Are Facebook, Snapchat and Tiktok the ‘new eBay’ for endangered wildlife?
You may have recently come across a petition circulating online, calling for an end to illegal wildlife sales on social media. It’s been shared by celebrities around the world, earning over half a million signatures in the process.
Countryside urges Facebook (and its parent company Meta), big tech CEOs and lawmakers everywhere to “do everything in their power to end the vast illegal wildlife trade on your platforms.”
He says that although there are only 7,000 cheetahs left in the wild, “more than 2,000 have been offered for sale on online platforms over the past decade”. The petition goes on to add that it has become “like a new eBay for endangered wildlife”.
But where does this figure come from and are cheetahs really sold on social networks?
Online activist network Avaaz says this number is from a study conducted last year by Patricia Tricorache, a specialist in illegal wildlife trade. She tells Euronews Green that the problem is split between social media, shopping sites and even private messaging apps.
Cheetahs for sale
Tricorache explains that the problem of illegal wildlife sales is widespread. His research, published in April last year, scoured the web to find 2,315 online listings for Cheetahs from 528 sellers.
In total, online posts said 2,298 cheetahs had been taken from the wild. And the wildlife researcher says 88% of those ads were on social media.
“Instagram and Facebook accounted for over 75% of all ads,” she adds.
As 99% of online search results found were in Arabic, researchers focused on Arabic terms commonly used by sellers. From there, they scanned phone numbers, message comments and seller accounts brought to their attention by informants.
“Our search of online advertisements goes beyond 2010 and yielded over 60,000 files (JPEG, PDF) that include other CITES-listed species,” the study says.
Over the past three years, researchers have found that the number of online advertisements has decreased. This may be due to increasing regulations regarding predator ownership in the Gulf States where these types of pets are popular.
But, according to the study, those who use online platforms now avoid using the word “sale” or displaying prices publicly. Instead, replies to posts act as a contact prompt through private, encrypted messaging apps where sellers can set up these transactions.
Meta, Facebook’s parent company, says trading in endangered wildlife or parts of them is prohibited on its platforms. The big tech company is a member of the Coalition to End Online Wildlife Trafficking and has established partnerships with WWF, TRAFFIC and Education for Nature Vietnam.
Since 2016, it says it has worked with WWF and the International Fund for Animal Welfare to identify content that violates its policies. The company also tries to keep abreast of how those looking to sell illegal wildlife try to circumvent its detection.
“Facebook may be doing something good, but in my opinion they’re not making much of a difference yet,” says Tricorarche.
She adds that the ads are still there and sellers are adopting increasingly evasive tactics, including not using hashtags or using words on videos or images that make it harder to search. It’s not just Meta either, other platforms like Snapchat (where videos disappear after being watched) and TikTok are becoming increasingly popular as well as sales via direct messaging apps to known buyers.
And Tricorache believes that reporting the messages does not necessarily mean that the information reaches the competent authorities.
“A major issue we face is that reporting illegal wildlife posts to Facebook could result in the post being removed; similarly, an account can be deleted for violating the terms of service,” she told Euronews Green.
“However, this does not mean that Facebook retains evidence or that the account owner will not open a new account. It just makes finding them more difficult.
Endangered animals as a “luxury accessory”
Social media posts can also promote the idea of having an exotic and endangered animal as a pet. Tricorache says the popularity they are receiving, with millions of followers watching the pictures and videos, is a problem.
“This attitude needs to change. Likes and admiring comments only encourage them,” she explains.
What a lot of people who like these posts don’t realize is that behind the images of these big cats sitting in the passenger seat of the million dollar cars of wealthy influencers is a sad truth. The Cheetah Conservation Fund estimates that one in four cubs survive milking. Those that survive have an expected lifespan of only two years.
It’s an existential threat to the future of this vulnerable animal in addition to habitat loss, high-speed roads and human activity. already impacting their chances of survival. In 1975, there were 14,000 cheetahs in the wild and today there are around 7,000 left: the world’s fastest land mammal is heading towards extinction.
Cheetahs are now dying at a faster rate than they are being born. If left in the wild, cubs captured and sold as pets could help keep populations stable.
There are solutions, however, and Tricorache believes that big tech companies have the tools to detect these images.
“It’s simple: most photos of exotic animals in unnatural situations, in a house, in a yard, playing with people in a living room or in a car should be reported, as should photos that obviously offer animals for sale.
Even if these people are owners and not sellers, there is a good chance that they have violated national laws on trade and ownership of endangered species. The sale of wild cheetahs across international borders has been effectively banned since 1975.
So the next time you go banging like on a picture of a cute exotic pet, it might be worth thinking twice about the illegal wildlife trade you might be supporting.
Euronews Green has contacted Meta for a statement on the petition and comments from Patricia Tricorache but has yet to receive a response.