Do social media aid the decline of wildlife populations?

In July of 2018, a local Amsterdam television channel broadcasted an episode showing a man with a pet caiman. The reptile was kept as a pet by an Amsterdam resident, who – in the episode – discovered the animal might not be the most suitable as a domestic pet. He therefore brought it to a reptile shelter in Zwanenburg. For the shelter this was not the first time they received a crocodile. Often the animals die in the shelter due to stress or improper care by the previous owner. In the episode, the speaker representing the shelter talks about the unsuitability of these animals as domestic pets. (AT5, 2018)

In the Netherlands, caimans are allowed to be kept as pets. And yes, a list has been drawn up of animals that cannot be kept. The caiman has not been added yet; mainly due to the fact that the existing list is focused primarily on mammals. The Minister of LNV, Carola Schouten, is working on setting up a new list – one that still only contains mammals (Schouten, 2020). This is because the initial list that was drawn up in 2017 was not approved by the CBb (College van Beroep voor het bedrijfsleven). The reasons for the disapproval suggest that the list wasn’t objective enough, was not drawn up by independent experts and the formation of the applied assessment wasn’t clear enough (Rijksoverheid, n.d.) After this new list for mammals is checked and set a-going, a list will be compiled for reptiles. This means it will be at least a few years before this official list is put to action. Until then, the caiman will be allowed to be kept as a pet.

This is an example of what is going on in the Netherlands. But the fact remains that there are people wanting to keep exotic animals for pets. Not just in the Netherlands, but all over the world. To import these exotic animals they must first be traded from their country of origin. This happens in one of two ways: the animals are either captured directly from the wild, or come from breeding rituals after a sample is captured. Both the captured population from the wild, as well as its bred descendants are used for international trading (World Animal Protection, 2019). But is trading allowed for all animal species?

This is where CITES comes in with their ‘Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of the wild fauna and flora’ agreement. 183 Countries have signed this agreement (CITES, n.d.). The CITES agreement covers the protection of living and deceased animals or plants and (derivative) products that come from them (NVWA, n.d.).  However, the agreement applies only to the species listed on the CITES appendices. Three different lists have been drawn up with different rules for protection (CITES, n.d.)

There exists an active trade in exotic animals. One cause for this is the desire for people to keep them as pets. Housing these animals as pets bring along several problems. First off, keeping exotic animals as pets almost always leads to poor well-being of the animals due to high demands for care. Because they come from different climates, they can carry zoonoses that can be harmful for both humans and animals, which in turn can lead to high financial damages trying to contain the diseases after an outbreak. Additionally, the animals sometimes escape and attack a human or other animal (Live Science Staff, 2011). Finally, it causes a decline in the natural population (World Animal Protection, 2019). All these negative consequences raise the question: what makes that people have such a desire to keep wild animals for pets and what causes the ‘greed’ to take these animals from their natural habitat only to then keep them in their homes. Following up this question with this one: how is it possible this trade in wild animals is so well contained?

When looked at the questions of why and what, the influence of social media on the matter quickly rises. Content of people housing exotic animals and taking cute photos and videos, is rapidly available on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Try searching an exotic animal with the word ‘pet’ behind it and there’s a high chance you’ll find  the above mentioned ‘cute’ content.

You also see that often people make separate Instagram accounts for their pets. This trend is very popular for cats and dogs, but also for exotic animals. For example, the chimp Limbani has more than 650.000 followers on his account. Followers find him adorable and people pay large amounts of money for ten minutes of interaction time with him.

These videos, photos and accounts cause for many people to gain a positive idea of housing an exotic pet. Consequentially this opens many minds to the possibility of getting one themselves. Many comments under this type of content contain responses like ‘I want one’ and ‘omg so cute’. In the end this results in more people wanting to keep these animals in their homes. Social media has hereby caused an immense increase in the exotic animal trade (Actman,2019).

To answer the ‘how’ question, social media is again the answer. Namely because it offers a simple way of trading. Buyers can easily connect with a lot of people. In 2017 it was determined that within approximately six weeks more than 11.000 exotic animals were offered for sale in France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom alone. This also included protected species including otters, turtles, parrots, primates an large cats (Bending, 2020).

Because the demand for animals is growing and trading becomes increasingly easier due to social media, the international trade becomes larger and larger and traders are able to earn more or more money. This means that the problems at hand are largely contained. Research has shown that the trade in exotic animals endangers the conservation of species diversity. On top of that, a lot of the animals don’t survive the trip from the wild over to the living room. Because of this, more animals are captured from the wild, sometimes as much as ten times more, just to sell one animal for an exotic pet. Apart from capturing the animals, they are also often bred. This can cause complications because people don’t know enough about responsible breeding. One consequence can be the process of incest, which makes for weaker animals. Some ‘breeders’ carry out secondary breeding to enhance certain external features, which can cause poor well-being. This can be compared to what is currently happening to certain dog breeds like the French bulldog (World Animal Protection, n.d.).

In contrast to drugs or alcohol, wild animals are rarely traded on areas of the dark web like the black market; a corner of the internet that is used for trading illegal goods. Living animals are scarce, therefore traders prefer regular platforms with access to bigger markets where they are not limited to those who know how to get onto the dark web. One of the most popular social media out there – Facebook – also suffers from illegal trading. Facebook’s policy states that messages promoting animal venture is not allowed. This would include exotic, illegally traded animals. For this reason, Facebook is a member of the ‘Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online’. This is a collaboration between internet companies and nature preservation groups, together with tech giants like eBay, Baidu and Google. Nevertheless, trading remains easy for all traders because: “Cybercrime is in the spotlight because the internet is an easy platform to anonymously offer illegal goods, including wild animals,” says Sergio Tirro, head of the analysis of environmental crime at Europol. “It is easy to cover up the financial stream with a prepaid card” (Niranjan, 2019).

Reasons for getting an exotic pet are largely due to the excitement of having one: it’s different than a normal pet like a cat or a dog. This excitement is encouraged by photos, videos and public social media accounts of wild animals kept as pets. Together this makes for solely positive content that paints an attractive picture of keeping an exotic pet for oneself. Finally, the large accessibility of social media offers traders a lot of supply for the demand for these animals. Because of this, many advertisements appear online for everyone to see. Based on this it can be concluded that social media have a large stake in the decline of wildlife populations.