Instagram-crazed tourists are approaching endangered wild animals in Japan and even grabbing them in their pursuit of cool selfies to post on the social media site.

Their actions not only pose a serious threat to wildlife conservation and protection efforts but also expose them to danger by getting too close to untamed animals.

The Environment Ministry’s Shin-etsu Nature Conservation Office in Nagano received an e-mail tip last July that a photo of a hand grabbing a baby rock ptarmigan, an endangered species of grouse known as "raicho," had been posted on a photo-sharing website for mountain climbers.

Fewer than 2,000 of the protected species are believed to exist in Japan.

The photo was snapped on Mount Karamatsudake in the Northern Japan Alps on the Toyama Prefecture side.

Capturing a rock ptarmigan without a permit is a violation of the Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora Law. Manhandling causes extreme stress to wild animals.

The person who grabbed the grouse also potentially put other birds at risk. It is possible that the chick's parents may have left other ptarmigans alone in order to defend it, making them an easy target for predators, such as foxes.

The ministry’s Shin-etsu office consulted with Toyama prefectural police, but had to pass on taking legal action because police were unable to prove the act was illegal based solely on the photo.

The office instead undertook the task of educating mountain climbers by handing out cards that ask them to observe rock ptarmigans from a distance.

Makoto Fukuda, a park ranger who works for the office, said, “Wild animals are different from pets. Please maintain a certain distance from them.”

BROWN BEAR SELFIES SOAR

In Shiretoko, a peninsula located in northeastern Hokkaido and a designated UNESCO World Natural Heritage site, wildlife experts are alarmed by the fact that brown bears have become used to humans. They say social networking sites are partly to blame.

Shiretoko Nature Foundation, a public interest incorporated foundation that studies and protects wildlife in the region, analyzed about 15,000 pictures of brown bears posted on Instagram from 2011 to 2018.

Most pictures were taken at zoos and other facilities, but about 1,300 are suspected to be of wild brown bears in Shiretoko.

The number of such posts has been climbing over the years. The foundation found only a few posts of brown bears taken in Shiretoko on Instagram in 2011.

But the number ballooned to over 400 posts in 2017, when the phrase “Insta-bae” (Instagram-worthy) won a prize in Japan's annual buzzwords-of-the-year contest.

In 2018, more than 600 such posts were found by mid-November, including photos that were suspected to have been taken by getting too close to the animal.

“Brown bears are getting accustomed to humans because humans are getting too close to them,” said Takane Nose, a researcher at the foundation.

Reports of brown bear sightings have increased over the years, supporting Nose’s analysis.

The annual number of brown bear reports in Shari, a town in the Shiretoko Peninsula, was between 600 to 800 about 10 years ago. The number topped 1,000 in 2015 and has stayed at the level ever since.

“As the distance between humans and brown bears shrinks, concerns are mounting about brown bears causing accidents and intruding into urban areas,” Nose said.

Experts overseas are similarly alarmed by the recent human behavior.

The number of pictures of wild animals posted on Instagram worldwide quadrupled in the three years from 2014, according to research by Britain-based Wild Animal Protection.

More than 40 percent of the pictures were deemed inappropriate by the group, such as people lifting animals up in their arms or feeding them.

“As smartphones have become popular, wild animals have become a subject of expression. Tourists have escalated their actions to capture a better scene," said Asami Shikida, a professor at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, who specializes in ecotourism and regional management.

"It is important to respect nature and wild animals, and interact with them in a moderate manner.”

Shikida also pointed out that areas that receive tourists need to make creative efforts.

“Wild animals exist in a region because they have coexisted with humans. There should be an opportunity to explain such background beforehand to visitors, encouraging tourists to observe wildlife animals in a sustainable way,” Shikida said.