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Killer cuteness: how YouTube sent an endangered species to the brink of extinction
Professor Anna Nekaris
14th November 2013
There is nothing endearing about the truth behind the 'cute' YouTube videos of Slow Loris, a critically endangered species. Still, video clips of species of conservation concern may have a positive flip side ...
I have been studying lorises since the early 1990s. Their conservation plight has always been foremost in my mind. In particular in the case of the slow loris in Southeast Asia, we always knew that the illegal animal trade for pets and medicines was their most devastating immediate threat.
Thus, my heart sunk when in early 2009, people's ignorance of the existence of the slow loris was changed to a desire to have one for themselves ... all as the result of a seemingly innocent video of a slow loris being tickled on a bed in a Russian flat.
We tracked the video and its comments for three years, trying to quantify whether or not this video was as indeed as devastating as it appeared. The saddening results have led to my team and I to call for every YouTube video featuring illegal animal activity to be tempered with educational warnings, similar to those found on cigarette packs, and for better regulation of social media sites.
In our article Tickled to death: Analysing public perceptions of 'cute' videos of threatened species, published this July in the open access journal PlosOne, we seek to prove two things: that the internet has been instrumental in the sharp spike of loris trafficking for the pet trade and that public opinion can be positively influenced through educational messages within the vicinity of these clips.
As the internet is now a medium of choice for wildlife traders, better regulation could have an enormous positive impact on threatened species sold as pets or for their body parts - not only lorises, but elephants, tigers, marine turtles... the horrifying list goes on.
The flurry of cute loris clips on the internet was sparked by the 2009 Sonya Tickle clip, which shows an overweight Vietnamese pygmy loris being tickled in a Russian flat under bright lights (the import of lorises from Vietnam to Russia for personal purposes, incidentally, is banned, and no legal lorises have ever entered Russia from this country).
The clip, which went viral within days, introduced the concept of pet lorises to millions of viewers. These 'cute' clips, coupled with celebrity endorsements and the fact that endangered species can be easily advertised on the internet has had devastating effects on loris numbers.
For example, the loris photo prop trade in Phuket, now made notorious by pop singer Rihanna's September Instagram post of herself with an illegal loris, was virtually non-existent before 2009. Lorises are now the most common animal in this trade.
The appeal of the loris is certainly understandable - huge docile eyes, toy-like appearance and doleful movements. Most of the YouTube comments verged on the hysterical, with 'SOOOO CUTE' being by far the most common user comment, as was a clear desire to possess the animal as a pet.
But would viewers feel the same way once they knew the immense suffering involved in the illegal pet trade? So far, few academic studies have actually quantified the influence that the internet can play on public attitudes and opinions about wildlife conservation, so in our study we asked four crucial questions:
• Did the viral video of Sonya increase public knowledge of the conservation status of lorises?
• Do YouTube videos of illegal pets incite the public's desire to have one?
• Do celebrity endorsements of slow loris videos impact their viewing?
• Do YouTube videos increase awareness of behaviour of animals?
Our team analysed the life-span of a Tickling Slow Loris clip by Dmitry Sergeyev, uploaded by Wired on 3 June 2009. When Wired removed the video on 22 January of 2012, the video had generated 9,338,000 views and a staggering 12,411 comments.
The team also examined celebrity endorsement of the video, as reposted on other Web 2.0 sources, including microblog sites such as Facebook and Twitter updates and other YouTube posts. Only one celebrity, singer Tom Kaulitz, warned fans that owning a wild animal is cruel and illegal.
All publicity is good publicity. Among the inevitable tide of ‘cute' and ‘I want one' comments, was a lone voice of reason. One commentator suggested that these videos were at least flagging the endangered status of the loris before viewers who had no previous knowledge of the animal. Before long, the comments themselves became a forum for providing facts, links and information on slow loris conservation and ecology.
In particular, more viewers became aware of the disastrous consequences of slow lorises' teeth being inhumanely removed in the pet trade. At the same time, viewers made the link to the fact that slow lorises are the only venomous primates, and that their painful bite could make them unsuitable pets.
Over time, more viewers began to comment on the fact that all species of slow loris are globally threatened (Generally using the term ‘endangered'). At the same time, the number of people wanting lorises as a pet dropped from the initial reaction of around 25% of viewers wanting one, to 10% of viewers wanting one.
Breakthrough! The message is that viewers are receptive to education is immensely encouraging. Clearly, the power of YouTube to change public opinions is now well-recognised. YouTube has become widely used as a tool by advertisers to change consumer habits and in the public health industry to alter public lifestyle.
Social media sites, however, lie outside government regulation, and practitioners fear that public attitudes may be skewed by mixed messages and marketing rather than messages that direct them towards healthy or legal behaviour. If illegal loris videos cannot be removed from social networking sites, we whole heartedly advocate the addition of warnings to such videos to inform viewers of the many reasons that dictate why slow loris trade is unsustainable.
Anna Nekaris is a Professor in Anthropology and Primate Conservation, Oxford Brookes University Director, Little Fireface Project
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