The Horrible Truth Behind Adorable Slow Loris Videos

Poachers are slaughtering the unbelievably cute and vulnerable primates for their body parts.

Bengal slow loris for sale in a market in Mong La, Myanmar. (Photo: Vincent Nijman)

Jan 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

One of YouTube’s all-time-cutest videos shows an adorable primate called a slow loris raising its arms as it is tickled.

But that video doesn’t show the reality of slow lorises. Oh, sure, they may be the only venomous primates on the planet—their bite can cause anaphylaxis shock—but they’re also, as you might guess from their name, slow. That makes them easy to capture by humans, who frequently sell them into the illegal pet trade or have tourists—like pop star Rihanna—pose with them for selfies.

It’s a process the tiny, timid, and fragile animals—which seemed to have sprung from the imagination of Dr. Seuss—rarely survive, especially after their toxic front teeth are ripped out to make them easier to handle.

Conservationists have been warning about the impact of the illegal pet trade on slow lorises for several years, but that’s not the only threat the primates face.

(Photo: Thomas Marent/Getty Images)

According to new research from Oxford Brookes University and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, the border between Myanmar and China is a hotbed of illegal slow loris sales. Some of the animals there are bound for the pet trade, but most are carved up for meat or for use in Chinese traditional medicine.

All of this trade is banned under Myanmar law and, in China, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Researchers visited the border town of Mong La three times between 2007 and 2014. They found slow lorises or their bodies for sale each time, an average of eight animals a day. Lorises, they report, were brought to the market in the morning and slaughtered before the end of the day. They estimate that more than 1,000 slow lorises—and perhaps twice that many—pass through this one market town every year.

“Once you then start adding up all the numbers it is in a way shocking, even for us,” said Vincent Nijman, professor of anthropology at Oxford Brookes and the lead author of the new study and several other papers on slow lorises.

The primates traded in this particular market belonged to a species known as the Bengal slow loris, which has a range through much of Southeast Asia and is considered vulnerable to extinction.

Scientists have yet to determine exact population numbers for the species in Myanmar or any other country, but Nijman said the level of trade “is highly unlikely to be sustainable.”

The animals live at very low densities, he said, so they are likely being sourced from a very large area, perhaps six or 12 miles around the town.

“Bottom line is, if you are a Bengal slow loris, the wide surroundings of Mong La is the last place you want to be right now,” he said. “And Mong La of course is not the only town where the species is traded.”

Some of the slaughtered animals, the researchers observed, ended up in wild-meat restaurants. Most, however, were sold piecemeal—skins, feet, skulls, or skeletons—for use in traditional medicine.

“Of course, traditional Asian medicine does not work as medicine in the Western sense,” said Nijman. “It is taken often as preventative medicine and not to cure a disease.”

Slow lorises weren’t the only species for sale in Mong La. The researchers also found elephant ivory, wild cat skins, and a variety of live animals in cages and tubs. They hope that their documentation of the slow loris trade will help persuade authorities in China and Myanmar to shut down all the illegal activity.