So much attention lavished on “cute” yet endangered animals has a dark side.
They’re everywhere on the internet. Cute and cuddly creatures, that is. Kittens and puppies and other furry animals, many of them exotic. Harmless fun, you might say. But sometimes it isn’t.
Take ring-tailed lemurs, a video of one of which went viral in 2016 showing the mammal being petted by two young boys in a village in Madagascar. Each time the boys stop stroking its back, the lemur signals to them that he wants to be stroked some more. Millions of people around the world oohed and aahed over the winsome, demanding mammal.
Yet so much attention lavished on “cute” yet endangered animals has a dark side.
A team of researchers at Duke University in the United States analyzed some 14,000 tweets mentioning pet or captive lemurs over an 18-week period before and after the video appeared online. As the video was going viral with more and more likes and shares on Twitter, the number of tweets in which people started asking where they could get a pet lemur more than doubled.
Meanwhile, searches on Google and YouTube with the phrase “pet lemur” also grew greatly in the weeks after the video went viral, the researchers say. This indicates, they explain, that videos of cute exotic animals can serve to fuel the trade in exotic animals.
“We know that virtually none of the people who tweet about wanting a pet lemur after seeing a viral video actually get one as a pet,” says Tara Clarke, an assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology who led the study. “But without context, the perceptions that people might get from these viral videos or photographs on social media could lead to indirect negative impacts on these animals in the wild.”
Lemurs are protected by law from being sold or bought in Madagascar, but the enforcement of these laws remains slack across rural areas of the island. Many of the lemurs taken from the wild have wounded up as pets in local hotels and restaurants, where tourists can cuddle or take selfies with them.
“More than 30 of the roughly 100 known lemur species are affected by the pet lemur trade, but the ring-tailed lemur – recognizable by its long black-and-white striped tail – was the species most people tweeted that they wanted as a pet,” the researchers note.
“For many people in Madagascar, taking selfies with lemurs can signal social status,” adds Kim Reuter, a conservation biologist who was a co-author on the study. “Although our study was limited to English-speaking Twitter users, we know how rapidly and powerfully social media can help spread information in developing countries like Madagascar,” she went on. “When some of this content goes viral, it could well lead to direct and indirect impacts on wild lemur populations.”
With as few as 2,000 ring-tailed lemurs left in the wild, the animals are now critically endangered. In the past two decades their numbers have dropped by a staggering 95%. In just three years after 2010 more than 28,500 lemurs have been illegally removed from local forests, according to a study published in 2015.