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Can social media save great apes?

screen cap of Mussa's flight, courtesy of Lwiro primates

  • Bonobos, gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees face a fight for survival, and social media offers a new tool to help people connect with these endangered great apes.
  • Conservation groups say that, handled correctly, social media can help raise awareness — and funds.
  • What’s good for social media isn’t always good for apes. Experts caution that posts featuring interactions between humans and animals or unusual animal behavior should be accompanied by explanations that put the images into context.

An orphaned baby chimpanzee rests his head on his rescuer’s arm as he takes in the scenery during a special flight destined for a sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The pilot, Anthony Caere, cradles Mussa and gives him a soft kiss on the head. Although Mussa was recently ripped from his mother’s arms, he appears comfortable with Caere, and even plays with a few of the aircraft’s knobs and switches during the flight.

Over the past year, a number of great apes have experienced brushes with fame, including Ponso, “the loneliest chimp” in the Ivory Coast; Lulingu, the “laughing” baby gorilla; and Mussa, whose mother was killed by poachers. Their viral stories grabbed public attention on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and via large news organizations.

Bonobos, gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees face a fight for survival, and social media offers a new tool to help people connect with these endangered great apes. While great ape advocacy organizations are ready to wield the power of social media, they’re not just aiming for shares and likes, they say. Rather, sanctuaries and advocacy groups want to use those viral stories — and social media in general — to help save our closest relatives.

Footage of a baby chimp’s rescue flight posted by the Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center went viral. Shared on social media as well as by media organizations, the video has been viewed more than 2 million times. Image courtesy of Primate Rehabilitation Center.

Going viral

The Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) got a major boost from Mussa’s viral flight in February. Technical director Itsaso Vélez del Burgo Guinea says she had no idea that Caere was filming, let alone that the video would go viral.

“He sent me some footage and I thought it was beautiful,” she says. “We then released the video and it was clear it was going to be a boom. Immediately, it got a lot of attention in social media and from journalists calling and wanting to talk about the rescue.”

And, Vélez del Burgo Guinea says, all those views and shares translated into an increase in social media followers and even donations, which she says are “very important to continue saving chimpanzees.”

Through a partnership with an organization called FLOAT, Lwiro continued to capitalize on Mussa’s viral video, this time with sales of a limited-edition T-shirt depicting Mussa. FLOAT says on its website that it partners with a new charity each week, donating $8 for every purchase made on the site during that week. Vélez del Burgo Guinea calls the T-shirt another “great coincidence.”

A new fundraising tool

Not every story will go viral, but organizations working to protect great apes are harnessing social media tools to spread word about their mission and gain financial support.

Diana Goodrich, co-director of the Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest in Washington state, says her organization has taken advantage of Facebook’s donation and fundraising tools. When the sanctuary welcomed its chimpanzees in 2008, she says, it relied heavily on Facebook Causes, a now-defunct tool.

Today, the organization is still benefiting from Facebook fundraising tools such as the direct donate option and personal fundraisers. As a result, more than 5 percent of the organization’s total individual giving this year — and nearly 3 percent of total giving, which includes events, grants and corporate fundraising — comes from Facebook donations, a method that requires little maintenance by the organization. As this story was written, the organization had 35 active fundraisers by individuals, most of them in honor of birthdays.

A big chunk of the organization’s Facebook giving so far in 2018 — $3,000 out of a total $11,732 — resulted from a fundraiser that The Dodo posted on Facebook after creating a video that featured Foxie, one of the sanctuary’s rescue chimpanzees who loves troll dolls. The Dodo’s post has more than 27,000 reactions and 5,000 shares, and its fundraiser has about 100 individual contributions.

While social media fundraising can be lucrative, it’s not likely to replace traditional funding methods among nonprofit organizations any time soon. But it’s still in its infancy and can bring high returns with little investment from the organization.

Posts that share the names and stories of primates are popular with readers. Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest describes Missy, formerly held in a research lab, as loyal, adventurous and possessed of a silly sense of humor. Image courtesy of Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest.

A helping hand

“Word of mouth is everything in social media,” says Jessie Jory, development coordinator for the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI) in Washington, D.C.

But it’s not just news sites like The Dodo that are helping to boost social media about great apes. Jory says BCI’s online presence got a huge boost this summer from celebrity endorsements on Facebook and Instagram. Actress Ashley Judd partnered with the organization earlier this year to start a Care2 petition, and has shared and posted several social media posts about bonobos and BCI to her followers in the past few months, including a BCI fundraiser.

Posts from National Geographic wildlife photographer Frans Lanting, who joined BCI and Judd on an expedition in Africa in June, were also pivotal, according to Jory. “Because he has fame and is connected with National Geographic and [has] a lot of respect in the photography community, we’re introduced to an audience who is a perfect fit for us,” she says. “Social media-wise, he’s probably one of our biggest influencers.”

Actress Ashley Judd (left) interviews community leader Josephine Mpanga, BCI president Sally Jewell Coxe, and community leader Bijou Longenge Mpako in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Conservation groups credit partnerships with celebrities like Judd with expanding their social reach. Image courtesy of Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI).

Since May 1, BCI’s Instagram following has more than doubled, which Jory thinks can be partially attributed to the Care2 petition along with tagged posts from Lanting and Judd. And this celebrity-driven exposure is something the species desperately needs, Jory says. “The fact that so few people know about bonobos is one of our biggest hurdles.”

The Atlanta-based Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (Fossey Fund) also received a big celebrity endorsement this year from talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. In honor of DeGeneres’s 60th birthday, her wife, Portia de Rossi,  set up a wildlife fund. The DeGeneres fund’s first project will be building a Rwanda campus for the Fossey Fund. Since then, DeGeneres has used both her television show and social media as tools to get the word out about gorilla conservation and her partnership with the Fossey Fund.

“She’s definitely done an incredible job of raising awareness of ways to help,” says Rand Lines, digital communications manager for the Fossey Fund. Like BCI, the organization has seen a boost in social media as a result of its celebrity endorsements. Lines says the Fossey Fund believes the extra publicity generated by DeGeneres will lead to greater awareness of endangered gorillas and conservation in general.

What people want

Social media followers like getting to know apes on a more personal level, according to several organizations.

Jory says BCI’s most popular posts on Facebook and Instagram feature photos with the names of identified bonobos attached. She says that while naming the bonobos is a new trend for the organization, the practice helps its followers relate more easily to the apes.

“I love when people start to recognize the chimpanzees and know their names,” says Vélez del Burgo Guinea of the Lwiro center in the DRC. She says Lwiro’s followers respond best to pictures and stories of apes being rescued from terrible situations. People recognize the pain and the suffering in the animals, she says, and “it is beautiful to see their transformation. Chimps are amazing resilient animals.”

Goodrich agrees that personal connections to her sanctuary’s chimpanzees are successful, and cites a recent post Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest made about resident Jody, who underwent a medical procedure. Goodrich says this type of personal post gets “deeper engagement” from the community.

It’s no surprise that people love babies too. “Of course baby chimp videos are also successful,” says Vélez del Burgo Guinea.

Lines adds that videos of gorilla births do well. The organization uses these videos as an opportunity to educate. A video post showing a mother gorilla cuddling her infant states: “When you only have 1,000 individuals left, each mountain gorilla birth is so important to the future of the species.”

Videos of baby animals play well on social media. Conservation groups work to make sure posts like this also send a deeper message about apes.

The bad and the ugly

Some posts are more successful than others, but what’s good for social media isn’t always good for apes, says Goodrich. For instance, “it’s super problematic when humans are interacting with the apes, but it’s really popular.” She calls out one offender, which she describes as a “road-side zoo” in Florida. Goodrich says the organization is “good at social media,” but its posts, which she says often show guests interacting with apes like chimps, may give its followers the wrong impression about the animals. Jory agrees that posts of humans interacting with the apes can be problematic and says the only time BCI staff are in contact with bonobos is in rescue situations.

Goodrich also acknowledges that “cutesy” posts are often popular on social media, but adds that “some things that end up being popular aren’t exactly how we want to portray our animals.” In the case of Foxie, the chimpanzee who loves trolls, context was important and so the organization provided  viewers with background information to help understand Foxie and her trolls. “If there’s no context around it, they might think, ‘how cute — wouldn’t a chimpanzee make a great pet?’”

According to Jory, BCI’s work benefits from the fact that bonobos are so similar to humans. She notes that photos of the apes looking at the photographer with both eyes visible are popular. “Those are the photos people connect with the most because they’re so human-like,” she says. “I think that makes people want to connect. I do think it helps our cause that bonobos are so closely related to humans.”

Baby chimps like Mussa — made famous by video of his rescue flight — capture hearts on social media. But this cute appeal also puts them at risk of trafficking.

Vélez del Burgo Guinea agrees that great ape conservation might get a bit of a boost because of the animals’ similarities to humans.

“Yes, it is true that chimpanzees for their humanlike traits create more empathy in people,” she says. “We see it also in the differences in likes when we put a pic of other primates (monkeys) compared with the pics of chimps.”

But Vélez del Burgo Guinea says this anthropomorphizing can also have a downside.

“It is a problem because it is one of the reasons people wants chimps as pets — they see the babies are so cute and they want to hold them,” she says. “But they don’t understand that chimps, when they grow, they become very strong and because of their trauma and isolation they are very aggressive. An adult chimpanzee can easily kill a person. This is why when they grow up they end up locked in a cage. People don’t know what to do with them anymore.”

This is where social media can come in handy, she says. “Through the stories of our chimps, they become ambassadors of the ones in the wild and people understand that to have a baby chimp there is a full family who would die.”

Goodrich isn’t so sure about how much great apes actually benefit from their close lineage to humans. She says, for instance, that bats are also very popular on some social media pages. “I would guess that some people are interested in bats and some are interested in chimpanzees.”

A spokesperson from the Fossey Fund agrees, saying that while the close connection to humans certainly gives great ape organizations “a different advantage,” there are other charismatic species like tigers and pandas that “capture people’s hearts.”

The ultimate goal of viral social media posts is to help save apes, like this wild chimpanzee feeding on canopy fruit. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Saving species still the main goal

Most organizations emphasize that social media is a means to an end. And while likes, shares and comments are welcome, the ultimate goal is to build awareness and support for species with dwindling wild populations.

“If we don’t react soon,” says Vélez del Burgo Guinea, “we will lose our closest relatives.”

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