Tickle Me Not: Japan Revealed as Hub of Illegal Trade in Slow Lorises

Inspired by cute online videos, Japanese consumers are paying thousands of dollars for the endangered primates.

A slow loris sits in its cage at an Indonesian sanctuary for the endangered animals, which have been confiscated from individuals or markets that illegally sold them as pets. (Photo: Ed Wray/Getty Images)

Feb 9, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The tiny, adorable primates known as slow lorises look like living, breathing characters straight out of Dr. Seuss. Maybe that’s what inspires tens of millions of viewers around the world to watch a series of online videos that show people tickling and feeding slow lorises, which often throw up their arms in apparent joy.

The videos appear cute, but the truth behind them is far from joyful. According to a paper published this week in the journal Folia Primatologica, these videos of tickling and feeding aren’t fun for the animals. They’re closer to torture.

Researchers from Oxford Brookes University examined 100 online videos of slow lorises and found that all of them depicted unhealthy and abused animals. The slow lorises were suffering from malnutrition, disease, fear, stress, and physical discomfort.

According to the experts, the most famous slow loris video, which depicts a primate eating a rice ball, actually shows an obese animal. Not only was it fed an inappropriate diet, but it was photographed in bright light, a painful disruption of natural sleep cycles for the nocturnal animal.

The researchers found that one-third of the slow loris videos were shot in Japan, which led them to a second discovery: The videos were inspiring people in Japan to buy the animals as exotic pets. Over the course of a two-month investigation, the researchers found 74 slow lorises illegally for sale in 20 pet shops—two brick-and-mortar shops and 18 online—where they were priced at an average of $6,500 each.

The animals they saw in person did not match the cuteness of the videos. “While we were in the pet stores, most of the animals were hunched up in a ball at the back of their cage and were not moving,” said coauthor Louisa Musing, now a research officer with TRAFFIC, the wildlife-trade-monitoring network. The animals were kept under bright lights in cages about the size of cat carriers, with no foliage for them to support their normal arboreal patterns. Most of the animals had sticky or matted hair—a sign of poor health—while some displayed wounds from biting each other. “One animal had no teeth, and another had an infection around their muzzle,” said Musing. Similar conditions were seen in videos posted by the online stores.

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“Even a hamster would be provided bedding in a cage, or exercise equipment, so it was shocking in a country that is highly educated to see such appalling conditions,” said another coauthor, Anna Nekaris, who is with Oxford Brookes University’s Nocturnal Primate Research Group.

Importing slow lorises into Japan has been against the law since 2007, but each of the stores claimed to have permits from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The permits, the researchers say, were obviously falsified. The most apparent clue: The permits said the animals were imported before the ban, but many were juveniles and therefore too young to have been imported prior to 2007.

Some sellers reported that the animals had been bred in Japan, but the researchers doubted that, as slow lorises are notoriously hard to breed in captivity. They also found that customs officials had blocked the illegal import of 400 slow lorises between 2000 and 2013. Many more probably made it through undetected.

The authors say the pet dealers operated with no fear of the law because punishments are minimal, and many court cases against smugglers are dismissed. They have called for better enforcement and more stringent punishments for the people involved in the trade.

This is the first major study of the illegal market for slow lorises in the countries outside their native range, but the trade in Japan is not unique. Nekaris reported that sales of animals are also on the rise in Russia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, among other nations.