Just a few years ago the slow loris (Nycticebus family) was an obscure creature that only primatology experts knew about. Now these Ewok like creatures have shot to international fame via social media. ‘Cute’ YouTube videos of loris gave the creature overnight fame, unfortunately for the loris this fame has led to significant problems for these species. International pet trade for loris species, harvest for traditional medicine and increasing habitat destruction are causing loris populations worldwide to plummet.
The name loris comes from the Dutch word “loeris”, a common term among old seafarers of Holland, meaning clown. This name is understandable when you see the unique facial features that help to define the species. Nine different species of slow lorises are currently recognised, spread over a vast area of southern and south-eastern Asia - the Bengal, Bornean, greater, Hiller's, Javan, Kayan, Philippine, pygmy and Sody's. These 9 species are among the rarest primates on earth; they diverged from their closet cousin the African bush-babies around 40 million years ago. Now however, all these species are under threat.
All species are nocturnal, slow moving creatures that ‘race walk’, often covering up to 8km in one evening in search of food. It is not just the species locomotion that is slow, they have one of the slowest primate life histories known. Amazingly, for such a small species the females have a six month pregnancy to produce a handful of paperclip size young weighing less than 50g. There slow moving life style allows these little primates to live around 25 years old.
Perhaps the trait that makes loris species so unique is the fact that they are one of the worlds few mammals that produce a toxin. The toxin is not used to kill or immobilise prey, but is defensive. Mothers lick their babies with the toxin in order to protect them from predators. The chemicals from the loris armpit glands only become toxic when mixed with the animal’s saliva. This ‘poison’ is so toxic that it can even cause death to humans.
Although loris species are armed with this defence, it is no match against the might of human destruction. Most slow loris are considered endangered due to both habitat loss and hunting for illegal pet and traditional medicine trades. 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 alone. Harvest numbers of this magnitude would be unsustainable even without the added threat of habitat loss. All species are facing similar threats across all native countries.
Furthermore, regarding habitat loss slow loris are particularly susceptible to the loss and fragmentation of their forest homes as they rely on trees for their food and use trees to sleep in the day. Unfortunately, human settlements often follow the loss of forest inhibiting secondary growth, meaning the animal’s home is gone forever. Often these forest homes are destroyed with slash-and-burn techniques. Loris suffer gruesome deaths as they do not flee from burning forests like other primates, they cling to the trees meaning they are burnt alive.
Perhaps the biggest threat to loris species is that of poaching. Animals are often exported from their countries of origin for medical use or for the illegal pet trade. In China, slow lorises are eaten, the bones are used for medicinal uses, and the fur for local hunting bags. The medicinal uses of these species seem barbaric and medieval. Some groups across the broad slow loris range believe that the collection of a loris eyeball may help the person’s eyesight. In Cambodia ‘loris wine’ is used to mitigate pain during childbirth: a bottle is mixed with rice wine and the bodies of slow loris. There is scientific evidence that these practices are useless, and the fact that there are now modern medicines that do actually work beg the question why people still feel the need to kill these animals for this false ideas?
Moreover, not all slow loris end up as medicine, thousands of loris are poached from the wild to be illegally sold on the street or in animal markets for the pet trade. Animals are taken from the wild and sold in markets for as little as £10. Many eventually end up in places like China and Japan where they can fetch prices as high as £3,500. Demand for loris as pets is also expanding to the US and Europe. The rise of this demand stems from a handful of YouTube videos that showed loris being ‘tickled’. The loris appear to enjoy the attention by putting their arms in the air, however this is actually their defence strategy and they are trying to reach their toxic armpits. The general reaction to these videos was ‘so cute, I want one’ which lead to a huge boom in the sale of loris for people to have a ‘cute’ pet.
Furthermore, many of these people claim that their loris was caught sustainably. The fact is, there is no such things as a sustainable loris trade. It is notoriously difficult to breed and even keep these species in captivity, meaning almost all of these pets are caught from the wild. In truth a wild loris is a terrible and even dangerous pet. The teeth of the animal could cause much damage to the owner, and so many pet loris have their teeth ripped out. Before a slow loris is sold as a pet, its teeth are cut out using nail clippers, wire cutters or pliers with no anaesthetic. This process is incredibly painful and often results in infection or death through blood loss.
This trade still occurs at high rates despite all slow loris species being protected by international laws and being listed on CITES Appendix 1, which means that all trade is in fact illegal. Unfortunately, the enforcement of such protection is incredibly hard due to the scale of the trade and the corruption across Asian borders and markets. This means that is the job of conservation organisations across Asia to do what they can to help protect all species of loris.
There are now many organisations doing all they can to rescue loris from the trade and raise awareness that the medicine and pet trade is causing the destruction of this amazing creatures populations. Love wildlife are encouraging the conservation of the species through education programs, school talks and their Youth Ecological Network. Perhaps the most famous project is the Little Fireface Project which studies the ecology of loris throughout their range. The team conducts evaluated outreach and education programs for local communities to get them to join the conservation movement. They also run several rescue centres and work hard in the field to protect the loris’s natural habitat.
In order to tackle the global pet trade issue a new campaign video ‘Tickling is Torture’ has been launched by the charity International Animal Rescue which is calling on people to stop the viral hit videos spreading any further. We must try hard to spread the message that keeping these animals as pets is extremely unacceptable. Unfortunately much work is still needed. Not so long ago pop star Rihanna posted a selfie of herself holding a loris which Lady Gaga had planned to use in one of her music videos until she was bitten by the terrified creature. Such iconic people should be the ones helping to raise awareness for the species, not advertising the wrong message.
All species of slow loris are caught up in a ‘catch 22’ situation. Their rise to fame meant that people were more aware of the species, encouraging many to want to protect them. Unfortunately, at the same time this fame meant that many other people wanted to keep these species as a cute pet. This problem added pressure onto species that were already under stress from habitat destruction and a growing Asian medicine trade. Conservationists will continue to do what they can in the field with research and rescue centres. However, we can be the ones to help stop the destructive trade. We can make it socially unacceptable to keep the species in the hope that people will no longer want these animals, and then poachers will have less of a reason to take them from the wild.