Lorises, tiny nocturnal primates found in southern Asia, are increasingly at risk due to illegal wildlife trade and their use in traditional Asian medicine, a new study finds.

Every year, according to research published in the American Journal of Primatology , thousands of lorises are caught for use in traditional medicine. In countries like Cambodia it is believed that eating loris flesh can treat leprosy. Tonics made from lorises are marketed as a treatment to heal wounds and broken bones or to help women regain strength after childbirth. In Sri Lanka loris body parts are used to ward off the "evil eye" or to cast curses. Loris tears are also an ingredient in love potions.

Lorises are also often caught for the pet trade — despite their toxic bites, which can lead to anaphylactic shock and even death in humans. The study found that most lorises for sale as pets have had their teeth removed.

Of the nine loris species, two are classified as endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species , which also lists all species with declining populations. Trade in eight of the loris species is restricted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which limits the sale of all six species of 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 primates are also protected by law in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Indonesia and other countries, although punishments are rare and lax, the study found. In fact, the researchers found lorises openly for sale throughout south and Southeast Asia.

"The open trade in these animals highlights a serious lack in enforcement—laws are ignored by wildlife traders who are obviously not afraid of legal repercussions," said one of the study's authors, Chris Shepherd of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, in a prepared statement.

Lead author Anna Nekaris of the Nocturnal Primate Research Group at Oxford Brookes University points out another reason why it is so easy to catch and trade these animals: "The tendency to freeze when spotted by humans makes lorises particularly vulnerable."

Photo: Slow loris by Dan Bennett, via Flickr , used under Creative Commons license