We use it every day to check our emails, watch videos, read the news, chat with friends, purchase items, and the list goes on. Yes, I am talking about the Internet, which has become an inseparable part of our lives.
Through YouTube people can easily share videos of exotic animals they have adopted as pets and it only takes a few days for them to catapult to fame across the globe, inspiring new and sometimes strange online fads. But what impact do these animal videos have on public opinion? And what about the effect of celebrity endorsement? Earlier this year, researchers found that a ‘cute’ viral video of a person tickling a slow loris – most likely an illegal one – inspired a large proportion of viewers to keep one as a pet.
Internet users are growing by the day as more and more people have access to smartphones, particularly in developing countries. But, on the dark side, the Internet is also a popular medium employed by wildlife and pet traders to carry out illegal activities: Exotic live animals and animal parts are widely advertised online and can be delivered to your doorstep in a matter of days.
Slow lorises are primates consisting of several species and are found in the forests of Southeast Asia as well as eastern India and southern China. One species – the Javan slow loris – is endangered while the others are threatened. Threats include habitat destruction, hunting for their meat, use in traditional medicines, and illegal pet trade. Since 2007, all slow loris species are listed under Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which prohibits their trade; they are only traded in exceptional cases with strict regulation.
Slow lorises are the only primates that have a bite that can be toxic to humans so traders or poachers cruelly pull out their teeth using pliers and they may die as a result – a practice many people are unaware of. They are also kept in inhumane conditions during transportation and many often die during their arduous journey. They are difficult to care for in captivity even with specialized knowledge. More recently, they have been smuggled for use as photo props.
In June 2009, a video of a pet pygmy slow loris (Nycticebus pygmaeus) being tickled on the bed was uploaded onto YouTube by the owner – a Russian. Sure enough, it was cute and within a few months it went viral and by February 2012 (when it was ultimately taken down), it had garnered over 9 million views. Researchers rummaged through over 12,000 YouTube comments made over almost 3 years and categorized them according to the types of comments made and they measured differences using statistical tests. They also tracked celebrity endorsements of the video and analyzed their impact on public perception.
The comments came from 172 countries but over half were from North America and only 1 percent actually came from countries where slow lorises are found.
The researchers found that there were two most common types of comments. The most frequent type was harmless as it was merely referring to the animal being cute, but the second type, comprising 11 percent, was more sinister as viewers – many of whom probably saw a slow loris for the first time – expressed their desire to have one as a pet.
Later there was a significant surge in comments during March 2011, which coincided with two events. The first was another pet loris video – this time from Japan – that went viral where a slow loris is holding a cocktail umbrella. The second was the introduction of a Wikipedia page on the “Conservation of slow lorises” by one of the authors of this study in response to the umbrella video.
After these events, they noticed a larger proportion of comments were focused on the consequences of the brutal treatment of lorises such as their teeth bring ripped out as viewers became more aware of their plight. More viewers mentioned that slow lorises are threatened compared to the last six months.
In January 2012, there was another spike in comments following the airing of a BBC documentary Jungle Gremlins of Java, which focused on the conservation of slow lorises and featured images of their exploitation in the pet trade. This time there were significantly higher instances of viewers mentioning the poisonous bites of slow lorises. Over time, fewer viewers wanted to keep lorises as pets, falling from an initial high of 25 percent to under 10 percent after March 2011.
Most of the comments generated from people directed to the video via celebrities were neutral; only 4 percent of those commentators wanted one as a pet. Most of the celebrities simply shared the video without knowledge of the conservation issues but a few appeared to encourage their followers to get one as a pet. Only one out of 15 celebrities, Tom Kaulitz, directed viewers towards the sites about the conservation of slow lorises.
The researchers highlight the need for more regulation of sites like YouTube. They suggest that warnings should be embedded in videos showing threatened species so that viewers are aware about the status of the animals being shown and they can decide for themselves if they agree with them.
If YouTube adopts this practice showing that they are a responsible site and that they truly care about protecting illegal wildlife trade, other media sharing sites may follow suit. This may help bring down the number of slow lorises captured for use as pets and alleviate their suffering.
Nekaris BKA-I, Campbell N, Coggins TG, Rode EJ, Nijman V (2013) Tickled to Death: Analysing Public Perceptions of ‘Cute’ Videos of Threatened Species (Slow Lorises – Nycticebus spp.) on Web 2.0 Sites. PLoS ONE 8(7): e69215. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0069215
International Animal Rescue: Saving the slow loris