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Let’s take the fight to social media giants and protect endangered monkeys and apes (commentary)

  • Every year, thousands of apes and monkeys are cruelly bought and sold as part of the illegal wildlife trade. The illegal sale of wild animals must end.
  • In 2015, the value of the primate trade was estimated at $138M, up from $98M just three years before. These animals are sold as pets, sold to zoos, or slaughtered and sold in markets as bushmeat. This at a time when African primate populations are shockingly decimated, putting entire species at risk of extinction.
  • It’s difficult to track illegal activity and bring perpetrators to justice because wildlife dealers exploit the anonymity of social media platforms to conduct their business. Silicon Valley giants are quick to point out that they have policies in place that prohibit the sale of wildlife, and we commend them for that. However, these policies are no match for savvy traders who exploit the features of platforms to make money selling endangered wildlife.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Every year, thousands of apes and monkeys are cruelly bought and sold as part of the illegal wildlife trade. The recent outbreak of the coronavirus, believed to have originated in a wildlife market in China, shines a tragic spotlight on the issue and has raised a cry from conservationists, health organizations, and concerned humanitarians around the world. The illegal sale of wild animals must end.

Reliable statistics on the scope of the problem are difficult to come by, but a recent paper written by myself and colleagues, published in the American Journal of Primatology, showed that hundreds of thousands of apes and monkeys are captured from the wild and sold every year. In 2015, the value of the primate trade was estimated at $138M, up from $98M just three years before. These animals are sold as pets, sold to zoos, or slaughtered and sold in markets as bushmeat. This at a time when African primate populations are shockingly decimated, putting entire species at risk of extinction.

It’s difficult to track illegal activity and bring perpetrators to justice because these dealers exploit the anonymity of social media platforms to conduct their business. It works like this:

• A trader posts a “fun” picture of someone interacting with a monkey or ape on Instagram, YouTube, or another channel.

• When a potential buyer signals interest — and they do, just take a look at the comments — the conversation quickly moves to a private, encrypted platform like WhatsApp or a private Facebook group, where there is no way to track the activity.

And for you and me, reporting animal abuse online is cumbersome at best on most platforms. For example, while YouTube lets you flag harmful content from the video page, there is no category for animal cruelty. Adding that requires clicking through several screens to file a separate report, a process that few will bother with.

A social media account offering animals for sale. Photo by Dan Stiles.

These Silicon Valley giants are quick to point out that they have policies in place that prohibit the sale of wildlife, and we commend them for that. However, these policies are no match for savvy traders who exploit the features of platforms to make money selling endangered wildlife. The cycle continues and thousands more animals are lost.

This must stop. This year, my organization, the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), is taking a three-pronged approach to help end the illegal wildlife trade. Here’s how:

1. Programs: In January, we launched Action for Chimpanzees to curtail the illicit trade of western chimpanzees. We’re forging collaboration among key groups in West Africa and worldwide to combine policy with direct action.

2. Partnerships: Solving this complex problem requires a village. As a starter, we have joined the Born Free Foundation and over 200 others in sending a letter to the World Health Organization, the United Nations Environment Programme, and the International Office of Epizoology to recommend closing wildlife markets — associated with the coronavirus — for good.

3. Pressure: We’re seeking a million signatures on our Not A Pet petition to tell Facebook and Google to stop enabling the illegal wildlife trade.

PASA’s member wildlife centers across Africa rescue, rehabilitate, and, when needed, provide long-term care for 3,081 primates. They provide a critical component in bringing traffickers to justice because African governments generally do not have facilities to house rescued primates. But our member sanctuaries are nearly at capacity. We must stem the flow of animals needing rescue and ensure that Africa’s precious primates can remain wild.

Your help is needed now. Refuse to share online content that shows primates as pets or entertainers. It’s not cute — it’s cruel. And it may be the prelude to much worse.

In the race against extinction, every animal counts. With your help, we can turn the tide for Africa’s endangered primates and ensure that they are safe and wild for generations to come.

Chimpanzees in Uganda. Photo by USAID Africa Bureau.

CITATION

• Norconk, M. A., Atsalis, S., Tully, G., Santillán, A. M., Waters, S., Knott, C. D., … & Stiles, D. (2020). Reducing the primate pet trade: Actions for primatologists. American Journal of Primatology, 82(1), e23079. doi:10.1002/ajp.23079

Gregg Tully is the Executive Director of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), the largest association of wildlife centers in Africa, which includes 23 organizations in 13 countries, focused on securing a future for Africa’s primates and their habitat. Gregg earned a Ph.D. in animal behavior from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2006. He then turned his attention to the nonprofit sector, working as the Development Director of the Nepal Youth Foundation and in the Marketing and Communications department at the Marin Humane Society in California. After receiving the Marin Humane Society’s Humanitarian of the Year award for his commitment to animal protection worldwide, he moved to Thailand in 2012 to lead Soi Dog Foundation, the largest stray animal protection organization in Southeast Asia. He joined PASA in 2015.

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