CLEVELAND — Millions of people watching Internet videos of slow lorises may not realize they are indirectly responsible for the demise of one of the world’s rarest primates.
That’s according to a new study published recently by one of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s field conservation partners, Anna Nekaris, and other researchers at Oxford Brookes University, in the United Kingdom.
The study, called Tickled to Death: Analyzing Public Perceptions of ‘Cute’ Videos of Threatened Species (slow loris) on Web 2.0 Sites, says the illegal trade in slow lorises, fueled by their demand as pets in Asia and elsewhere, appears to be enhanced by people watching the cuddly primates on Internet videos that have gone viral.
“Watching an out of context online video of a slow loris being treated as someone’s pet only breeds desire for the illegal pet trade, rather than spread facts about the plight of an endangered species,” said Cleveland Metroparks Zoo executive director Chris Kuhar.
“That’s one of the main reasons we support Dr. Nekaris and the important conservation work she’s doing in Southeast Asia.”
Without a doubt one of the most viral videos is that of “Sonya,” the tickled slow loris. The video shows a clinically obese pygmy slow loris from Vietnam being tickled on the bed of its owner in St. Petersburg, Russia. Holding its arms up in the air, the video has been watched by millions of viewers since its posting in February 2009.
Now researchers from Oxford have looked at links between the presence of slow lorises on Internet videos and the perception of the public viewing them. The study analyzed more than 12,000 comments posted over a three-year period in response to the tickling slow loris video. Many commented on how cute the animal was, or how much it reminded them of King Julian in the Disney movie Madagascar. Inevitably, one of the more common responses was, “Where can I get one?” suggesting a direct link between the illegal trade in slow lorises and their presence in online videos.
Nekaris, lead author of the paper and an internationally known expert on lorises, said “Slow lorises are extremely difficult to breed in captivity. The track record of some of the most renowned zoos shows that the number of slow lorises born in these facilities is far below what is needed for a self-sustaining population. Indeed several species have never been bred in captivity.”
Despite these difficulties, the number of slow lorises making an appearance on the Internet is increasing — a reflection of the rampant illegal international trade.
“Without a shadow of a doubt the slow lorises we see in these videos are derived directly from the wild and not the result of fictitious captive breeding facilities,” said Nekaris.
“There is an increasing need to quantify properly the effects that the international wildlife trade has on populations of imperiled species,” said professor Vincent Nijman, a wildlife trade expert and co-author of the paper.
“Thus far, most of us who study the wildlife trade have focused on the places where the animals change hands but the Internet now allows us to focus on the perceptions of the public in the consumer countries.”
Slow lorises are a group of eight species of nocturnal primates. Slow lorises are protected in each of the 13 range countries where they occur.
Since 2007 all species of slow lorises are included on Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora precluding all international trade.
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo currently exhibits three pygmy slow lorises in the nocturnal animal section of the Primate, Cats & Aquatics Building.