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YouTube videos may be imperiling cuddly primate

Conservationists worry that YouTube videos of pet slow lorises worsen illegal and cruel trade

Many “cute” and “cuddly” species have gained attention and funds from conservation groups, since the public gravitates toward such attractive species. In fact, cuteness can sometimes mean the difference between conservation attention and extinction. However, for slow lorises being cute may be their downfall.

Despite the fact that owning a slow loris as a pet or trading it is illegal in all range countries and “all countries where primates as pets are illegal,” the species is still heavily trafficked, says Dr. Anna Nekaris, an anthropologist who specializes in slow-loris research at Oxford Brookes University. During the past few years videos of pet slow lorises have begun to appear on YouTube. Such videos often include comments from users who push misinformation about the slow loris’s legality and aptitude as pets, raising concerns among conservationists that the videos encourage people to actively pursue the slow loris as a pet.

Several lorises trapped in cage by poachers. Photo courtesy of Profauna Indonesia.

“Most people who see them in this setting want one, too!” says Angelina Navarro-Montes, a graduate student at Oxford Brookes University who has conducted studies of the slow-loris Internet trade. “There is also a big misconception on [YouTube] and a lot of viewers think it’s perfectly legal to have them as pets.”

The desire to keep a slow loris as a pet is obvious: they are exceptionally adorable, sporting huge eyes and a curious demeanor. Nekaris also says that people are drawn to them because “they are docile to hold.” However, she adds that the loris willingness to be held is not because they are comfortable but rather “it is part of their defense mechanism—to be still and silent” when they feel threatened.

Slow lorises have a unique natural history. “They have among the slowest life histories for a primate of their body size,” Nekaris says. A member of a group of primates that include lemurs, the slow loris is an ambusher, creeping up on prey with incredible steadiness–hence its name–and then grasping it with lightning speed to catch its dinner. They do not leap, as most primates do; instead they use their long limbs and powerful hands for climbing and hanging. Slow lorises have evolved specialized blood vessels to allow them to hang on for extended periods of time without cramping. The slow loris is also one of the world’s few mammals that produce a toxin. The toxin is not used to kill or immobilize prey, but is defensive. Mothers lick their babies with the toxin in order to protect them from predators, although this defense offers no protection from poachers.

Slow lorises are easily caught, making them readily available to the black market pet trade. Slow- loris parents “park their infants alone throughout the night. The infants are particularly defenseless and easy to catch; any hunter going into the forest will just grab a loris if he sees it,” Nekaris explains.

If hunters find a slow loris parent with a baby, they often kill the parent. According to ProFauna Indonesia, a wildlife conservation group, poachers have been recorded catching six or seven slow lorises in a single day. Infants are transported in sacks, sometimes several in one sack with their arms tied, or in wire cages, which, due to the primates’ unique network of blood vessels, cut their skin.

Usually, poachers remove the slow loris’ teeth to make the loris a more pleasant “pet.” The teeth are taken out using pliers and without any anesthetic. The practice, which Navarro-Montes calls “evil,” can lead to infection and even death. In addition, losing its teeth makes it difficult for the loris to eat a healthy diet. Slow lorises “are very susceptible to stress when being moved to a new environment or when put in an inappropriate display,” Nekaris says. Due to this sensitivity to stress, it is estimated 30-90 percent of captured slow lorises don’t survive being transported by poachers and made “people-friendly” before being sold as pets.

Even if the slow loris survives long enough to be sold as a pet, it remains a wild animal, not adapted for living with humans. Most of the YouTube videos show slow lorises moving about in bright daylight, yet these are strictly nocturnal animals. Orphaned infant slow lorises also are unable to clean themselves of feces and urine, because their parents would have cleaned them with their tongues and claws.

In addition, pet slow lorises are often undernourished. “We are only beginning to learn about their diet in the wild,” Nekaris says, “and most captive lorises are fed an inappropriate diet which leads to tooth decay, diabetes, obesity, kidney failure, and death. “

Comments accompanying the slow-loris videos on YouTube are often full of misinformation. Nekaris points out that one of the biggest falsehoods spread on YouTube is that the slow lorises are not caught in the wild but have been bred in a facility.

“Even the best breeding facilities have great difficulty breeding lorises, and those that do often have difficulty keeping them alive,” she says. “It is so easy to get access to wild-caught lorises, it is highly doubtful that a seller who claims to have captive-bred ones is telling the truth.” Nekaris adds, “A seller [between poacher and buyer] may be led to believe that lorises come from a captive breeding facility in Malaysia, but it has been shown time and time again with many species coming from Southeast Asia that captive-bred is put on the export label as a bribe, and that these animals come from the wild.”

In addition, some slow-loris pet owners have attempted to argue on sites such as YouTube that the best way to ensure that slow lorises don’t go extinct is to raise them as pets. Nekaris takes issue with this belief: “Many animals may face extinction in the wild and will only survive in zoos,” but “someone who would use this as an excuse to have a wild animal as a pet should reevaluate their life style and ensure that they are living in an environmentally friendly way, and encourage their friends and families to support causes that will keep animals alive in the wild.”

A pygmy loris from Cambodia. Nekaris notes that this individual was captured by locals and killed. Photo by Dr. Anna Nekaris.

The pet trade, in fact, is adding great pressures on slow-loris populations. When offspring are stolen from the forest only to die in transit or to spend their lives as pets—not reproducing—the viable populations of slow loris in the wild become increasingly threatened. “Their long life history makes the pet trade particularly detrimental,” Nekaris says.

Nekaris adds that people should really know that a slow loris is nothing like the domesticated animals which are usually kept as pets. “It is true that some animals can be domesticated over time, but dogs and cats have been going through this process for nearly 10,000 years. There is a long way before primates, with complex social needs, will be domesticated. “

According to Nekaris and Navarro-Montes, the pet trade for slow lorises is largest in Asia, mostly Japan and China. “Japan is a massive player and most hosts on YouTube with a pet slow loris are based there,” Navarro-Montes says. Slow lorises sell in Japan for $1,500 to $4,500 US dollars.

The pet trade is one of three major threats facing the slow loris today. Even if the pet trade disappeared overnight, the slow loris would still be at risk from habitat loss and poachers who sell the loris for traditional medicine and bushmeat.

Parts of the slow loris are used for various remedies in traditional medicine. Nekaris says that the slow loris is used “to cure asthma, to empower the person who consumes it, to give strength after pregnancy, to cure the common cold, to cure leprosy, to ward off evil eye, etc.” In Cambodia ‘loris wine’ is used to mitigate pain during childbirth: a bottle is mixed with rice wine and the bodies of three slow lorises. Nekaris adds that “in Cambodia, slow loris is like aspirin!”

Habitat loss, however, may be the greatest danger to slow lorises. Nekaris says that slow lorises are particularly susceptible to slash-and-burn destruction of forests: “They do not flee from burning forest like other primates do. Their tendency is to cling, so when a forest is cleared they are almost sure to be doomed.”

As a result of these threats slow lorises are in decline across their range. ProFauna Indonesia has estimated that 6,000 to 7,000 slow lorises are poached every year in Indonesia. This number would be unsustainable even without habitat loss, but the country has one of the world’s highest levels of deforestation—between 1990 and 2005 Indonesia lost 24 percent of its forest, largely to oil-palm plantations and logging. While Indonesia is just one nation that harbors the slow loris, it faces similar threats in all of its native countries. No species can survive such an onslaught for long.

With such an uncertain future, conservationists hope that the slow loris’s “cuteness” can bring about meaningful action to save it, rather than be used as a reason to participate in an illegal and cruel trade that only further endangers the species.

To see the videos of slow loris on YouTube:

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