Is it possible to get a selfie with “the world’s happiest animal” without harming Rottnest Island’s most famous residents? In a nutshell: yes. But there’s an art to it. Here’s everything you need to know.
The rise of the #quokkaselfie
A tiny, ultra cute macropod (or ‘large foot’) the size of a domestic cat, quokkas are almost exclusively found on Western Australia’s Rottnest Island after numbers on the mainland dwindled following European settlement. With no traditional predators on the island, just a 30-minute ferry ride from Freemantle, near Perth, the curious, slow-moving critters have no fear of humans, making them perfect selfie fodder.
It wasn’t until Roger Federer took a #quokkaselfie in late 2017, however, that the craze went global, with the Fed’s post generating half a million likes and making headlines around the world. Tourists still can’t get enough, with tourism numbers to the picturesque limestone island increasing by 15 per cent in 2018.
The Instagram crackdown
In early 2018, Instagram cracked down on the #quokkaselfie, with users who searched for the hashtag on the social media platform redirected to the same animal welfare warning that appears when you search for wildlife interactions with serious animal welfare issues such as #elephantride and #tigerselfie. The Rottnest Island Authority was understandably pretty miffed, and managed to convince Instagram to lift the ban, which they told The Australian “does not serve to educate or inform the public about our conservation efforts or direct people to how they might develop a better understanding of this native species.”
So are there any animal welfare issues linked to #quokkaselfies?
The Instagram incident raised an important issue: are quokka selfies really so harmless? Yes, according to marsupial experts such as Yegor Malaschichev, a zoologist at St Petersburg State University in Russia, who has been interviewed by National Geographic on the subject. As long as you don’t touch or feed them.
I visited Rottnest Island earlier this month, and was impressed by the information I was provided about the plight of the quokka, and how to interact with them responsibly. There are also lots of signs around the island reaffirming the rules and educating visitors on how to take responsible selfies, with volunteers are also stationed at popular pitstops around the island to keep an eye on tourists.
Unfortunately, the reality I experienced is that some tourists either don’t see the signs, or think the rules don’t apply to them. I spotted a group of foreign tourists feeding a quokka at Wadjemup Lighthouse when the volunteer wasn’t looking, and saw plenty of others using leaves to coax quokkas into prime selfie position. While using the quokka’s natural food source is not as damaging to the little fellas as human food, animal welfare experts claim feeding animals teaches them to associate humans with food, which messes with their natural behaviours.
Could more be done to protect quokkas?
People have been fined for feeding (and, sadly, also torturing) quokkas, which are listed as vulnerable by the ICUN and protected under Australian state and federal legislation, but none of the fines have come close to the maximum penalties. In 2018, for example, a man was fined just AU$200 after footage emerged of him assisting a quokka to drink alcohol. Could bigger penalties prove to be more of a deterrent?
As tourism numbers to the island increase, should all visitors be required to sign a declaration that they acknowledge and promise to adhere to the rules? Could rangers play a more active role in the visitor experience? Just a thought.
How to get the shot
First, read the official guidelines. In a nutshell, find a quokka (this isn’t difficult) and wait nearby for it to come to you. Use a selfie stick to help you maintain a respectful distance, and if they’re camera-shy, don’t tempt them with food or water. Once you’ve got your shot, leave the quokka be.
If you follow these rules, you will get a quokka selfie. Eventually! I managed to snap a decent one on my first attempt, and then spent all afternoon trying to get a better one without much success. I came away with bruises on my knees and elbows from crawling around on the ground for so long, but had it been an easy task, it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun.
Quokkas are more active during the later afternoon (tending to doze in the shade during the day) so consider planning to take the last ferry back to Freemantle (typically 6.30pm) or staying overnight at the amazing new eco-friendly Discovery Rottnest Island glamping resort, where you’re likely to share your sundowner with a quokka or two at Pinky’s Beach Club in the early evening.
Thanks to Tourism WA and the Rottnest Island Tourism Authority for supporting my visit to Rotto.