This story appears in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
After videos of slow lorises being tickled and fed rice balls in captivity swept the Internet, the wide-eyed animals shot to viral fame. The YouTube videos generated thousands of comments about the primate’s adorable looks, but they also highlighted a grievous threat facing slow lorises: demand for them as pets.
All species of slow lorises are supposed to be protected by local laws in southern Asia and by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a treaty that aims to prevent trade that could threaten wild species’ survival. Still, countless slow lorises are captured each year from their rain forest habitat and sold online, across borders, or to local wildlife markets.
Customers find them irresistible, but these primates don’t fare well as pets. Before they’re sold, most undergo a painful process to remove their sharp teeth—and circumstances don’t improve from there. In a 2016 study, researchers from Oxford Brookes University examined a hundred online videos of pet lorises and concluded that all the animals were distressed, sick, or exposed to unnatural conditions. “They’re quite sensitive,” says Christine Rattel of International Animal Rescue, which runs a slow loris rescue program in Indonesia. “They are nocturnal, small animals that don’t like to be handled.”
It’s uncertain how many slow lorises remain in the wild, but conservationists say populations have declined because the pet trade continues to run rampant. Habitat loss also has taken a toll, as has poaching for traditional Asian medicine, which ascribes therapeutic properties to the animals’ body parts. An ongoing pet trade “would really push lorises to the brink of extinction,” Rattel says.
They’re hardly the only wildlife facing this threat. Cheetahs, lions, and other famed species end up in basements and backyards, as do lesser known creatures such as the ball python and long-tailed macaque.
“The pet trade is probably one of the most devastating parts of the wildlife trade,” says wildlife-trafficking expert Chris Shepherd. But it’s “getting the least amount of attention.”