Snap! Behind the Scenes of Lion Selfies with Jess Murray

Hidden behind that cute-and-cuddly lion cub selfie is the chilling story of an industry that exploits – and eventually kills – lions. And it’s fuelled by tourists who think they’re helping.

Conservationist Jess Murray’s powerful story about lion tourism and canned hunting – voted Second Runner Up by Wildlife Blogger of the Year judges – is based on a chilling undercover filming assignment in Africa. But she turned the experience into an important message for all travellers and wildlife-lovers.

“I think good conservation blogs and stories have a responsibility to tackle controversial issues – and this one does that excellently”, said conservation blogger and judge Dr James Borrell.

“This entry packs a powerful punch, delivering an important message in an arresting way. I greatly appreciated the author’s compassionate outrage and her deep desire to help achieve change”, said outdoor philosopher and writer Dr Kate Rawles.

We asked Jess to share more about her experience filming undercover and what she recommends for more responsible wildlife tourism.

Can you tell us a bit more about your experience filming undercover? How did you get into this? What were the objectives? 

Interestingly, the undercover filming was not originally planned for the project, but it’s often those impromptu events that are the most impactful! I was part of a film crew creating a documentary about responsible volunteering, and it was during our stay with a conservationist that we were told about a horrific animal-petting facility that was on our way to our next destination. So within a very short amount of time I went from filming on a beautiful game reserve to being sent in undercover to witness an array of wildlife being forced to live in terrible conditions.

It really was one of the hardest things that I’ve had to do in my professional career and it really affected me. I wanted people to know the truth behind these places and spread awareness so that people learn to question what they see and trust their gut instinct in different situations. We’re lucky to be living in a time when the world is really waking up and we aren’t believing things simply because they’ve been told to us from people in power.

In regards to this particular situation, I wanted to share my story so that people can learn to ask “why am I being encouraged to put my hand inside a lion’s mouth? And why is this lion just lying there and allowing me to? This isn’t right.’ It’s important to ask those questions.

When we think about conservation, often it’s the charismatic species that get the most support. In this case, it’s the charismatic species that’s being abused. Is this a double-edged sword situation?

I largely work in social media, and through that I’ve developed a real love-hate relationship with it. Yes it’s great that we now have a platform to express ourselves, but it’s also created a space for people to show themselves seemingly ‘living their best lives’, which includes trying their best to impress others. And sadly, animal selfies are a huge part of that. The Truth Behind my Lion Selfie really showed that a lovely looking lion triggers a heartwarming emotion in others, and whilst the majority of people don’t want to harm these beautiful creatures but just want to be close to them, it’s so important for people to realise the damage that animal selfies cause. 

Like you said so well in your piece, everyone loves a cute lion selfie. Do you have any recommendations for travellers to avoid contributing to any negative impacts of lion tourism (or other tourism)? How can they help make a positive contribution to conservation?

As a general rule, any facility that offers cub petting or big cat walks is not a good place. No matter how many times they tell you ‘this lion was rejected by its mother so we have to look after it’, ‘this lion wouldn’t survive in the wild’ or ‘this lion relies on us and you’re helping conservation’ it’s simply not true. These places thrive on evoking human emotion and making you feel as if the lion needs help from you, but it’s simply a money-making business and it needs to end. It’s tough and things definitely won’t change overnight but things are getting better. The best thing that we can all do is spread awareness about the truth behind animal selfies and cub petting, which is what my article aimed to do.

What’s your favourite place that you’ve travelled to?

I love Zululand in South Africa! It’s a beautiful place with a stunning array of wildlife and I have incredibly fond memories of it as it’s where I qualified as a nature guide! I also travelled to South America recently and explored Brazil and Argentina, which were both incredible countries with really interesting wildlife as well as landscapes. I travelled around a lot in Brazil and each place was completely different to the last, but equally as interesting and exciting to visit and I actually had my best wildlife sighting ever there so it’s very special! You can see the wildlife I found there on my Instagram.

What’s next for you?

2019 is shaping up to be a really interesting year already. Day to day, I’m working with WWF and Netflix on the upcoming Netflix-original series called Our Planet, which launches in April and is narrated by David Attenborough. It’s an incredibly exciting time as we’re creating a real positive movement for worldwide change, so keep an eye out for that!

Then I’ve got some new conservation projects coming up that I’ll hopefully be blogging about, as well as travelling to a few different and new places whilst expanding my photography style, which I really enjoy. And on a bit of a random note I’m also teaching myself to paint and studying for a diploma in Dream Analysis and Therapy! 

I think we’re currently going through a really exciting time in the conservation world where new discoveries are being made every day and we finally have an accessible platform to share them. The world is changing and evolving and there are so many passionate people doing incredible things – I’m super excited for what 2019 will bring!

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We hope you’ll share Jess’s story, help us spread the word about responsible wildlife tourism and ask questions before your next selfie with lions or other wildlife. For more by Jess, check out her blog, According to Jess, or follow her on Facebook and Instagram