Gorillas, elephants, pangolins and sea turtles have been handed a lifeline by amateur investors who played the stock market at its own game.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent helping endangered animals by users of a Reddit trading tips community, giving conservation organisations across the world a much-needed financial boost during a difficult year.
The money came from users of the WallStreetBets subreddit, who earlier this year bought small volumes of shares in the retailer GameStop en masse. This inflated the company’s share price, raising value for themselves and deliberately withholding it from professional investors such as hedge funds and big Wall Street firms that had hoped to profit from its failure.
Many of those small investors have spent their gains on animal conservation.
Gorillas have been the biggest beneficiaries, partly due to the sad story of Harambe, which still persists as a meme. In a typical weekend, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund gets 20 new gorilla adoptions. But since Saturday it has received more than 3,500 adoptions worth $350,000 (GBP252,000). Many were made out to fictional names including “Fuck Melvin capital” and “Jim Cramer’s Tears” that took potshots at hedge fund managers.
“The support that has come to our organisation, as well as others, is amazing,” said Dr Tara Stoinski, tpresident, chief executive and chief scientific officer for the gorilla fund. “One of the biggest challenges in conservation is just that there’s not enough funding for the challenges we face on the ground.”
As well as money, the influx of donations has brought welcome public attention to the trust’s work. “A lot of people just aren’t aware that gorillas are such at-risk species and that we could lose them,” said Stoinski.
Gorillas have also been adopted at the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga national park, where rangers regularly risk their lives to protect wildlife, and through the Aspinall Foundation that recently hired Carrie Symonds as communications director.
The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, best known for running an orphaned elephant rescue centre in Kenya, received an unusual $10,000 rise in donations last weekend. “It’s a new supporter base for us, for sure, one that we’re extremely thankful for,” said the trust’s Amie Alden. “We’ve currently got more than 90 dependent orphaned elephants in our care and it’s an expensive undertaking.”
Alden said allowing people to adopt an animal was a much more personal way of donating. “It’s a named individual that has a personality, characteristics and a unique rescue story. Through that donation they have access to monthly updates written by their keepers on their specific orphan.
“We were one of the early charities to try this method. I think it opens a real window on elephants’ intelligence, their emotions, their family, and it’s these sort of elements that really connect people to the difference they’re making.”
Adoptions are also a useful way of generating memberships for the Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy. “Organisations like ours don’t manufacture and sell a product,” said its executive director, David Godfrey. “We’re not even selling a service to people; we’re not cutting hair, we’re not fixing their car. We are doing something for the betterment of the planet. In order to raise money to support what we do, you have to give people a nexus and the adoption programme is the thing that we can sell.”
The handful of donations to the conservancy from Reddit users this week will not make a huge difference to its budget. But it has had windfalls before, such as after BP’s 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which affected sea turtles for years afterwards.
Leif Cocks, founder and president of the Australia-based Orangutan Project, which also benefited from Reddit adoptions, said philanthropy was partly motivated by a sense of empathy and compassion. “What we find in conservation is that you talk about climate change – very little interest. Talk about rainforest conservation – a little bit more interest. You talk about an individual orangutan and that’s what best seems to connect with people.”
Other animals represented in the Reddit zoo include pangolins, lynx, wolves and polar bears, as well as all manner of sea life. Some guerrilla investors chose to adopt bulls or bears in a sly reference to market trading terminology.
The donations have proved particularly welcome because many conservation programmes have been hit hard by the Covid pandemic. Virunga national park lost nearly 40% of its revenue overnight when tourism activities closed.
The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s income from educational visits dried up when its Nairobi nursery was forced to close last year. “We have been lucky in that we’ve been able to continue our field projects throughout the pandemic, and that’s in no small thanks to adopters,” said Alden. “But Covid has made a real difference to us.”
The Dian Fossey fund has not experienced a drop in donations but its field costs have increased. Great apes such as gorillas can catch Covid, so the charity has had to spend money on protective gear and on staff rotations to keep them isolated.
Stoinski said she hopes people who adopted a gorilla in the excitement of the Reddit drama will continue to donate. “We’re incredibly lucky that a lot of people love gorillas, that were inspired by Dian Fossey’s original story,” she said.
“We have a lot of long-term donors that have enabled us, unlike a lot of nonprofits, to make it 50-plus years. Ultimately that’s how we sustain our work. The hope is that more people will be inspired to learn about what we do and want to be called supporters of the organisation.”