Soon after a domestic loris named "Sonya" made her YouTube debut, in February 2009, she became a sort of international celebrity. Thousands rushed to view the 57-second video[i] — filmed in St. Petersburg, Russia — in which the raccoon-sized primate raises her furry arms and stares with gaping eyes as human hands reach over to tickle her. And tickle her some more.
"This is JUST the BEST!" a commenter named Tracey said after the video was featured on cutebreak.com, a Los Angeles-based pet-appreciation site[ii]. "SO adorable. I want one." Sonya's master, Dmitry Sergeyev[iii], later attracted more than five million views by posting videos documenting minutia of her domestic life. At one point he returned to his local pet shop to buy her a "boyfriend," a dashing chap named Drinya, and set a video of their courtship to the rollicking American country song "Temptation."[iv]
The loris is a nocturnal creature native to South and Southeast Asia, and the only primate on earth with a poisonous bite. Lorises are difficult to spot in forests, but thanks to online videos celebrating their exceptional cuteness and molasses-like movements — one loris genus is called "slow loris"— they have in recent years acquired something of a cult Internet following.
Biologists and wildlife experts say the loris video craze helps to legitimize an international smuggling network in which hunters trap the animals, remove their teeth through a painful process, and sell them as pets in Russia, Japan, and other countries for the equivalent of hundreds of dollars per head[v]. It's unclear exactly how many lorises are left in the wild, but experts warn their global population will remain vulnerable to further exploitation if hunters have financial incentives to sell them on black markets.
YouTube should be "strongly encouraged" to remove videos that could drive the international loris trade, says Dr Ulrike Streicher, a primate expert with the British conservation group Fauna & Flora International[vi]. "The Internet has a massive advertisement possibility, and so many people watch these videos that it has a huge impact.” Commercial trade in lorises is banned under the international conservation treaty CITES, and local laws prohibit hunting or capturing them in their range countries.
A petition by another UK-based group, International Animal Rescue, asks YouTube to remove slow loris videos, claiming they drive international smuggling and make light of loris behaviors that were prompted by fear or stress. The petition has received nearly 6,000 signatures[vii]. YouTube did not respond to a request to comment for this article[viii].
Southeast Asia is both a hotspot of biodiversity and a hub of international wildlife smuggling. Rare and endangered animals are typically trapped in forests, transported to major cities, and sold — dead or alive, depending on the end use — to wealthy or middle class patrons. Sometimes the trade ends in capitals like Bangkok, Jakarta or Hanoi, but it often stretches into China, where products from bears, pangolins, tigers and other threatened animals are prized for purported medicinal benefits, or to Asian communities in the United States.
In a 2011 study, Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Washington-based Brookings Institution said the region's illegal wildlife trade is worth between $8 and $10 billion, and that demand for wildlife products has risen in tandem with expanding transportation infrastructure. "The extent of unsustainable, environmentally damaging, and illegal practices that still characterize the wildlife trade in Asia and in many parts of the world cries out for better forms of regulation and more effective law enforcement," she wrote. "Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions to the problem; and almost every particular regulatory policy is either difficult to implement or entails difficult trade-offs and dilemmas."[ix]
Lorises are part of this global trade, but they receive comparatively less attention from the international conservation community compared with iconic wildlife like tigers and elephants, says Karmele Llano Sanchez, executive director at the Indonesia office of International Animal Rescue, where she oversees a loris rescue and reintroduction program. Because the loris is not a "high priority" species, Sanchez adds, Indonesian police often are not especially keen to protect it[x].
An endangered primate rescue center, in Vietnam’s Cuc Phuong National Park, also receives lorises rescued from the domestic and international trades, but co-director Tilo Nadler[xi] says those efforts won't necessarily help the loris population in the long run. "The question is who will be faster," he said recently at the leafy facility where rescued lorises, gibbons and other endangered primates snack on fruit and lounge in wire-mesh cages. "Hunters and animal traders, or law enforcement and awareness-raising?"[xii]
Lorises have been trapped in the wild for decades in Asia, but the reasons why vary by country and culture. In Cambodia, for example, traditional healers claim ingesting parts from dead lorises cures a range of ailments, and pregnant women drink loris-infused wine tonics after childbirth, according to a 2010 study in the American Journal of Primatology[xiii]. In the forests of interior Borneo, burying a loris underneath your house is said to curse enemies and bring good luck.
In Jakarta and Hanoi, by contrast, lorises typically sell as pets, and street vendors charge the equivalent of about $10 to $50 per head, according to wildlife trade experts. The average number of lorises sold in public is declining, likely in tandem with wild populations, experts say, but it's impossible to say how many lorises exist worldwide because no scientist has conducted a comprehensive survey. Domestic demand for lorises appears to be the main driver of smuggling in Southeast Asia, but demand from Russia, Japan and the Middle East still has an impact because lorises that are trafficked abroad typically fetch higher paydays.
The irony is that, although lorises look cute and cuddly, they don't make very nice pets: They typically are only active in the first half of the evening, and prefer to spend daylight hours curling into furry balls. Lorises also smell — "worse than monkeys," according to primate expert Tilo Nadler — and their vice-like bite can cause swelling and other severe symptoms[xiv].
And even if your pet loris doesn't bite, is it ethical to keep him or her awake all day against their natural instincts, or, as one loris owner from Japan demonstrated on YouTube[xv], hand it a fork and encourage it to eat rice? Obesity puts lorises on a “fast track” to death, according to nocturama.org, a loris-advocacy blog by Anna Nekaris, a UK-based primate biologist who co-authored a recent paper announcing the discovery of three new slow loris species in Borneo[xvi].
In September, nocturama.org challenged what it called a "myth" that it’s possible to buy lorises legally from nurseries or pet shops, using Russia as a case study[xvii]. While it is technically legal to own a loris as a pet in Russia, the site said, no loris has been imported as such under CITES[xviii], the international convention designed to regulate the international wildlife trade; therefore YouTube videos like the one of "Sonya," the St. Petersburg loris, almost certainly depict either smuggled lorises or their offspring.
Smithsonian Magazine contacted Sonya's owner, Dmitry Sergeyev, in January through his YouTube account. He sent his email address[xix] but did not respond to a list of emailed questions about his lorises.
In Southeast Asia, some humans give up their lorises to shelters accompanied by elaborate tales describing how the animals "escaped" into their homes. ("It's amazing that people think up these excuses," says Douglas Hendrie, technical advisor to the Vietnamese nonprofit Education for Nature Vietnam[xx], which runs a wildlife crime hotline in Hanoi.[xxi] “Some of them are ridiculous.”) Others buy lorises in an attempt to rescue them from exploitation — only to learn that their local shelter is full.
That was the case for Angelina Martin, a Russian expatriate who cares for five lorises in her Jakarta house. The animals live in three spare bedrooms and appear to like mango puree and chopped bananas, she says, but the situation is far from ideal.
"It's breaking my heart to watch them hanging on the window, looking outside," Martin said by telephone from a Jakarta grocery store. "No matter how much food you provide, they just want to be free."[xxii]