Since 2012, at least 1,367 cheetahs were offered for sale on social media and ecommerce websites. Instagram and YouTube are conduits for traffickers selling the endangered animals as pets, according to a Monday report from the Cheetah Conservation Fund.
In recent years, platforms such as Instagram have become marketplaces for exotic animals, where some species are illegally sold into captivity. Instagram now warns users about wildlife exploitation through a pop-up message, but sellers continue to openly hawk cheetahs and other species—a problem that is “difficult to pursue legally,” Patricia Tricorache, assistant director of strategic communications and illegal wildlife trade at the Cheetah Conservation Fund, told Motherboard over the phone.
The new report is one of the only comprehensive analyses of social media’s role in the illegal cheetah trade.
Between January 2012 and June 2018, Tricorache found 906 ads for trafficked cheetahs on social media and ecommerce platforms, and Instagram alone was responsible for 77 percent of the ads. The Kuwaiti ecommerce app 4Sale and Facebook were also used by traffickers. Buyers and sellers frequently used WhatsApp to complete the transaction, Tricorache said.
Motherboard viewed more than a dozen of the YouTube and Facebook ads for cheetahs that were found by the Cheetah Conservation Fund. All are still currently up.
One YouTube video shows six cubs in a garbage filled room. Another depicts two very young cubs whose heads are color-coded with yellow and pink dye. On Facebook, a seller shared a photo of a two-month-old cheetah with a metal chain around its neck. “How much,” several commenters asked.
Motherboard also viewed an inactive Instagram account that was advertising cheetahs for sale in 2017. Tricorache claims that many of the Instagram accounts she found are now under investigation.
The Cheetah Conservation Fund has been documenting this type of activity since 2012. And Tricorache has logged roughly 400 social media accounts that are associated with cheetah trafficking. It’s unclear what percentage the Cheetah Conservation Fund’s findings represent, considering the entire cheetah trade on social media and ecommerce platforms.
Many countries effectively prohibit owning the big cats. In the US, the Fish and Wildlife Services’ Captive Wildlife Safety Act deems it illegal to import and acquire cheetahs. The UAE enacted a law in 2016 that bans the ownership of exotic and dangerous animals. But advertising cheetahs for sale is not always illegal, Tricorache added.
An estimated 300 cheetah cubs are smuggled annually out of the region encompassing Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia; 85 percent will die in transit due to starvation, dehydration, or disease, according to the Cheetah Conservation Fund.
“Today, despite cheetah poaching and the cheetah pet trade being outlawed in most parts of the world, they are still very much in high demand as status pets in the Gulf States,” Laurie Marker, founder and executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, told Motherboard over email.
Exotic pets are a multibillion dollar industry, and ownership of cheetahs and other species can be seen as a status symbol.
“The Cheetah Conservation Fund estimates that close to 1,000 cheetahs may have been kept in houses and compounds in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman, and Qatar at times, each costing thousands of dollars and few surviving to adulthood,” Marker added.
A 2016 report by an international team of researchers estimated that roughly 7,100 cheetahs remain in the wild. More than half inhabit a single range across countries in southern Africa. Habitat loss, poaching, and human conflict are among the biggest threats to the species’ survival.
In 2016 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international wildlife treaty, identified social media as a cheetah trafficking venue. Recommendations drafted by a working group and later approved by CITES urged signatory countries “to engage with relevant social media platforms, search engines and ecommerce platforms to address illegal international trade” of cheetahs and other species.
Since then, technology giants like Instagram have vowed to regulate the illegal wildlife trade on their platforms. This year, 21 companies such as Amazon, Facebook, and Alibaba pledged to reduce trafficking across platforms by 80 percent before 2020.