Press Release: Bringing awareness towards Japan’s role in cruel and illegal trade in threatened slow lorises

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Oxford, United Kingdom

Slow lorises are cute but venomous nocturnal primates found from India to the Philippines; the nine currently recognised species are all threatened with extinction largely due to illegal trade. This week, researchers from Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, United Kingdom and the Japan Wildlife Conservation Society, Tokyo, Japan, have published two major studies documenting Japan’s role in the illegal pet trade of slow lorises, and also provide a strong scientific basis that the typical way in which these pets are kept violates international standards of animal welfare, constituting animal cruelty. The studies will appear online in the wake of a new major documentary regarding slow loris ecology and conservation to be aired on Japan’s NHK this month.

Slow lorises as pets first came to the general public’s attention in 2009 when a video of a slow loris being tickled went viral. More than 100 videos of pet slow lorises are now available on social networking sites at any one time. Arguably the most popular slow loris individual is Kinako, a Hiller’s slow loris from Sumatra. The ‘Slow Loris Channel’ featuring this animal gained popularity in September 2012 when the video ‘slow loris eating a riceball’ went viral. As of 21st January 2016, the channel had 44,547 subscribers and 18,454,348 views. All slow lorises are protected by national laws in their range countries, making catching and selling them illegal, and all slow lorises are listed on Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). So where do the slow lorises in these videos come from? And are these videos really showing cute animals enjoying their lives as pets? The research reveals that the answer to these questions presents a real threat to slow loris conservation.

The first of the two studies, entitled Crossing international borders: the trade of slow lorises Nycticebus spp. as pets in Japan was published in Asian Primates Journal, a journal of the IUCN Primates Specialist Group. During the two month investigation, the authors found 114 slow lorises in 93 Japanese online videos, and discovered 74 slow lorises for sale in 20 Japanese pet shops, both in store and on-line. Six threatened species, including the Critically Endangered Javan slow loris, were for sale for between USD 3,290 and USD 8,650, some of which were displayed with falsified CITES permits. Analysis of CITES trade data revealed Japan to be the most significant importer of slow lorises; a total of 633 individuals were imported for commercial purposes between 1985 and 2013 with the last of these imports in 1999. In terms of the magnitude of illegal trade, confiscation data from Japan’s Ministry of Finance (Customs) revealed that 400 slow lorises were confiscated entering Japan between 2000 and 2013. Current penalties imposed on wildlife smugglers in Japan are low in comparison to the lucrative market, and the country’s national legislation and CITES regulation needs to be better enforced. As breeding of slow lorises in captivity is extremely difficult, it is highly probable that most animals arriving in private homes are wild born.

Kirie Suzuki, Secretary General of the Japan Wildlife Conservation Society, and co-author of the study stated that “The international community is working in cooperation to curtail illegal trade of wildlife; Japan should fulfil its responsibilities”

The second study entitled Is tickling torture? Assessing welfare towards slow lorises (Nycticebus spp.) within Web 2.0 videos appears open access in the international journal Folia Primatologica. Nekaris and colleagues examined 100 online videos, nearly 1/3 of which were uploaded from Japan, to investigate whether or not the ‘five freedoms’ of animal welfare were violated in the videos. These freedoms are used by animal welfare societies worldwide to assess if animals are kept in appropriate captive conditions and include freedom: 1) from hunger, thirst, and malnutrition, 2) from disease and injury, 3) from physical forms of discomfort due to inadequate thermal, resting or other environmental conditions 4) from fear, distress, and negative psychological states, and 5) to carry out normal behaviours. The authors showed that every video violated at least one freedom, with all five negative conditions being present in nearly 1/3rd of the analysed videos. This included the famous ‘riceball’ video, where the slow loris was fed a poor diet, showed signs of ill health indicated by obesity, was kept in bright light, showed signs of stress, and was kept in extremely unnatural conditions. Furthermore, the public was more likely to give ‘thumbs up’ to videos that showed stressed lorises kept in bright light. The pervasiveness of this imagery may cause an unknowing public to perceive that such conditions are natural for these animals, as evidenced by the many positive comments about the cuteness of the video, as well as the refusal of online social networking sites to remove the videos despite them being flagged as animal cruelty.

Professor Anna Nekaris, Director of the Little Fireface Project and Professor of Primate Conservation at Oxford Brookes University, stated that “These videos are a double-edged sword, bringing awareness of the plight of the slow loris to potentially millions of viewers, but at the same time, fuelling an illegal international pet trade.” The challenges of the work were pointed out by Louisa Musing of TRAFFIC International and a co-author of both studies who stated “The demand for pet slow lorises in Japan is persistent and is playing a major part in fuelling their international illegal trade. Wildlife smugglers are taking advantage of the weak law enforcement that is currently in place as well as the lucrative market where individual slow lorises are being sold for thousands of USD.”

The problem of slow loris trade is not restricted to Japan alone, and the studies published this week are only an example of the tremendous and pervasive trade in these rare primates. Dr Mary Blair, a loris researcher at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History who was not involved in the research, said “This important work illustrates for the first time the extensive role that Japanese consumers play in driving the illicit international trade in endangered slow lorises as exotic pets. Unfortunately, this problem is pervasive in many other countries outside of the native loris range and documenting the problem with rigorous data – as these researchers have done in the case of Japan – is quite challenging.”

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