Viral videos of pet lemurs may be fuelling the illegal trade of endangered species

Internet fame of cuddly exotic animals can drive demand for them as pets.

Ring-tailed lemurs. © Getty

Researchers have analysed the comments made in response to a viral video of a ring-tailed lemur, and found that the volume of tweets saying “I want a pet lemur” and “where can I find one?” more than doubled from the 18-week period before.

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In addition, online searches on Google and YouTube for the phrase ‘pet lemur’ also spiked in the weeks after the video became viral.

The video in question went viral in 2016 and shows the lemur apparently demanding back scratches from two boys in Madagascar. Within a week, it had 20 million views on Facebook.

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“We know from previous research that wildlife animal selfies and viral videos of threatened species can have detrimental impacts on wild populations,” says Dr Tara Clarke, lead author of the study and a lecturer at North Carolina State University.

“My colleagues and I wanted to see if this was also the case for Madagascar’s lemurs. In order investigate this question, we examined approximately 14,000 individual tweets pertaining to pet lemurs via Twitter.”

Family of ring-tailed lemurs in Berenty reserve, Madagascar. © Getty
Family of ring-tailed lemurs in Berenty reserve, Madagascar. © Getty

The researchers didn’t find any evidence of people buying or selling lemurs on Twitter, and believe that very few people commenting actually get a lemur as a pet.

However viral videos and the following comments could encourage wildlife traffickers.

“I think people often underestimate the impacts of social media on animals that live in the wild on the other side of the world,” says Dr Kim Reuter, one of the study’s co-authors and CEO of Franklin Scholars.

“It’s so removed from everyday life that it can be hard to imagine how tweeting about wanting a lemur as a pet, or sharing a video of a cute animal can have such negative consequences.”

Although keeping lemurs as pets is illegal in Madagascar, such laws are difficult to enforce particularly in remote villages.

Lemurs are often kept as pets in hotels and restaurants, for tourists to cuddle and take selfies with.

The ring-tailed lemur is the most recognisable species, and tweeted about most often in reference to keeping one as a pet.

Recent estimates suggest there may be fewer than 5,000 ring-tailed lemurs left in the wild, a steep decline from the more than 750,000 wild population estimate from 20 years ago.

“In my current work, I spend a lot of time thinking about how young people are being prepared to tackle complex topics like this; this is a generation of people who will move into adulthood getting most of their science and environmental news online,” says Reuter.

“I hope our study highlights how easy it is for viral information to impact, even temporarily, on people’s perceptions. I think this is an important area where more work is needed, as I do not think young people are currently being given the tools they need to address this issue.”

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Read the full paper in PLOS One.