A new species of slow loris, with the Latin designation Nycticebus kayan, has just been discovered in Borneo. Like many small mammals, it’s just about the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen. It’s also, while not officially evaluated yet, likely to be a threatened species, just like all the related Bornean lorises.
The report just ran in the American Journal of Primatology, under the title “Taxonomy of the Bornean Slow Loris, with new species Nycticebus kayan (Primates, Lorisidae)”. (I’m sure the primatologists and taxonomists in the audience will be rushing off to grab the latest copy.)
Altough the planet has long been well-mapped in the geographic sense, we are still far from understanding the full shape and form of the living world. The slow lorises are a good example of larger land animals that are nevertheless difficult to study, because they live high in the trees and are active mainly at night. Which is why it’s still possible, even in 2012, to discover a new species.
In fact, while a group of lorises on the island of Borneo was, just a few years ago, under a single species banner, that of the Bornean slow loris (Nycticebus borneanus), scientists now recognize there are four distinct species on the island. Based on previous studies, the three original sub-species of the Bornean loris were elevated by a taxonomic level, while this fourth species is just now being recognized for the first time.
The same difficulties in determining what species are out there also makes it difficult to ascertain conservation status, let alone protect threatened species. Like many small primates, slow lorises are cute and furry, while also looking just exotic enough to attract interest. Illegal trafficking in the exotic pet trade is very high for the Bornean lorises, which makes it a near certainty that members of this undiscovered species have died in people’s homes without their realizing it.
Yes, they do die. For a person in a Western country to try and acquire the necessary foods for a slow loris’ diet is next to impossible, and most can’t be bothered. Many of these ill-cared for pets will get along for a little while on whatever they’re given, until they die from the nutrient deficiencies in their diet, lack of medical attention or simple depression (like most primates, these are social animals that don’t do well alone or in captivity).
There’s more. The slow lorises are unique amongst primates (and extremely rare amongst mammals in general), in that they possess a venomous bite. Pet traders usually yank out their canines before selling them, an action which has all the requisite side-effects: horrible pain, infection and sometimes death.
But look at that face! An animal this cute has to be poached, shipped illegally and secretly across the world with little care for its health, so that some privileged idiot can use it as a fashion accessory until it dies. Just rip out all the parts of its body that aren’t convenient for you — it’s happy simply to have a loving family. Until it dies in pain and alone.
Some developed countries, like Japan, seem to quietly condone the keeping of exotic pets. Japan’s Wildlife Conservation Society has a report with some frightening numbers on the incredible ease with which people, especially women, can acquire a slow loris as a pet. Incredibly, pet shops are able to boldly advertise these animals for sale with few repercussions.
This goes back to a mindset of animals as toys rather than living creatures. I don’t expect to change any exotic pet purchaser’s mind. But I’d like to see some political pressure on the government officials and leaders to crack down on this travesty before these species disappears forever.
Photo credit: David Haring at Duke Lemur Center; used by permission