You may have come across a petition circulating online recently, calling for the end of illegal wildlife sales on social media. It's been shared by celebrities all over the world, earning more than half a million signatures in the process.
The campaign is urging Facebook (and its parent company Meta), big tech CEOs and lawmakers across the world to "do everything you can to end the extensive illegal wildlife trade on your platforms."
It claims that despite only 7,000 cheetahs being left in the wild, “over 2,000 have been put up for sale on online platforms in the past decade.” The petition goes on to add that it has become “like a new eBay for endangered wildlife.”
But where did this figure come from and are cheetahs really being sold on social media?
Online activist network Avaaz says this number is from a study conducted last year by Patricia Tricorache, an expert in the illegal wildlife trade. She tells Euronews Green that the problem is spread between social media, sales sites and even private messaging apps.
Cheetahs for sale
Tricorache explains that the problem of illegal wildlife sales is widespread. Her research, published in April last year, scoured the web to find 2,315 online adverts for cheetahs from 528 sellers.
In total, the online posts indicated that 2,298 cheetahs had been taken from the wild. And the wildlife researcher says that 88 per cent of these adverts were on social media.
“Instagram and Facebook represented over 75 per cent of all the advertisements,” she adds.
As 99 per cent of the online search results found were in Arabic, researchers focused on Arabic terms commonly used by sellers. From there, they scanned for phone numbers, comments on posts and the accounts of sellers brought to their attention by informants.
“Our research into online advertisements goes beyond 2010 and has yielded over 60,000 files (JPEGs, PDFs) that include other CITES-listed species,” the study says.
In the last three years, researchers found that the number of online adverts has decreased. This is possibly due to growing regulation around owning predators in Gulf States where these kinds of pets are popular.
But, the study says, now those using online platforms are avoiding using the word “sale” or publicly posting prices. Instead, responses to posts act as a prompt for contact through private, encrypted messaging apps where sellers can set up these transactions.
Violating terms of service
Meta, Facebook’s parent company, says that the trading of endangered wildlife or their parts is prohibited on its platforms. The big tech firm is a member of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online and has partnerships in place with WWF, TRAFFIC and Education for Nature Vietnam.
Since 2016, it claims it has been working with WWF and the International Fund for Animal Welfare to identify content that violates its policies. The company also tries to stay up to date with the ways in which those looking to sell illegal wildlife try to skirt around its detection.
“Facebook might be doing something right, but in my opinion, they are not making much of a difference just yet,” Tricorarche says.
She adds that the adverts are still there and sellers are adopting ever more evasive tactics including not using hashtags or using words on videos or images which make searches more difficult. It's not just Meta either, other platforms like Snapchat (where videos disappear after being viewed) and TikTok are becoming more popular as well as sales through direct messaging apps to known buyers.
And Tricorache believes that reporting the posts doesn’t necessarily mean the information reaches the relevant authorities.
“A major issue we face is that reporting illegal wildlife posts to Facebook might result in the removal of the post; similarly, an account might be removed for violating terms of service,” she tells Euronews Green.
“However, this doesn’t mean that Facebook keeps any evidence, or that the account owner will not open a new account. This simply makes finding them more difficult.”
Endangered animals as a ‘luxury accessory’
Posts on social media may also be promoting the idea of having an exotic, endangered animal as a pet. Tricorache says that the popularity they receive, with millions of followers viewing the images and videos, is a problem.
“This attitude needs to change. The likes and the admiring comments only encourage them,” she explains.
What many people liking these posts don’t realise is that, behind images of these big cats sitting in the passenger seat of wealthy influencers’ million-dollar cars is a sad truth. The Cheetah Conservation Fund estimates that just one in four cubs survives being trafficked. Those that do survive have an expected lifespan of only two years.
It’s an existential threat to the future of this vulnerable animal on top of 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 now around 7,000 remain: the world’s fastest land mammal is racing towards extinction.
Cheetahs are now dying at a faster rate than they are being born. If left in the wild, the cubs being taken and sold as pets could help to keep populations stable.
There are solutions, however, and Tricorache believes that big tech companies do have the tools to detect these images.
“It’s simple: most pictures of exotic animals in unnatural situations, in a house, a yard, playing with people in a living room or riding in a car should be flagged, as should pictures that are evidently offering animals for sale.”
Even if these people are owners, not sellers, there is a good chance they have violated national laws around the trade and ownership of endangered species. Selling wild cheetahs across international borders has been effectively banned since 1975.
So the next time you go to hit like on an image of a cute exotic pet, it might be worth thinking twice about the illegal wildlife trade you could be supporting.
Euronews Green reached out to Meta for a statement on the petition and comments made by Patricia Tricorache but has not yet received a response.