Lemurs' internet fame may fuel illegal pet trade
Viral videos of cuddly exotic animals like the ring-tailed lemur may have a dark side of an increased demand for them as pets, giving rise to illegal animal trafficking, scientists say. Researchers from Duke University in the US focused on a 2016 viral video of a ring-tailed lemur demanding back scratches from two boys in a village in Madagascar.
Each time the kids take a break, the lemur turns toward them and points to a spot on its back as if begging for more. Reactions ranged from "so sweet" and "awwww-cute" to "freaking adorable." The video quickly made the rounds on the internet, and within a week the original Facebook post had 20 million views.
Researchers downloaded and analysed nearly 14,000 tweets mentioning pet or captive lemurs over an 18-week period before and after this video appeared online. As the video was liked and shared, the volume of tweets saying things like "I want a pet lemur" and "where can I find one?" more than doubled.
Google and YouTube searches for the phrase "pet lemur" also spiked in the weeks after the video went viral, compared with other times between 2013 and 2018. None of the tweets revealed anyone actually buying or selling lemurs on Twitter. However, the researchers worry such incidents could encourage would-be wildlife traffickers, particularly in Madagascar, the only place where the endangered primates live in the wild.
"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," said Tara Clarke, who was a visiting assistant professor at Duke University at the time of 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," said Clarke.
Selfies with pet lemurs are proving to be popular as internet connectivity improves in Madagascar, the researchers said. "For many people in Madagascar, taking selfies with lemurs can signal social status," said Kim Reuter, a co-author on the study published in the journal Plos One.
Pet lemurs are illegal in Madagascar. However, the laws are difficult to enforce, especially in remote villages where law enforcement personnel may be few. Previous research suggests that more than 28,000 lemurs have been illegally removed from the forest since 2010. Many of them are kept as pets in Madagascar's hotels and restaurants, for well-intended tourists to cuddle or take selfies with.
Pet lemurs in Madagascar are often kept alone in cages or on a leash, and fed human foods such rice that they don't eat in the wild. More than 30 of the roughly 100 known lemur species are affected by the pet lemur trade, but the ring-tailed lemur -- recognisable by its long black-and-white striped tail -- was the species most people tweeted that they wanted as a pet.
Twenty years ago, the ring-tailed lemur population was estimated at more than 750,000, based on satellite images. No one knows how many ring-tailed lemurs live in the wild today, but some recent estimates suggest there may be fewer than 5,000 left.
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