‘Status symbols’: Japan emerging as major hub for illegal trade in slow lorises due to their popularity as pets

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It is “fashionable” to own a slow loris in Japan, according to new study, and slow lorises are being sold for an average $6,500 in pet shops, mostly illegally. A second study has found that slow lorises in online videos tend to be sick, scared or stressed.

‘Status symbols’: Japan emerging as major hub for illegal trade in slow lorises due to their popularity as pets
  • A new study has found that slow lorises were being openly traded in pet shops, fairs and on the Internet in Japan, illegally and at exuberant prices.
  • The team’s investigation into Japan’s slow loris pet trade seems to have prompted the Japanese government into taking some action.
  • A second study found that all slow lorises that feature in YouTube or other online videos are either unhealthy or abused.

In 2014, the Telegraph ranked slow lorises as one of the “top 10 internet superstar pets”. Unfortunately, the rising online popularity of slow lorises (Nycticebus spp.) as exotic pets is fueling the illicit trade in these animals.

Japan, for example, is emerging as a major black market for illegally obtained slow lorises, researchers found in a recent study published in the Asian Primates Journal.

During the course of a two-month investigation in 2014, a team of researchers discovered 74 slow lorises in 18 online and two brick-and-mortar (or in-store) pet shops in Japan, including 12 Critically Endangered Javan slow lorises (Nycticebus javanicus). The lorises were being sold for an average of nearly $6,500.

“It came as quite a shock just how many slow lorises were being openly traded in pet shops, fairs and on the Internet, as well as the exuberant prices they were being sold for,” lead-author Louisa Musing of Oxford Brookes University, told Mongabay in an email. “Slow lorises have undoubtedly become a status symbol in Japan.”

Slow Lorises have become popular pets in Japan, which is fueling their illegal trade. Photo from Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).
Slow Lorises have become popular pets in Japan, which is fueling their illegal trade. Photo from Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

In fact, according to the study, pet shop owners consistently described slow lorises as very popular and valuable pets.

“Social media has become a very popular outlet for Japanese users to brag about their pet slow lorises and you only have to read the comments written by Japanese users on videos of pet slow lorises to see how fashionable they are,” Musing said.

While demand for slow lorises in Japan is high, the team suspects that most of the slow lorises being sold in the country have been obtained illegally.

A legally-sourced slow loris, Musing explained, would be one that was imported with appropriate permits before these primates were up-listed to the Appendix I of CITES in 2007, which bans their commercial trade. Any slow loris that was bred from adults that were imported under these conditions would also be legal, she added.

But any slow loris that was obtained after 2007, or that was bred from adults that had been illegally acquired after 2007, would be illegal.

The researchers found that the pet shop owners were selling slow lorises illegally, with falsified CITES permits.

“All of the 18 slow lorises we saw in the in-store pet shops were displayed with CITES permits stating they had been imported before September 2007,” Musing said. “Several of these were juvenile slow lorises that could not possibly have been imported prior to 2007, they were just not old enough. This just proved to us how undeterred these traders were from the current enforcement of Japanese law and the low penalties imposed on slow loris smugglers.”

Javan Slow Loris (Nycticebus javanicus) at Kobe Oji Zoo, Japan. The study found 12 critically endangered Javan slow lorises for sale in online pet shops. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5.
Javan Slow Loris (Nycticebus javanicus) at Kobe Oji Zoo, Japan. The study found 12 critically endangered Javan slow lorises for sale in online pet shops. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5.

Moreover, according to the study, the pet shop owners said that the slow lorises had been sourced from private captive breeders. However, these animals are extremely rare breeders in captivity, even in accredited zoos, Musing said, which raises serious doubts as to the legitimacy of supposedly “captive-bred” slow lorises.

There are adequate laws — in theory — that can protect slow lorises from being illegally traded across their range countries, the authors write. But implementation of these regulations remains weak in Japan.

“The Japanese CITES registration system is not strict enough,” Kirie Suzuki, Secretary General of the Japan Wildlife Conservation Society, and co-author of the study, told Mongabay. “Registration of false CITES permits can easily occur. This then affects the police investigations and subsequent trials.”

Suzuki added that to clampdown on illegal trade in slow lorises, Japan’s Law for the Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (LCES) needs to be strengthened, and consumers need to be educated about the impact of the pet trade.

The team’s investigation into Japan’s slow loris pet trade however, seems to have prompted the Japanese government into taking some action.

“As a result of our study, the Ministry of the Environment Wildlife Subcommittee decided on February 10th that they will start a review of the CITES permit system from May,” Suzuki said. “The Ministry of Environment has also scheduled a public comment in autumn 2016 regarding this issue.”

A Pygmy Slow Loris (Nycticebus pygmaeus) at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina. Photo by David Haring / Duke Lemur Center (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)
A Pygmy Slow Loris (Nycticebus pygmaeus) at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina. Photo by David Haring / Duke Lemur Center (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Online videos

Slow lorises are not native to Japan. Yet, proliferation of “cute” videos of pet lorises being “tickled” for fun or being fed rice balls, has catapulted these primates to stardom.

But the seemingly harmless act of tickling a slow loris can be close to torture for the lorises in the videos, according to a new study published in the journal Folia Primatologica.

“Slow lorises were off the public radar before 2009 – hardly anyone had ever heard of one,” primatologist Anna Nekaris of Oxford Brookes University, told Mongabay. “The more videos that are allowed to persist on line perpetuate an image that these animals seem natural in a home; perpetuate a false belief that these wild animals are domestic; and seriously imperil the conservation of a group of highly threatened species that are hugely unsuitable for the scale of captive breeding needed to supply the huge demand for them as pets.”

To gauge the physical well-being of the slow lorises in the videos, Nekaris and her colleagues scanned through 100 videos of pet slow lorises on YouTube, as well as two Chinese video-sharing websites Tudou and Youku in 2014. They analyzed each video to see the prevalence of five conditions that could affect the welfare of the lorises: human contact, daylight (the animals are nocturnal), signs of stress and ill health, unnatural environmental conditions and isolation (lorises are social animals).

Nekaris and her team found that in all the 100 videos, slow lorises were either unhealthy or abused. Nearly one-third of the videos — including a very popular video of a slow loris being fed rice balls — showed each of the five conditions that could make the animals sick, scared, or stressed.

Since slow lorises are venomous, the team suspects that some owners may be removing the animal’s teeth. Photo by International Animal Rescue (IAR), from Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 1.0
Since slow lorises are venomous, the team suspects that some owners may be removing the animal’s teeth. Photo by International Animal Rescue (IAR), from Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 1.0

The team also observed that the slow lorises were being fed an inadequate, unhealthy diet. In half the videos, for example, slow lorises were obese, which the researchers say can lead to ill health and shortened life span.

In some videos, the researchers found evidence of injury: open cuts and wounds, swollen hands from gripping wire, loss of an eye, fur loss or unhealthy fur. Since a slow loris is venomous, some owners may also be removing the primate’s teeth, the team suspects.

Despite the evidence of “abuse” in the online videos, public outrage against them is limited, researchers say. This could be because most people do not understand or detect symptoms of diseases, or physical discomfort in the slow lorises.

“Although I can see the pain and neglect in many of the slow loris videos, I can understand how a person who has never seen a loris before or known its behaviour can perceive such a video to be cute,” Nekarkis said. “Some of the videos, however, showed injured animals being prodded while they hissed and growled; having smoke blown in their face; or being dragged on a cat harness through urine on an open street in daylight, and even these videos with outright cruelty were met with thumbs up and positivity. The same videos showing dogs or cats surely would have met with public outrage.”

Online videos are a double-edged sword, though, the researchers say, and can be “used correctly” to help the primates.

“The context needs to be clearly defined,” Nekaris said. “The public needs to know that even in countries where lorises are bought in a pet shop, the pet shop is probably a front for the trade in many illegal species. The videos also can be used to demonstrate clearly the factors that are defined as cruelty. At the very least, social networking sites could provide public service announcements regarding the dangers of keeping exotic animals as pets, both to their wild populations and to the welfare of the individual animals concerned.”

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