Like hundreds of thousands of other people, my first encounter with a slow loris occurred online when I watched the now-famous 57-second video of one of these adorable primates being tickled and throwing up its arms in apparent glee. That video has been viewed more than nine million times since it was posted in June 2009.
But some conservationists argue that videos like this create a false impression of the slow loris in viewers' minds, and in the process fuel the illegal pet trade that brutally mangles the tiny creatures and puts them at risk of extinction in the wild.
On January 25 the BBC aired a documentary called Jungle Gremlins of Java (viewable here if you live in the U.K.) that examined the illegal pet trade in Jakarta, Indonesia, where slow lorises are available in Indonesian markets for as little as $20. They await their fate in tiny cages after having their front teeth and venomous elbow patches painfully clipped off with pliers, nail clippers or wire cutters. (Lorises are the world's only venomous primates.) Many of the animals die shortly after being sold, as the removal of their teeth can hamper their ability to eat.
The documentary's host, Oxford Brookes University anthropologist Anna Nekaris, told BBC News that lorises rescued from the pet trade can never be reintroduced into the wild because they have no teeth and can't fend for themselves.
There are five slow loris species, along with six species of slender lorises. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) limits the sale of all slender lorises (from the genus Loris) and bans trade in two of the three loris species from the genus Nycticebus (the Bengal slow loris, N. bengalensis, and the pygmy slow loris, N. pygmaeus). The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species only lists two species as "endangered," but classifies the rest as "vulnerable to extinction" with declining populations.
According to the International Animal Rescue Web site, "Thousands of slow lorises are poached from the wild and illegally sold as pets or for use in traditional medicine. Domestic and international trade takes place in various ways, from open selling of slow lorises on roadsides to smuggling them in poorly ventilated, overcrowded cages. In Indonesia slow lorises are sold on the street or in traditional animal markets as well as in city malls. Although both Indonesian and international laws ban the trade in slow lorises, the illegal wildlife trade is flourishing."
In response to the documentary, the organization International Animal Rescue Indonesia has posted an online petition asking YouTube to remove clips of captive lorises.
"Videos portraying the slow loris as a cute, furry pet increase the demand for slow lorises, fueling the trade," the petition reads. "Slow loris behaviors, which are caused by stress or fear, are misinterpreted as funny. YouTube has many slow loris videos on the Web site which show the slow loris as a pet, some of which have been watched millions of times. Despite requests to take these videos down, YouTube refuses to see the animal suffering in the slow loris clips."
Nekaris has been asking YouTube to remove the slow loris videos for the last few years. "Lorises are...traded openly in Indonesian markets and the YouTube clips only increase the demand," she told The Independent in March 2011. "Tackling this trade should be an urgent priority for wildlife-enforcement agencies. The penalty should be greater than simply confiscation of the animal." YouTube responded, saying that their community guidelines prohibit animal abuse, and videos that are found to violate that guideline are removed "usually in under an hour."
Nekaris told the conservation news site Mongabay.com in 2009 that lorises appear docile in these videos because "it is part of their defense mechanism—to be still and silent" when held and otherwise threatened. That's also one of the reasons why it is so easy for poachers to grab the animals from their wild habitats. "The infants are particularly defenseless and easy to catch," she said. "Any hunter going into the forest will just grab a loris if he sees it."
The pet trade isn't the only reason why lorises are endangered. As I wrote in 2010, they are also used in traditional Asian medicine to "treat" conditions such as leprosy, heal broken bones and ward off the "evil eye." Of course, none of these purported medical benefits have any grounding in science. All lorises are also threatened by habitat loss.
So what do you think? Should YouTube remove these videos because they harm wildlife, similar to the reasons why eBay banned the sale of ivory, or should they be allowed to stand on the grounds of freedom of expression?