- Scientists got their first sight ever of a baby Sumatran striped rabbit when it was listed for sale on a WhatsApp group for wildlife traders.
- They say they fear the rabbit’s rarity could create an illegal collectors’ market for the species.
- Experts say national wildlife legislation needs to be brought up to date to combat cybercrime.
- Scientists agree that social media can also be a positive tool in the fight against illegal wildlife trafficking by raising awareness.
On Feb. 14, 2018, a group of scientists led by Arum Setiawan recognized a rather odd-looking baby rabbit for sale on a WhatsApp group that they had infiltrated in Indonesia. It was the extremely rare, little-known Sumatran striped rabbit (Nesolagus netscheri). With grayish-yellow fur darkening to rust toward the tail, and distinctive black stripes, this was a species that hadn’t been seen in person by scientists in more than a decade. Researchers only knew it was still around due to a chance camera-trap photo by another research group looking for wild cats back in 2011. The Sumatran striped rabbit is thought to exist only within a small area of Sumatra, yet here it was on a WhatsApp group for wildlife traders, on sale starting from the equivalent of $365.
A few days later the scientists learned from the WhatsApp group that the baby rabbit had died.
“As very little information is available on [Sumatran striped rabbit] young and reproduction, we requested the seller to donate the specimen,” the researchers wrote in a paper published in the journal Mammalia.
The seller handed over the body, together with another adult specimen they had also tried to sell through the WhatsApp group in the same week. The adult had also died in the seller’s care.
Setiawan, from the Department of Biology at Sriwijaya University in Indonesia’s South Sumatra province and the lead author of two papers on the Sumatran striped rabbit, says social media has created “a shortcut to [reach] this species more easily.”
Previously it was considerably more complicated and difficult to advertise a rare species for sale, bargain a price for it, and arrange shipping, according to Setiawan. WhatsApp and similar platforms have changed all that, making finding buyers much easier. He says the demand on WhatsApp comes from wealthy collectors of rare animals who know what they are looking for and often target endangered species.
While there are no conservation groups actively focused on this rabbit, it is legally protected under Indonesian law and occurs inside protected areas.
“[It’s] one of the coolest, unknown species I know,” says Jennifer McCarthy, an assistant professor of biology at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and part of the team of scientists who accidentally captured the Sumatran striped rabbit on camera trap. “If we lose the Sumatran striped rabbit, we lose … a species that is evolutionarily unique.”
The Sumatran striped rabbit is one of just two species in the genus Nesolagus, and the only rabbit species native to Indonesia.
“Any illegal trade of a little known species such as the Sumatran striped rabbit … could jeopardize the very existence of the species,” McCarthy adds. It is therefore “incredibly concerning to see the Sumatran striped rabbit pop up in trade on social media.”
Lack of protection
The IUCN currently lists the Sumatran striped rabbit as data deficient, despite its rarity and small range. McCarthy says this is because there is simply not enough information to make a scientific recommendation for its conservation status, or develop effective conservation efforts for the species.
“We can assume that any effort to slow deforestation, to protect habitat in Sumatra, will benefit the Sumatran striped rabbit, but the lack of ecological information hinders the ability of scientists or regulators to indicate direct conservation strategies,” McCarthy says.
Even reaching areas where the rabbit was previously recorded is challenging. Setiawan’s team have traveled to remote jungle areas accessible only by dirt bike in their attempts to find the rabbit.
To increase understanding and push forward efforts to conserve the striped rabbit, McCarthy chairs the IUCN’s Striped Rabbit Working Group, founded just last December. Setiawan and his team are also members of this new group.
“They are the first to publish studies specifically focused on the species, and without their work, the Sumatran Striped Rabbit might have continued to be quietly traded,” McCarthy says. “We now know that [online trafficking] is a real and significant threat for the species, and it increases the urgency of real and substantial conservation action.”
Online trafficking creating easy, less risky market
On the WhatsApp group, members discussed a total of eight individual Sumatran striped rabbits, but did not attempt to sell all eight, during the period Setiawan’s team had access to the group.
Such repeat occurrences indicate an ongoing market for the rabbit among collectors rather than a coincidence, according to McCarthy. Moreover, Setiawan says he thinks the high price for the baby rabbit — from $365 for delivery within Sumatra, to $510 for delivery to Java — could drive this market forward, attracting more hunters to actively find and sell the rabbits online. The latter price is more than double the monthly minimum wage in South Sumatra.
“Many national wildlife legislations do not currently provide adequate coverage for cybercrime,” says Serene Chng, the Southeast Asia program officer for the wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC. “In many cases, the suspect has to be caught in possession of the wildlife to be arrested and charged.”
As such, successfully prosecuting traders for selling Sumatran striped rabbits on WhatsApp could prove very difficult. In addition, the pace at which transactions occur and the scope for anonymity on social media make monitoring illegal wildlife trafficking difficult.
“A trader could quickly post an advertisement, receive a number of responses from interested buyers, and then delete the post before detection,” Chng says. She adds that closing or suspending accounts displaces the activity rather than stops it, because users can simply move on to a different group, account or platform.
How social media can help the Sumatran striped rabbit
But it’s not all bad. Social media can also be a positive tool in the fight against illegal wildlife trafficking, according to scientists. Chng says it has the power to spread messages to discourage the wildlife trade.
She points to incidents where poachers were arrested after sharing media of their illegal activity, or where members of the public reported online sales to authorities.
Setiawan says he believes social media can also be a very important tool for promoting wildlife conservation. He sees social media as playing a big role in changing minds by introducing knowledge of rare species to a wider audience and increasing their understanding of its importance.
Still, McCarthy says many local communities don’t realize that the Sumatran striped rabbit is unique to Sumatra.
“It’s not that they don’t care,” she says, “local people just aren’t often aware of how special the species in their backyard is.”
If local communities recognize the importance of the species, they may be less likely to hunt and traffic it — and more likely to call out online attempts by others to do so. The survival of the Sumatran striped rabbit may well depend on it.
Setiawan, A., Iqbal, M., Halim, A., Saputra, R. F., Setiawan, D., & Yustian, I. (2019). First description of an immature Sumatran striped rabbit (Nesolagus netscheri), with special reference to the wildlife trade in South Sumatra. Mammalia. doi:10.1515/mammalia-2018-0217