In the jungles of southern Asia, there lives a little bundle of fur, fingers, and eyeballs known as the loris. Despite being the world’s only venomous primate, the loris is undeniably cute—in an E.T. meets Gizmo sort of way. But good looks can be a burden, and new research shows that this animal’s darling visage (which makes a perfect fit for social media) may be fueling its downfall via the illegal pet trade.
Perhaps you got your first look at the sweet face of a loris over the weekend, when pop singer Rihanna created a fuss in Thailand by Instagramming herself striking a pose with a slow loris on her shoulder. On Saturday night, authorities arrested two men who were running the illegal photo booth that Rihanna had visited and confiscated a pair of these protected primates.
My first encounter with a loris also happened via social media, on YouTube back in 2009. In the video I watched a pudgy, wide-eyed primate recline with its arms locked in the air while its owner tickled its belly. The loris’s name was Sonya, and she’s unfathomably cute. Below is a gif. (Normally, I’d show the whole video, but I don’t want to give the user more ad revenue.)
Before long, Sonya went viral. Celebrities like Ricky Gervais and Betty White tweeted the little loris to their followings and discussed Sonya on late night talk shows. More than 5 million people have watched her throw her hands into the air, which prompted comments from thousands proclaiming their newfound love for lorises and asking where they could get one.
Enter Anna Nekaris, the director of the Little Fireface Project and a professor of primate conservation at Oxford Brookes University. In a recent paper titled “Tickled to Death,” Nekaris and her co-authors sifted through more than 12,000 YouTube comments on the tickling video to see if they could identify any patterns that might shed light on the connection between lorises on the web and lorises in the black market.
Nekaris and her team found that the most common response from YouTube users to the Sonya video (22.7 percent) was that the loris was “cute.” (No argument there!) But the next most frequent comment, at 11.2 percent, went something along the lines of: “How can I get one?!”
It may not be a serious question in most cases, but Nekaris is still concerned that the public will learn to see lorises as trendy pets, rather than the beleaguered animals they really are. These primates are protected in all 13 of their range nations, which means it’s illegal to take them out of the wild or sell them for food or medicine or … keep them as pets. And yet, since loris videos began popping up on the net, Nekaris and her team have identified over 100 individual lorises on YouTube—more than are currently found in accredited zoos.
But you can see how people could get the wrong idea about lorises and their suitability as pets. When many folks got their first look at the animals on YouTube, Nekaris explains, the Internet didn’t have much information about them. And if you went by what was provided by the owner of the tickling video, you would be told that it’s legal to own lorises in Russia and that Sonya was born in a nursery—except none of that is true. Russia is party to the CITES treaty, which regulates the international trade of lorises and other wildlife. In fact, so few lorises have entered Russia legally since the signing of the treaty in 1992 that the likelihood Sonya came from an up-and-up nursery is nothing short of laughable.
“It befuddles me how YouTube can promote an activity that is totally illegal,” Nekaris tells me in an email. “They would not put up home videos of people shooting heroine or graphic porn.”
A YouTube spokesperson referred me to a statement the company uses in these types of cases: “All videos uploaded to YouTube must comply with our Community Guidelines, which prohibit posting videos showing animal abuse. Users who see a video they believe is inappropriate can flag it to our staff so that we may review it. Any content found to violate our policies is removed from YouTube.”
This policy sounds good in theory, but according to Nekaris, some of these videos have been flagged thousands of times and still remain. (YouTube has not replied to my follow-up questions about this.) Given this history, Nekaris has adopted another strategy: Getting loris videos tagged with pop-up warnings or links to conservation information—not unlike the mandatory panels on tobacco and alcohol packaging.
In the meantime, Nekaris and her team are busy showing us the ugly side of loris pet trade, giving the primates a presence on Google aside from cuddly videos. They created a Wikipedia page on loris conservation, and Nekaris appeared in a powerful BBC documentary, Jungle Gremlins of Java. The film paints a decidedly less cute picture of loris daily life. In addition to habitat loss, the bushmeat industry, and being used in traditional (read: unscientific) Chinese medicine, the pet trade claims countless lorises each year. Traffickers rip the animals out of their environment—often killing mothers to take their babies—and then isolate the animals in abysmal conditions. Because lorises have formidable canines, dealers pull their fangs or cut them out with nail clippers (and no, they don't use Novocain on the streets of Java). Many lorises die before they can even be sold as pets.
But back to the case of Sonya, that beloved little tickle monster. Even if she was stolen from a jungle, even if her teeth had been snipped, didn’t she still look like she was enjoying her new home and loving the attention from her owners? Well, I’ll leave you with one last bummer: no, she wasn’t. A loris with its arms up is in a defensive position. The little fireface gets its venomous bite from patches of skin on its inner elbows that secrete an oily toxin. With elbows akimbo, the loris mixes the venom with its saliva and then delivers the powerful concoction with tiny, specially curved teeth on its lower jaw. The bite is extremely painful and takes a long time to heal. And in rare cases, the venom (which some say smells like sweaty socks) can bring on anaphylactic shock and death in humans.
In other words, Sonya isn’t begging for more of the tickle party—she’s getting ready to fight back.
Images courtesy of The Little Fireface Project and International Animal Rescue
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