowski’s post) are now vulnerable and not endangered thanks to the work of these local communities.
While I fully agree with Hart on this latter concept, what still concerns me is this message is not clear in Ratajkowski’s post. Through skimming the comments, I clearly was not the only one to think that she was interfering with natural baby turtles. I only knew where she was in the world because I originally followed the Vogue post about her Mexican vacation. Sea turtles hatching from nests around the world do not have the same protections and may be encountered by people who see Ratajkowski’s post and do not understand that she did it with a verified conservation program. She has 12 million followers all over the world! I have a Ph.D. in biology and it took some time for me to understand the nuances of sea turtle conservation on this single threat. It therefore is confusing to her followers, who likely do not take the time to sort through information or have scientists in their social media network to consult.
While Ratajkowski has the amazing opportunity to advertise sea turtle conservation, doing so with a shallow Instagram video can do more hurt than harm. I am not opposed to Ratajkowski posting the video, I simply ask her to edit the caption saying that she is only doing this with a professional conservation organization and with their permission and to never disrupt sea turtles in the wild.
*If anyone knows what species this is, please email me at Stephanie.schuttler at gmail.com and I will update this post.
**Again, if you have specific information on species protections in Mexico, I will update this blog.
Side photo of Olive Ridley Turtle by Solvin Zankl via ARKive.