The black market for trafficked animals isn't so different from a pet store. Some creatures are coveted for their resplendent hides, while others are prized for the "magical" properties of their horns or organs. But at the end of the day, the illegal wildlife economy operates by the laws of supply and demand. And the proliferation of trafficked species on social media, such as Instagram, is now getting attention from the world's wildlife authorities.
An international treaty called CITES, which governs the trade of plants and animals, wants to stamp out cheetah supplies in African and Gulf nations by tracking down dealers on social media and e-commerce sites. This is a fascinating development in the world of wildlife trading, as it indicates countries are attempting to keep up with the black market's spread to the internet.
A working group released their recommendations for curbing the illegal cheetah trade earlier this year. The agreement was later amended, and was formally approved at the CITES CoP17 (Conference of the Parties).
"The sale of the cheetahs as CITES-listed species is illegal, but there may be gray areas in some countries," Patricia Tricorache, assistant director of Strategic Communications and Illegal Wildlife Trade at the Cheetah Conservation Fund, told me. "Up to a certain point, advertising is not considered selling, so it's not always illegal. Now, most countries in the Arabian Peninsula are considering legislation that will change that loophole."
Cheetahs, unlike their big cat cousins, are increasingly desired for their companionship—a consequence of their supposed ability to "tame easily." An estimated 1,200 cheetah cubs have been smuggled out of Africa over the last decade, according to the Cheetah Conservation Fund, with 85 percent of them dying in transit. Some experts believe that most pet cheetahs come from the Horn of Africa, where animals are poached from the wild, and shuttled by car, boat, or plane into the Persian Gulf.
Here, the demand for luxury pets, such as cheetahs, is booming. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, owning an endangered animal as a pet is illegal, yet authorities continue to confiscate hundreds of captive tigers, cheetahs, and lions, as a result of a thriving underground market. Captive-bred cheetahs can be legally traded under CITES, although they are notoriously difficult to breed, Tricorache said. South Africa exports about 70 percent of all cheetahs traded legally.
As we've covered before, exotic animals have been a status symbol since the dawn of human civilization. Only today, this form of conspicuous consumption is more abundantly apparent, thanks to social media sites like Instagram and Facebook, where pet owners can flaunt their animals alongside extravagant ephemera, such as Lamborghinis and speedboats.
But the CITES report doesn't just target rich people who Instagram and Snap their cheetahs. According to the document, countries are encouraged "to engage with relevant social media platforms, search engines and ecommerce platforms to address illegal international trade" of cheetahs and other protected species.
This means CITES members must find a way to monitor social media for dealers, as well as buyers. How, exactly, countries are supposed to do this remains uncertain. So far, Gulf nations have only acknowledged social platforms as ad-hoc marketplaces. Collecting useful data on the cheetah trade remains prohibitively difficult, especially online, where accounts are tricky to verify, and sellers are wise to undercover authorities.
But there's little doubt that social media is helping to facilitate quick and easy wildlife deals. In 2015, a Mongabay investigation discovered alleged chimpanzee retail operations on Instagram. That same year, the science site Sapiens detailed alleged auctions for CITES-protected species in private Facebook groups. Even Amazon and eBay are guilty of digitizing black markets for rare species.
"We have found that Instagram, Snapchat, Kik, and WhatsApp are the favorite media of dealers," Tricorache said. The Cheetah Conservation Fund has been researching cheetah markets on social media over the past four years. "On Instagram, we've found 360 accounts, though some of them might be overlapping."
Since 2012, the organization claims that nearly 1,000 cheetahs have been discovered for sale on Instagram. Most listings are written in Arabic, and contain information for contacting the seller directly. For example, "when someone inquires about cheetahs, all [the dealer] might say is, 'WhatsApp me,'" Tricorache added.
What researchers have been able to collect are names, telephone numbers, and even evidence from photos, such as license plate numbers and boarding passes. These data points are passed along to relevant authorities like INTERPOL, who decide whether the information warrants an investigation. In certain countries, wildlife officials have no jurisdiction if the complaint isn't made locally.
Yet, even Tricorache noted that serious privacy issues are raised by the wide-reaching CITES agreement.
Many governments are now peering into citizens' social media profiles, and efforts to mine publicly available information are becoming official policies. In the Middle East, where Instagram usage has quadrupled over two years in some nations, freedom of speech and government suppression of social media are palpable concerns.
A quick Instagram search for "petcheetah" reveals a mishmash of results—some pointing to profiles of actual cheetah owners, but many leading to stolen images appended with aspirational hashtags (#petgoals).
I reached out to Instagram regarding the CITES report, and asked if they had plans to cooperate with wildlife officials over future allegations of animal trafficking. A spokesperson for the company declined to comment, although I was assured that Instagram does not endorse this type of activity.
When the organization TRAFFIC investigated the sale of endangered species sales on Facebook this year, the social media company appeared to respond proactively. "We are committed to working with TRAFFIC to help tackle the illegal online trade of wildlife in Malaysia. Facebook does not allow the sale and trade of endangered animals and we will not hesitate to remove any content that violates our Terms of Service," a Facebook spokesperson said.
In the second half of 2015, Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, reported a total of 46,763 user data requests from governments.
Still, there's no diminishing the fact that yesterday's resolution marks the culmination of much-needed international cooperation. The United Arab Emirates has also moved to pass new legislation that will ban the ownership of cheetahs, closing a problematic loophole that allowed people to circumvent laws prohibiting their trade.
Cheetahs are now extinct in 20 countries, and have lost 83 percent of their historical range, according to surveys of wild populations. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that 6,674 individuals are left in the wild, and considers them a species vulnerable to extinction. Their primary threats are habitat loss and fragmentation, in addition to conflict with local farmers.
"This has been a three year effort. I think it sets an example for other species in terms of collaboration, and how everyone involved agrees that it's time to do something serious about it," Tricorache said of the report.
"It's a big, big day for cheetahs."
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