Kids in China are begging their parents for a rare, protected species of fox after watching a cartoon version of the animal in Disney's new animation film
According to a report in The Los Angeles Times, fennec foxes have become the target of wild animal dealers in several Chinese cities after the release of Zootopia led to a sudden increase in interest in the small African mammal.
The newspaper said online searches for "fennec foxes" on Chinese search engine Baidu have gone from near zero at the start of March to more than 6500 a day by March 17.
It said Zootopia generated more than US$170 million in ticket sales in China within the first three weeks and is the country's top-grossing animated film of all time.
Fennec foxes, which have unusually large ears, originate from North Africa and are a protected species. They have nocturnal habits.
The LA Times said the animal is listed in Appendix 2 of the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora - or CITES - meaning it is not threatened with extinction but trade "must be controlled in order to avoid utilisation incompatible with their survival".
The LA Times said wildlife experts have expressed concern about the growing trend, saying if it gets worse it could impact fennec fox conservation efforts.
Zhang Jinshuo, an associate professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Zoology, told the newspaper that if trading fennec foxes becomes widely practiced in China, the illegal trade in the species from their native region will increase.
"That will reduce the number of wild fennec foxes and ultimately could lead to the extinction of this species," he told the LA Times.
The newspaper also spoke to multiple sellers of the tiny fox in China, who told them about selling them to parents after the release of Zootopia.
In some cases, new born fennec foxes are being sold to people.
An LA Times reporter visited a seller in Beijing who was keeping two fennec foxes in his basement.
They were being advertised for US$6150 ($8963) on Alibaba's online shopping site Taobao.
Despite the website's administrators repeatedly deleted the ads, the LA Times said the man had been hearing from two to three customers a day for the past two weeks.
This is not the first time a movie has led to increased interest in certain animals as pets.
There were similar stories following the release of Finding Nemo, 101 Dalmatians, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and even the Harry Potter series - which saw a sudden increase in interest in snowy white owls.
Meanwhile, the LA Times said CITES trade data - reviewed by Humane Society International - shows Sudan to be the biggest exporter of live fennec foxes, both for zoos and commercial purposes.
It said China stopped importing fennec foxes for commercial purposes in 2005, but has been the largest importer for zoos in the last 10 years.
There were 140 fennec foxes brought into China in 2014, the LA Times reported, which was up from 14 in 2011.
It said the United Arab Emirates is the largest importer of fennec foxes for commercial purposes - 733 between 2004 and 2014.
Zootopia is currently in cinemas in New Zealand.