We’ve all done it. We see a video online of an impossibly adorable and exotic creature, and it’s just too cute not to pass along to all our Facebook and Twitter friends. Did you realize that in many cases, helping these charming videos go viral indirectly supports the deadly global black market in illegal animal trafficking?
That’s right. Inadvertently, you might have been helping to kill these cute little creatures. You didn’t mean to, of course. After reading this story, chances are you won’t do it again.
The most striking example of this tragic phenomenon is a small primate called the pygmy slow loris. In 2009, a YouTube video showing a Russian owner tickling a sweet little slow loris named Sonya blazed its way around the Internet. You probably saw it.
Maybe your reaction was something like: “How cute! I’d love one of those as a pet!” A lot of people thought the same thing. The unfortunate result was that the worldwide demand for slow loris pets exploded.
There are eight species of slow lorises. Since 2007, all of them have been included on Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which means it is illegal to capture and sell them in international trade.
A study just published in the journal PLoS ONE called “Tickled to Death” took a closer look at the connection between viral videos of the slow loris and public demand for them as pets. The results of this study are disturbing. It determined that for many threatened species “rising demands in internet trade of live specimens has seen an increase in their harvesting from the wild, leading to near extinction of the species.”
Watch an ABC News story about the plight of the slow loris in this video:
Sadly, the path to becoming someone’s trophy pet is an illegal and brutal one. The heartbreaking truth is that these little primates are kidnapped, mutilated and forced to live a life that is wholly unnatural to their shy, noctural nature.
“Slow lorises are the world’s only venomous primates, so in hopes to keep them from biting, traders cruelly clip or rip out their teeth with pliers, wire cutters or nail clippers,” study leader Professor Anna Nekaris told mongabay.com. “This is done in the open street with no anesthesia, resulting usually in slow painful death due to infection.” Without their teeth, rescued lorises can never be released back into the wild.
Poachers typically have to kill a slow loris mother, and sometimes entire family groups, in order to take away the babies for future sale. Many of these young lorises do not survive. The ones that do end up in crowded, cramped cages waiting to be sold in Asian roadside markets for as little as $20 a piece or smuggled out of Indonesia for international sale.
If they make it alive into a buyer’s home, slow lorises can expect a life entirely unlike their natural existence. Scientists aren’t even 100 percent sure what a proper loris diet requires, but most captive lorises end up eating rice and bananas, becoming clinically obese and unhealthy.
“In Indonesia alone, where six species of loris occur, a minimum of 15,000 lorises are trafficked each year. This does not count the numbers that die before making it to markets,” Nekaris told mongabay.com.
Nekaris is a Professor in Anthropology and Primate Conservation at the Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom. She founded the Little Fireface Project in 1993 in an effort to save all loris species from extinction.
Nekaris believes the problem of viral videos of illegally trafficked animals might be significantly diminished if websites like YouTube allowed users to flag them as “illegal.”
“Currently, no Web 2.0 site (e.g. Facebook, YouTube) allows viewers to report that animal material is illegal,” Nekaris told mongabay.com. “If this flagging option were available, YouTube could then either embed flagged videos with warnings about illegal pet trade, poaching, medicinal, ivory or fur trade (for example), or ideally remove the videos altogether, as they would videos portraying illegal arms, pornography or drug use.”
If you’d like to encourage YouTube to do the right thing, sign this petition asking YouTube to classify slow loris videos as animal abuse and remove them all from its site.
Photo credit: Thinkstock