‘Cute’ slow loris victim of own internet stardom

Thursday, 25 July 2013

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The results of new research published in scientific journal Plos One show that unwitting watchers of YouTube videos are indirectly responsible for the demise of one of the world’s rarest primates, the slow loris.

 The illegal trade in wild slow lorises, fuelled by their demand as pets in Asia and elsewhere, appears to be influenced by people watching clips of the primates on popular video-sharing site YouTube.

These primates are protected species that in all likelihood have been caught in the wild and traded illegally

Professor Anna Nekaris

A team of researchers from Oxford Brookes University, with additional funding from the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, measured the public’s perceptions of the rare slow loris by analysing over 12,000 comments posted over a three-year period in response to a single video on YouTube featuring one of the primates as a pet.

One in ten viewers who left a comment wrote that they wanted a ‘cute’ slow loris as a pet, suggesting a direct link between the illegal trade in slow lorises and their presence on YouTube videos.  Furthermore, over 100 individual slow lorises were recorded in videos on YouTube, more than are currently found across accredited zoos.

Professor Anna Nekaris, lead author of the paper and an international expert on slow lorises says:  “Videos of wild animals such as slow lorises that portray them as cute and cuddly pets in a home-setting can serve to reinforce people’s likelihood to want to acquire one. 

“Without further context to the video, it may not be obvious to the general public that these primates are in fact protected species and that in all likelihood they have been caught in the wild and traded illegally.”

Slow lorises are a group of eight species of nocturnal primate found throughout South and Southeast Asia; all species are protected in each of the 13 range countries where they occur. 

They are unique amongst primates in that they have a toxic bite.  For this reason, traders clip the teeth of captured slow lorises with wire cutters, nail clippers or pliers before they are sold illegally in markets.  Sadly, these animals often die in transit from infection or stress even before reaching the market.

“The number of slow lorises making an appearance on the internet is increasing – a reflection of the rampant illegal international trade,” adds Professor Nekaris.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, the slow lorises we see in most videos on YouTube are derived directly from the wild and not the result of captive breeding facilities. The reproductive success of captive slow lorises in accredited breeding facilities such as zoo is extremely low, making it unlikely that any captive lorises have been bred commercially. 

“Illegal wildlife trade is committed on a massive scale worth billions, rivalling drug and arms trafficking.  Yet there is currently no recourse on unregulated social media sites such as YouTube to flag up wildlife crime.”

The study also analysed the effect of celebrity endorsement via social media on people’s desire to acquire a slow loris as a pet.  Celebrity endorsement is a well-known technique used by marketers to influence consumer behaviour and the way products are perceived. 

In this case, celebrities who suggested their followers watch slow loris videos on YouTube because they found the creatures ‘cute’ or ‘irresistible’, led to thousands of additional people watching them.

In addition to the illegal trade for pets, other major threats to slow lorises include the rise in the number of slow lorises used as ‘photo props’ in popular tourist destinations in Thailand, hunting for their body parts which are used in traditional medicine practices in Asia, and habitat loss.

  • The paper Tickled to death: Analysing public perceptions of ‘cute’ videos of threatened species (slow lorises –Nycticebus spp.) on Web 2.0 sites by KAI Nekaris et al. published in Plos One can be accessed athttp://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0069215.