Tourism on the Australian island went up 15 percent last year, bringing in funds to go toward research and preservation for the island's 12,000 quokkas
Tourists don’t have to work hard to score a photo op with Rottnest Island‘s quokkas.
More than 12,000 of the marsupials roam the Australian island. They’re friendly with people, often approaching tourists eager to take a quick photo with the so-called “world’s happiest animal” — since the quokka’s mouth naturally curves to look like a smile.
“The quokkas are themselves very inquisitive, so they will look at the camera,” Michelle Reynolds, the island’s executive director, tells PEOPLE. “And I’ve seen them smiling.”
Selfies with the creatures raise awareness of their plight, Reynolds says, which in turn helps the island fund its quokka research efforts. Thanks in part to the photos taking over Instagram, Rottnest’s tourism went up 15 percent last year. (Most people access the island via ferry from Perth.)
So, Reynolds and the island encourage the selfies, as long as visitors don’t feed or touch the quokkas. But, she acknowledges, “They are very cute, so it’s hard not to want to pet them or touch them.”
Quokka selfies have now become a trend on Instagram, with dozens of celebrities posting their own shots with the animals — from Aussies like Chris Hemsworth and Margot Robbie to visiting fans like Teri Hatcher.
“Epic little creatures are all over the island just cruisin through the day doin their thing,” Hemsworth observed in March. “Get there and check it out!”
The best time to visit may be soon. The mother quokkas will welcome their joeys in September, and, as part of the island’s ongoing education efforts, Reynolds and her team organized a weekend celebration from Sept. 13-15.
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“It’s quite a magnificent opportunity to see little baby joeys,” Reynolds says. “So we thought, ‘How else do you celebrate the arrival of new babies than to have a birthday party?'”
And when the quokka population grows once more with the new births, the island will have selfies, in part, to thank. As Reynolds notes, “It has really highlighted and brought to the attention of the world this most amazing mammal and the opportunity to really see them close up, in their natural environment.”
It is important to note that quokkas are a rare exception to how wild animals normally act around tourists trying to take selfies. The quokkas of Rottnest Island aside, you should never approach a wild animal for a photo. It is always best to enjoy wildlife from a safe distance.