Harness the power of social media to fight illegal animal trafficking

You love animals. Of course you do! That’s why you love seeing adorable animal pictures on social media.

But if you really truly love animals, you’ll learn the signs of trafficking on social media and use those same tools to fight back.

Photo by dole777 on Unsplash

I know, baby tigers are cuter than anything, and you’ve always wanted to hug a monkey. Cheetahs riding in the back of Lamborghinis is the stuff of your most envious 1%er dreams.

That’s why Instagram shows it to you.

You can’t help but see perfectly-posed animals sharing our human space, and want to keep one as a pet. It’s science.

So whether it was intentional or not, social media has become the biggest driver for international animal trafficking, abuse, and the illegal wildlife trade.

That’s right. Black market animal trafficking doesn’t just happen on the darkweb anymore. You don’t even need to turn on incognito mode because happens right in front of our eyes.

And we “love” it.

A recent study of YouTube videos showed that when people see human-exotic animal interactions, the reactions are overwhelmingly positive.

Today, there are efforts in place on most social media platforms to slow pet sales. In 2017, Facebook and Instagram banned the sale of all animals: exotic or domestic. Their seemingly-robust algorithms frequently flag harmless products that reference threatened animals in any way. (Try posting an innocuous item on the Facebook marketplace and describe the color as “ivory” or “mink,” I dare you.) This might make you think what you’re seeing has been vetted by the algorithm and isn’t abuse.

But it can be.

Photo by Bisakha Datta on Unsplash

Animal traffickers are smarter than the platforms’ AI. They’ll phrase things a certain way, use specific terms, or use posed photos that don’t tell the whole story. This is how they list wild animals for sale to unsuspecting people like you and me.

You’ve seen this practice, I’m sure. Don’t we all have some relative who talks about the pandemic as “c0v1d” or types “wax seen” instead of vaccine? The idea is to trick the AI into thinking you’re talking about something else. And it often works!

Many of these practices are just as easy to spot. If you see the phrase “baby tiger for sale” along with a WhatsApp number, you can be pretty confident that illegal endangered animal trafficking is going on.

Facebook is one of the biggest drivers for sales, but Instagram is where people get the idea of owning these pets in the first place.

Most of us feel like Instagram is the most picture-perfect aspirational social media platform out there. So when we see our favorite influencer snuggling with their ultra-exotic pet, we want to do that, too.

Instagram knows about this.

If you search a specific hashtag like #slothselfie or #petcheetah, you’ll get a popup telling you that animal exploitation is wrong. But it’s a one-click bypass to see hundreds of jealousy-inducing photos. Try it in another language — particularly Arabic, because the majority of cheetah trafficking takes place in Saudi Arabia — and you’ll see even more posts and NO warning popup.

Photo by Ahmed Galal on Unsplash

Cheetahs are in especially hot water right now. They’ve come to symbolize extreme wealth, so owning one has become the ultimate status symbol, driving demand for this fragile species up. Way up.

In 2018, The Cheetah Conservation Fund found that 1,367 documented cheetahs went up for sale between 2012 and 2018.

That’s 20% of the entire cheetah population. In the world.

One fifth of all cheetahs were for sale, and most of them on social media.

And that’s just the ones that survived trafficking long enough to get posted.

Yeah.

The ACCO found that most wildlife trading takes place in broad daylight for everyone to see. No cloak and dagger, just public social media posts.

So here’s what we need to do.

  • Don’t like, share, or comment on any images that you think portray an illegal exotic pet or trafficked wild animal. Instead, like, share, or comment on images of animals living free in the wild or being cared for by reputable organizations. AZA-accredited zoos, wildlife sanctuaries, and reputable wildlife accounts that promote positive conservation and education get the green light.
  • Don’t like, share, or comment on touristy images of people snuggling with wild or endangered animals. It looks like an amazing bucket list experience, but it is abuse. This one can be hard to spot, since some of the hashtags and organizations putting them on look legit. These “encounter” experiences are often billed as humane or even as a conservation project, so many of us have fallen for this trap. But there are loads of humane wildlife tourism alternatives out there — support them instead!
  • Don’t like, share, or comment on anything that makes you think the animal (or a part of it) is for sale. Sometimes it’s very obvious, sometimes it’s not. Instead, report these crimes whenever you see them. If you think you’ve seen wildlife trafficking — including wild animals for sale, ivory or animal parts for sale, or abusive videos — report it to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

But by reporting what we see and refusing to support abuse, we can do our small parts to reduce the demand on trafficked animals.

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash