YouTube sensation the slow loris might look adorable, but it can kill humans… and we are killing them out in return
DR ANNA NEKARIS
It’s the latest YouTube sensation: a small, furry creature with huge eyes and arms raised above its head is being tickled. More than 12 million people have watched this and another film of a similar animal holding a cocktail umbrella. Many of those probably thought ‘What a lovely creature, how cute’.
But it breaks my heart.
The animal in the films is a ‘slow loris’, a nocturnal primate from Asia, a close cousin to monkeys. I’ve spent almost 20 years studying them and I know just how cruel those films are.
Sad tale: Primatologist Anna Nekaris with a slow loris which is illegally on sale in the market in Indonesia
Misleading: The YouTube video of a loris 'being tickled' (left) has been seen by 12 million people – but it is endangering the lives of lorises in the wild (right)
Yes, they are beautiful animals but they are not in this world to perform tricks on the internet – they’re not even suitable as pets.
They are venomous – the only primate to be so – and are known as the ‘jungle gremlins’ because of their benign appearance coupled with a flesh-rotting poison, which can be fatal to humans.
Although evolution has given the slow loris some unique attributes, like so many other species, nature alone cannot protect it from all the 21st century threats.
Their natural forest habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate, the use of them in traditional Asian medicine continues to decimate the population and now, thanks to YouTube and other internet sites, exacerbates their demand as exotic pets, putting them at huge risk.
I went undercover with a BBC film crew in Jakarta, Indonesia, to find out the extent of the shocking trade in these wonderful but shy animals. What I saw reduced me to tears.
The loris first emerged as a distinct lineage more than 40 million years ago. Unlike similar primates it can’t leap at all – its tail is reduced to a stub but instead has an extraordinary vice-like grip by which it manouevres Ninja-like through the trees.
In its natural habitat, high above the ground and shrouded by the darkness of night, it makes rapid and elegant progress from branch to branch.
Wide-eyed wonder: The slow loris is a beautiful animal, but they are not
in this world to perform tricks on the internet – they're not even
suitable as pets
But on the ground it feels ill at ease, and under bright daytime light is insecure, unsure of itself and vulnerable. Its movements become unsteady and, well, slow. Hence, the less than flattering name.
Apart from its extraordinary grip it also has a powerful bite, able to chisel through the bark of trees and even bamboo. It sounds not unlike a woodpecker when it’s feeding, using its two tongues to extract gum, syrup and nectar from the vegetation.
It also consumes insect larvae and even small bats and lizards.
In turn, the slow loris can fall victim to pythons and orang-utans but the biggest threat is, of course, mankind. And that threat comes in several forms.
The slow loris lives in the trees – it needs forests to survive. Yet in the parts of the Asian world that is its natural habitat the forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. On Java, the main island of Indonesia, there is only 10 per cent of the forest left and here the slow loris population is falling at a terrifying rate. In one of Java’s best-protected forests, we came across only six wild animals in a whole year.
One of the great misfortunes of the slow loris is that it is much sought after in traditional Asian medicine. Known as the ‘animal that cures 100 diseases’ it’s widely used in traditional healing remedies in China, Laos, Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Add to that its popularity as a pet in Asia and it’s new fame in the west and you have the elements of a major onslaught on the loris population which could drive it to extinction.
But that is no concern of the people who work in the live animal markets in Java.
Danger: Slow lorises are venomous – the only primate to be so – and are
known as the 'jungle gremlins' because of their benign appearance
coupled with a flesh-rotting poison, which can be fatal to humans
I’ve been to these markets many times and anyone I know who has been to them with a camera has either been threatened or beaten up.
So I was reluctant to go filming undercover there.
But, instead of being surreptitious, the BBC crew and I dressed in the loudest tourist clothes we could find and the cameraman carried a digital SLR camera completely out in the open. The camera looks like a stills camera but in fact takes high definition video footage as well.
I carried a mobile phone with a picture of two lorises on it and told a trader that one of my lorises had died and that I would love to buy another one.
He offered to show me one and we were taken to a dark back alley, where they were pulling lorises out of boxes.
The trader produced a whole crate of lorises. There were no branches in it, no food or water, no newspapers, just a bare crate. The animals were covered in their own faeces.
Most of the lorises that are sold have their teeth cut out but these ones still had teeth. The trader kept saying: ’Do you want me to make them safe’ meaning he was offering to cut their teeth out right there for me. He slashed at their fingers to get them to let go of the mesh.
Heart-breaking: Nekaris with a box full of slow lorises – when she was searching for the animal in the wide they only saw six of them in a whole year
They were healthy and had their teeth, they were good candidates for release back into the wild – it broke my heart to leave them there when it would have been in my power to set them free. But buying them would be wrong on so many fronts. I would never buy an animal in a market because it just promotes the sale of them. The second any foreigner buys an animal the traders think: ‘Oh, we can sell them to foreigners’ and the trade escalates.
If I had bought them, he would have just got four more. The moment he sells one he just replaces it. The whole trade is just so sick. The ‘catchers’ make around 25 pence for a slow loris, the traders then sell them for 25. But international trade can see a single slow loris being sold for between 900-1,800.
Everyone who has seen the film we took in the market has cried. But this trade is made even more heartless by the fact that the slow loris is not even a suitable pet – far from it. It sleeps all day, it smells worse than a whole box of rotten eggs and on top of that it can seriously harm you.
It is the only primate in the world that is poisonous thanks to a dark fluid released from a gland above its elbow which, when mixed with its own saliva, becomes toxic.
We are studying the reasons why they may have this – the classic explanation is that it is predator defence – although this is now in dispute with other theories being that it makes them unpalatable and so protects themselves and their young.
In the wild: One of the primates in its natural habitat
Not pets: The animal only has a stump of a tail but has an extremely strong grip
The effect of the poison is to cause wounds to fester – it works as an anti-coagulant. The necrotic effect means that the tissue dies and the flesh rots. Another theory suggests they may have venomous glands as a way of destroying rivals over territory – they do attack other slow lorises who then die a slow death.
The danger to humans is generally an allergic reaction, in some cases their bites have triggered anaphylactic shock and death.
Even if the reaction is not that severe the bite alone from the razor sharp fangs of a slow loris is excruciating, and I should know I have suffered a few bites myself – always on my fingers.
That’s why the slow lorises sold as domestic pets have their teeth ripped out first. It’s cruel and unnecessary because they shouldn’t be kept as pets at all.
Yet, the new interest in the animals generated by the internet and the films on YouTube produce a stream of inquiries on forums asking if people can get one as a pet.
The correct answer is: you can’t. Or at least, you shouldn’t be able to, because the trade in them is illegal.
The YouTube films create the impression that the slow loris is a cute domestic animal.
So let’s demand YouTube take these cruel movies down from the internet and allow the slow loris to return to the darkness of the forest.
Natural World: Jungle Gremlins of Java. BBC2 8pm 25 January 2012