Professor Anna Nekaris (Director, Little Fireface project), who dedicates her time to the preservation of slow lorises, on the revelations of her research, and how we can protect primates whose very 'context' is threatened by social media…
Asia is home to several species of small, large eyed, slow moving, and unique primates – the lorises.
These tended to be divided into slender and slow lorises – the former sometimes endearingly named 'bananas on stilts', with the Sri Lankan northern grey form of the three species seen now and then in zoos.
The slow lorises have increased in notoriety in the last two decades. But, they’re still under threat for a variety of reasons, ranging from extreme habitat loss to their hundreds of uses in Asian traditional medicines to a growing illegal pet trade, to their use as tourist photo prop. One would think that captive breeding programmes for these Endangered and Critically Endangered species would be well established.
Only one “species” however was relatively common in zoos – the pygmy loris – yet breeding has often been difficult, and numbers are declining. But as with many cryptic nocturnal animals, who do not rely on vision themselves to identify their own species, this most famous of the lorises was revealed in the last year to contain yet more “creatures unseen”!
In March 2023, along with a team of geneticists and loris researchers led by Mary Blair, I was one of a team to name a new species of pygmy loris. This research came on the tail of a paper from just one year before, where we provided substantial genetic, behavioural, and morphological evidence to show that pygmy lorises deserved to be in their own genus. We named this Xanthonycticebus, or the golden night monkey, reflecting the more yellowish and golden nature of the pygmy loris fur.
Also, it was exciting to have a genus that started with the letter X!
Interestingly, a main argument against the new genus, despite having separated some 11 million years from the other slow lorises, was a lack of desire for “monospecific” genera – or a genus containing a single species.
We already knew, however, that the work was being done to show the substantial differences between the Northern and Southern pygmy lorises. Indeed, during a field study of the Southern pygmy loris (which retains the name X. pygmaeus), we sent photos of our study animals to researchers from Northern Vietnam, who said it did not look like any pygmy loris they had ever seen! Well, indeed they do not; X. intermedius, or the northern form, has often been distinguished as rounder, cuter, and having more substantial coat colour changes during the cold winter months.
I had come across these “round” pygmies before in discussion with wildlife traders in Japan, who reported that their clients only wanted to purchase the “cute” lorises (e.g., the Northern form) rather than the “dog-faced ugly ones” of the south!
I do feel a bit guilty now that one of our study animals was even called Mr Ugly (though this also came from a series of venomous bite wounds, as pygmy lorises, just like the slow lorises, are venomous…though the chemical composition of their venom also differs!). But Mr Ugly’s appearance simply heralded the announcement of his group of lorises as a separate species!
Of course, such a change has major implications for the conservation of these animals. First, we need to reassess their captive breeding programmes, identify hybrids, and reform pairs of the correct species.
Next, pygmy lorises have already received an IUCN Red List assessment as Endangered. Although an assessment of Critically Endangered seems unlikely at this point for either species, we have strong evidence that the Northern pygmy loris is almost extirpated from China, whereas the Southern is still subject to relentless hunting for traditional medicines in Cambodia. Here it is believed that although western medicines may cure symptoms, only loris medicines can cure the actual disease.
Like many nocturnal animals, lorises are not well considered in action plans. Furthermore, they often occur on forest edges rather than interiors so can be “falsely accused” of being more abundant than they are, which field surveys are only carried out on these edges.
This is also where they are easily caught, and it is thus no surprise they continue to show up in illegal wildlife markets, despite their declining numbers.
Demand for them as pets leads to international trade with a variety of issues, including their being confiscated in countries where they are not native and even translocated there in large numbers – Thailand and Taiwan being two cases in point.
Yet another issue looms for pygmy lorises and was the subject of yet another paper my team and I published this year. For nearly two decades now, lorises have consistently appeared on social media as “cute and cuddly” pets.
Often clearly illegal, in that they appear in countries where no loris was ever legally imported to be sold as a pet, this has never stopped social media channels for allowing the content to continue.
And the lorises most often seen as pets are the pygmy lorises, and most of these are of the Northern variety. It is safe to say that based on the millions upon millions of views these images and videos receive, more people have seen a loris as a pet than they have ever seen one in a zoo or in the wild. And despite scientific studies showing the suffering, stress, poor welfare and often ill health of these animals, these videos and memes still garner millions of likes, making the slow loris singularly one of the most popular illegally traded animals on the Internet.
We suggest that this inappropriate imagery can lead to decontextualisation of the animal from its wild state, with the average person who can recall a loris imagining it holding a cocktail umbrella, eating a rice ball, or simply sitting in clothing in a cage rather than in the wild.
This normalisation of household captivity has been shown to link to public perception of how endangered the animal is (e.g., that is NOT globally threatened); to considering it normal to have one as a pet; and even to consider the animal is safer or happier in a human home than in the forest.
With a specialised animal like a loris, however, which has strong social bonds with family; which eats a very unusual gum diet; which never sits on the flat but always clings to branches; and which is dangerous in that its venom can kill or maim a human, this decontextualisation takes on a new level, with poor welfare and very short lifespans to lorises who end up in trade.
The fact that even the best known loris both from captivity and social media – the pygmy – contains a new species, exacerbates this issue further.
Zoos have an excellent opportunity to explore and conserve these unseen species – through the relatively simple medium of genetic studies of animals in their collections, but also through considering the display of these “boring” animals.
I do not think I have ever seen a zoo exhibit contrasting the rather cruel portrayal on social media on a sign next to the exhibit of a pygmy loris.
Not only would this remind the public that this was the animal that they “liked” but outreach materials could show just why these videos DO contain cruelty and why they should learn to love the animal instead in context.
It is too attractive to continue to market the same handful of charismatic species that visitors flock to zoos to see, but these wonderful unseen animals are an untapped resource for zoos and could help turn the tide of negative social media around.
- Prof Anna Nekaris, Oxford Brookes University Course Tutor of Primate Conservation and Director of the Little Fireface Project
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