Is social media fuelling the illegal pet trade?

Phil Aiston, client strategist at digital agency Manifesto, examines the impact social media is having on the illegal wildlife trade.

We’ve all seen them. Scroll through any social media timeline and you will invariably come across a video or an image of a cute animal.

Content like this seems to be everywhere – and it’s easy to see why: people love it! Or ‘like’ it, to be more precise. Cute animal content is the ultimate click-bait.


Science has attempted to explain why we find such content so compelling. Studies have shown that the release of dopamine that occurs when we view these images is actually an instinctive survival technique, triggered in all humans as a way to ensure we care for our babies or, in this instance, anything that has features similar to a baby.

However, while the growing trend for animal content on social media might seem like harmless fun, a deeper look into the statistics might prove otherwise.

When comparing 10 social media posts featuring cute animals with 10 other randomly selected posts published by the UK’s top social publication channels during the same period, the former outperforms the latter in terms of social engagement by almost a third. On average, posts like these receive 31% more reactions per view, and 32% more shares per view.

In an industry which trades on social engagement, these numbers may actually be a cause for concern. With animal-driven content eliciting such a strong reaction, there is a risk that some individuals could be incentivised to publish this type of content to its extreme, without necessarily having an understanding of the wider damage it can cause. This could compromise the protection of animals and encourage the trade of illegal wildlife.

Sadly, cheetahs have already succumbed to this phenomenon, with many cases reported of cubs being bought illegally for upwards of $10,000 to pose for glorified Instagram lifestyle posts. There are a number of other instances of wildlife affected by social media crazes, including pygmy marmosets, chimpanzees, tigers and many others.

While a large portion of the blame lies with the owners of illegal pets, some responsibility should also be given to the publishers who, in some cases, can reach over 30 million unique users per week through posts like these. Either way, this is a concern for some of the world’s most prominent animal conservation organisations.

C.A.R.E. (The Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education) claims these types of posts are promoting “false ideas and animal cruelty”, which could “hurt conservation efforts and fuel public desire for wild animals as pets, potentially perpetuating the illegal pet trade.”

Meanwhile, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is calling on leaders to engage with “relevant social media platforms, search engines, and e-commerce platforms to address illegal international trade”.


So what can social media platforms do to prevent this growing trend? First, they can take a more socially responsible stance towards the content that’s being published on their sites. Greater censorship of content involving endangered species or exotic pets, for example, could help fight the rising tide of illegal wildlife trade. In many cases, this can be achieved through stricter content guidelines and by working with conservation agencies to help identify and filter out perpetrators.

With such a large reach and a powerful influence, social media has an important role to play in corporate social responsibility. If managed carefully, this power could be harnessed to assist with the conservation of animals, rather than cause detriment to them. On its website, C.A.R.E. acknowledges the fact that viral imagery of ‘cute’ animals has the potential to raise awareness about conservation and animal welfare. As such, producing and sharing positive content, groups and hashtags that promote animal protection can actively help to support greater animal welfare.

While the urge to ‘like’ these types of posts is difficult to resist, users must fight their instincts and think twice before clicking on this type of content. Consumers won’t be able to combat this issue alone, however. Media owners need to prioritise social responsibility over engagement metrics, and ultimately lead the way for a more socially conscious

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