Updated: Apr 5
“Like”. Who’d have thought such a small word could do so much damage? Behind the happy-go-lucky front of social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat hides the dark world of illegal animal trade. Fuelled by an ever-growing market for protected animals and their products, “liking” a post can inadvertently drive sellers to obtain more animals, most often from the wild.
The extent of illegal wildlife trade is vast - TRAFFIC estimated it to be worth well over USD300 billion in 2009, which is estimated to have grown consistently since then. There are many aspects to animal trafficking, including the infamous ivory trade, rhino horn, and - more recently - pangolins. Although this aspect of the trade is terrible and deserves an article completely on its own, in this article I’d like to focus on the shadow-area of the trade: pets.
The illegal pet trade is the illegal animal trade’s dark little secret. Exotic pets are not a new fad as they are often claimed to be - Salvador Dalí had a pet anteater, Josephine Baker owned a cheetah called Chiquita and Elvis shared his home with a chimpanzee named Scatter, among many others. What is new, is the ease with which illegal and exotic pets can be purchased and promoted. As the internet has connected us with people around the world, it is suddenly much easier to gauge demand and provide sellers with a fast, anonymous platform.
Justin Bieber made headlines when his pet monkey - a gift from a family friend - got confiscated by German authorities.
It only takes a quick Instagram search to see how it happened. An image of an illegal pet in a seemingly loving home is shared, and soon comments are flowing in: “I want one, where do I get one?”. A clever salesman under a pseudonym swoops in and transactions are taken offline. The new pet is sold, and after a few months often discarded by its new owners; it “smells bad”, “became aggressive” or “simply got bored of it” are common reasons to discard the pet like an unwanted piece of clothing. A return to the wild at this point is often impossible, especially for species which are maimed to be “more suitable pets”.
Two infant long-tailed macaques for sale in Medan, Indonesia. © Dedi Sahputra / EPA
So where does it end? As of yet, Instagram does not provide a reporting option for animal cruelty. Snapchat allows for reporting “illegal activity”, but there is no consistency in removing sellers’ profiles or reporting them to the authorities. RSPCA recently announced a shocking 340% rise in animal abuse on Snapchat, and although the company released a statement condemning the posts, no immediate action was taken. Facebook previously had a animal abuse report option, but has since removed the option, taking a step back in an ongoing online battle. YouTube remains the only platform with an animal abuse reporting option, but it’s known to be slow in removing media.
An marmoset openly for sale on Instagram despite strict regulations on keeping them in captivity.
However, retaliating with aggression is never an option. After a highly successful campaign by International Animal Rescue on slow loris trade, comments on the video that once sparked the illegal trade for lorises have become increasingly condemning, encouraging people to educate themselves and appealing to YouTube to remove the video. This increase in awareness of the illegal sale of lorises will hopefully slow down the demand in the international market.
Education makes people more aware of the plight of the animals we see on social media.
The illegal pet trade is an issue that involves all of us - so it is up to all of us to take responsibility. Here’s what you can do:
If you see animal abuse of any description, you can call your local RSPCA to report it. Make sure to note as much information about the video as you can, but do not become aggressive towards the poster.
If you see an illegal pet on social media, you can report it to your local authorities.
If you see illegal trade happening on your travels, you can report it via Wildlife Witness - an app you can download free of charge which works in cooperation with TRAFFIC.
NOTE: We are very excited to announce a change since we published this blog post. Instagram is taking steps to limit the damage done. Searching for certain hashtags (such as #dolphinkiss #elephantride now brings up this notification. Amazing news, THANK YOU INSTAGRAM!!!