PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - First, it was photos of food. Now, the Instagram fame game has grown to celebrities and social media influencers sharing pictures of their exotic pets, many of which are protected wildlife.
Malaysia's Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) and conservationists say this growing trend is fuelling the demand in the illegal wildlife trade.
The illegal buying and selling of wildlife came into the spotlight after Malaysian singer Zarith Sofia Yasin was charged with keeping a sun bear cub in her condominium unit last month. A Sessions Court in Kuala Lumpur has fixed Aug 26 for the case management.
The Star found that since 2015, celebrities and social media influencers, some with over three million followers, have been publicly showing images of endangered wildlife kept as households pets.
Among the popular wildlife are dusky leaf monkeys and leopard cats. The Star also found a sun bear and an Asian palm civet.
These wildlife, mostly juveniles that can be easily bought online, are often photographed wearing diapers, collars and clothes.
In the posts, the owners call them their "babies", drawing excited responses from followers asking where to buy them.
According to preliminary research by Malaysian Primatological Society co-founder Muhammad Zaki Zainol, at least 1,238 online wildlife trade posts have been shared on Facebook, Instagram and Telegram between October 2017 and May this year.
He found that primates such as the dusky leaf monkey are becoming the most traded wildlife.
The high consumer demand has increased the market prices of wildlife, he said.
It is learnt that dusky leaf monkeys have become so popular that online stores selling custom clothing for these primates have also mushroomed.
Unfortunately, many of these animals do not survive their time in captivity.
Besides images of the owners babying the animals, there are also obituary posts after they die.
In January, Fazreen Fazera, a former finalist of the Dewi Remaja beauty contest, streamed an Instagram live video of herself playing with her dusky leaf monkey to her 107,600 followers.
The video, which ended with her screaming as the primate snatched her phone, went viral and was featured on several media outlets.
Another celebrity who has previously posted photos of his exotic pet is Instagrammer Ervan Rizuan, who has 405,000 followers.
Responding to The Star, Ervan said he had gotten a licence to rear his dusky leaf monkey in 2016 but declined to provide more information.
The Star also contacted the other celebrities for their comments but there has been no response. Some of them have since removed the photos from their accounts.
Wildlife Conservation Society Malaysia director Melvin Gumal is against the practice of having such pets.
"It is irresponsible. Showcasing them as pets pushes the idea that these endangered animals make good pets," he said.
"Endangered wildlife should remain in the wild and not serve as a play thing to get an influencer to look cool and garner more likes."
He said social media personalities should instead use their influence to speak out against wildlife crimes by posting images of protecting or conserving wildlife.
Perhilitan director-general Datuk Abdul Kadir Abu Hashim voiced concerns that this social media trend would indirectly create demand that fuels the illegal wildlife trade.
"Most artistes or celebrities are public figures with their own fans and followers. Their actions can start trends that are emulated by social media users," he said.
"Totally protected wildlife cannot be reared or kept. It is an offence under Section 68 of the Wildlife Conservation Act unless the minister approves a special permit under Section 14 (2)," he added.
Abdul Kadir said that licensed wildlife owners also have a responsibility to be sensitive about how they portray the wildlife on their social media accounts to avoid encouraging people from illegally owning wildlife.
Under the Wildlife Conservation Act, highly traded wildlife including sun bear, leopard cat, slow loris and several otter species are classified as "totally protected wildlife".
The dusky leaf monkey is classified as "Protected Wildlife" under the same Act.
Elizabeth John, a senior communications officer for wildlife protection non-government organisation Traffic, said followers wanting to stay on trend might not consider how the animal came into their possession.
"All of the wildlife would have been taken out of the wild illegally, many juveniles would have been taken from families or mothers that were killed, nests targeted and raided, or packed and smuggled in horrendous conditions and quite a number may not have survived the journey," she said.
The Star ran an expose about how easy it was to buy and sell wildlife online in 2016.
However, the online trade continued to boom because it is not a crime to advertise exotic pets online.
Perhilitan has proposed making the advertising of exotic pets online a crime under the upcoming amendments to the Wildlife Conservation Act.
Currently, action can only be taken against individuals if they are caught red-handed smuggling the animals or if the animals are found on their premises.
Days after the sun bear case emerged last month, The Star discovered a protected Brahminy kite eagle that was held captive for a year in a cage at a house in Subang Jaya, Selangor.
Last Friday, a video of two tigers strolling around Kampung Besul in Dungun, Terengganu went viral on social media.
Based on the tigers' tame behaviour, Perhilitan Terengganu director Abdul Malek Mohd Yusof believed the tigers were kept as pets before being set free by their owners.