The current world population is 7.6 billion. Of that, 3.03 billion are active social media users. Monthly active users on various social media platforms is variable and growing. Facebook has 2.01 billion monthly active users with 400 new users signing up for an account every minute. YouTube has 1.40 billion, Twitter 330 million, and Instagram 800 million, 500 of which are active daily. Instagram receives 4.2. billion ‘likes’ per day. Thus, the reach and potential negative impact that one selfie or video can have are tremendous.
The sharing and ‘liking’ of photographs, ‘wildlife selfies’, and videos of/with exotic and/or endangered species has become increasingly trendy causing mounting concern for conservationists. Why? Many of these instances result in the harming or death of vulnerable species.
Lemurs don’t like facebook
In April of 2016 a video featuring two Malagasy children scratching a habituated pet ring-tailed lemur went viral and has since been viewed more than 20 million times on YouTube.
The viral video was shared on other social media platforms which resulted in reaching an even wider audience. Many of the corresponding comments posted on these platforms by the public indicated their overwhelming approval of human-wildlife interactions, as well as the desire to want to own a pet lemur.
Finally, previous research has shown that public perceptions and attitudes about wildlife conservation, such as a species conservation status or its desirability to be a pet, can be adversely impacted by anthropomorphised imaging and messaging, ultimately impeding conservation efforts.
The underlying context of these ‘wildlife selfies’ is missing from what we are actually viewing. Questions that many don’t even think to ask, such as “is it illegal to interact hands-on with this species?”, “is this species endangered?”, or “was this species captured illegally from the wild for the purpose of being a photo prop?”.
In regard to Madagascar’s lemurs, the answer is a resounding and unequivocal yes.
Long distance influence
These unique primates are facing immense threats, including habitat loss and fragmentation, hunting, and illegal capture for the pet trade (within Madagascar). The illegal captures and the desire of tourists to have their ‘lemur experience’ is driving the illegal captures and exploitation.
Individuals or businesses (hotels, restaurants) are meeting the demand by offering these experiences and making a lot of money, all the while contributing to the decline of wild endangered lemur populations. And when their clients share videos and lemur selfies on social media, they are then liked, shared and commented, perpetuating the cycle of desire and demand for these type of irresponsible and often illegal interactions with wildlife.
Social media for positive change
Luckily, measures are being taken to raise awareness about this issue and educate the public on how their behaviour contributes to the exploitation and encouragement of harmful behaviour of wildlife.
Most recently, Instagram developed a hashtag trigger notification which informs the public about the abuses taking place behind the photos being viewed. In 2016, the U.S.-based non-profit, Lemur Love, along with multiple collaborators launched the ‘Keeping Lemurs Wild’ campaign in Madagascar, which aimed to raise awareness about the growing issues of illegal pet trade of lemurs across the island and the unsustainable demand of tourists wanting to get their lemur selfie.
Finally, just last month USAID along with their collaborators, including Lemur Love, unveiled the ‘Wildly Beautiful Madagascar’ campaign which aims to shed light on illegal wildlife trafficking and poaching of Madagascar’s biodiversity (e.g. lemurs, birds, precious hardwoods) and how this has underlying adverse impacts on the local economy, environmental health, as well as community health and well-being.
How to be a ‘lemur ally’ at home and in Madagascar?
Share or like photos/videos of pet lemurs (i.e., lemurs being restrained, held, hugged).
Pay to touch, feed, or take a photo with a pet lemur.
Stay at hotels/restaurants that keep pet lemurs.
Tell your friends, lemurs are endangered and need our help.
Take and share a photo if you are at a safe distance.
Take a photo if the lemur is in its natural habitat.
Tara Clarke is an anthropologist, primatologist, and conservationist. Currently, she is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Evolutionary Anthropology Department at Duke University. Dr Clarke is a member of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group Member and serves as the Director of Outreach for Lemur Love, Inc. (www.lemurlove.org). She has been conducting field research in Madagascar for over ten years. Tara’s research examines the impacts of habitat fragmentation and isolation on the genetic health of ring-tailed lemurs. Most recently, her work aims to understand the motivations driving the illegal pet trade of lemurs within Madagascar.