You might have heard that Disney’s newest blockbuster, Zootopia (titled Zootropolis in some European countries), is driving a “huge demand for fennec foxes as pets” in China. What you probably have not read is the evidence to support such headlines. And the reason for that is simple: there isn’t any. It is time to stop and ask: what do we really know about the relationship between Zootopia, the pet trade and fennec foxes?
In the last month, stories from the United States to China and the United Kingdom to New Zealand have told the tale of Finnick, the Zootopia character based on a fennec fox (Vulpes zerda), that has allegedly infatuated the Chinese and led to a spike in demand that could threaten the species’ survival. Similar tales have been told about movies, such as Finding Nemo and the Harry Potter series, and is already being told again ahead of the Finding Nemo sequel, Finding Dory, due out in June.
In those cases, the evidence presented was based on testimonies from a few people. Imagine a person runs out of milk and, upon knowing others have run out of milk as well, assumes there was a national milk shortage. Anecdotal testimonies such as this can no doubt raise many questions, but answer very few of them. Yet, in the case of Zootopia, and unlike its predecessors, some initial reports included references to other information sources. Could this mean that there was more substance to the story?
One of the sources used was the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement which provides figures on the number of animals legally imported to and from a country. In the case of fennec foxes, we see that after a period of low imports between 2011 and 2013, when 10 to 20 animals were traded annually, the number of imported animals jumps to 140 in 2014, the last year for which information is available. While the CITES data does not tell us the impact of Zootopia, it does signal that demand for fennec foxes was already on the rise years before the movie.
The other source was Baidu, the leading online search engine in China, which provides data on how user searches for specific keywords varied over time. As reported, searches for the keyword “fennec fox” (in Chinese 耳廓狐) quadrupled in March, the month Zootopia was released. Nonetheless, there were already signs of interest in the species prior to the movie’s debut, with an average of more than 350 searches a day in February. It should also be noted that this spike quickly halved in April to about 600 searches a day (and even further to about 500 in the first 10 days of May). This suggests that any additional interest in the species will be short lived.
Furthermore, when it comes to keywords commonly associated with “fennec fox,” we saw the use of terms such as “pet,” “price” or “how to keep it.” However, looking at searches done in the month before Zootopia’s release, those associations already existed, again hinting at the fact that there was already demand for fennec foxes before the movie appeared.
Yet, a key discrepancy stood out. While Zootopia was released in China on the 4th of March, the spike in searches only saw a boost on the 17th of March, when more than 6,000 searches were made in a single day. So why the time lag? Coincidentally (or not), that was the day after the first major story around Zootopia broke online, following the publication of articles by the West China Metropolis Daily and South China Morning Post which were subsequently shared by at least a dozen other media outlets. These included Chinese news giants, such as the Xinhua news agency and the website Sina.com.cn, both of which are in the top 15 most accessed sites in the country. Of course, for a cause-effect to be established, more data and an in-depth analysis are needed. But the question seems legitimate: is the press, rather than Zootopia, driving the increase in interest for fennec foxes as pets?
Regardless of the actual driver, this increase in interest also needs to be put into perspective. After all, searching for a keyword online is quite far from equaling purchase. Looking at data from Google AdWords, it shows that for an average product only 0.19% of searches led to purchases. This would likely be even lower in the case of an expensive and exotic pet, a purchase most consumers would think at least twice about. That is likely why the smaller peak in interest captured by Baidu in 2013 had no impact in the trade of fennec foxes registered by CITES.
After all is said and done, the available data supports an increase in awareness around the fennec fox, and are far from proving that Zootopia is driving demand for fennec foxes. However, the existing data raises the question about the role of the media and if the reports are the driver of the increased online interest for fennec foxes. Time to stop crying fox?
Diogo Veríssimo is an SCB member and David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, where he works on the interface between human behavior and biodiversity conservation. Find more about Diogo’s research at www.diogoverissimo.com and follow him on Twitter @verissimodiogo
Anita K.Y. Wan was recently a research fellow at Rare and a masters graduate from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent. She has worked in projects studying the wildlife trade and impacts of conservation campaigns.