Viral videos and photos of cute animals, like the slow loris, are an internet staple. But our love of sharing monkey clips could be fuelling the exotic pet trade and hurting animals.
A viral video shows a small, fluffy, wide-eyed primate reclining on a bed and raising his arms in the air in apparent delight as his owner tickles him. But appearances can be deceptive. The animal, a slow loris, is far from enjoying himself.
"It's a defense position; they are actually terrified but if you don't know this, it looks very cute," Louise Musing, from wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic, told DW. "They raise their arms so they can reach their brachial gland and lick the venom to bite you. It really is basically torture for them."
The video in question has over six million views on YouTube and is accompanied by a host of other "cute" slow loris clips, including a doe-eyed loris eating a banana, another eating sticky rice and one coquettishly twirling a tiny cocktail umbrella. They've clocked up millions of views between them. That's not good news for the endangered animal.
Depending on the species, slow lorises are listed on the IUCN Red List as vulnerable or critically endangered and their cross-border sale has been banned since 2007 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Still, the trade continues unabated in part driven by their online popularity.
"It's snowballed since 2009 and people now are used to seeing this exotic species on social media," says Musing, who notes that #link:http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0022050:studies# have shown when animals are presented out of their natural habitats or even just beside a human, people are more likely to think they are not endangered and to want them as pets.
"It's completely changed perceptions of the slow loris. People didn't know what they were before and this takes them completely out of context. Nobody gets they are a wild animal and the most unsuitable pet ever to have."
A slow loris at a rescue center in China. It may seem like the slow loris loves tickles but it is 'torture' say ecologists
Fragile slow lorises
Slow lorises are particularly sensitive to stress factors and are sometimes referred to as "cut flowers" because they do not survive long in captivity once their teeth have been removed to prevent a venomous bite. Many die in transport. For instance, 80 percent of a shipment of 102 pygmy lorises confiscated at a Taiwanese airport in 1993 died before arriving at a sanctuary in Saigon Zoo, according to the study "Tickled to Death" by #link:http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0069215:conservationist Anna Nekaris#.
Those that do make it to homes usually don't last long either, because even the most well-intentioned pet owners cannot care for them properly, say ecologists. Often, their cages are too small or these nocturnal animals are forced to be active during the day. They also feed on nectar and tree resin, which aren't easy to come by in a pet store.
"They are mainly being fed on monkey pellets and bananas. Some fruit is OK, but in minimal quantities because it is so high in sugar," says Musing, who conducted a #link:http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/1200343/26823826/1454074800957/2016Jan29_Article_2.pdf?token=KHvaLITXasjfbJ0BPzoPiF0N3wg%3D/:study# on the slow loris trade in Japan, where they are extremely popular. "A lot of the vets we spoke to in Japan said they come in with diabetes and really bad heart problems."
Other animals affected
The exotic pet market doesn't just extend to slow lorises. While estimating the value of the global wildlife trade is difficult, it is thought to be worth between 30 and 40 billion dollars per annum (excluding fisheries and timber), and around 22 percent of that is meeting the demand for exotic pets, says Tom Moorhouse, a conservation biologist at at Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU).
Birds, including parrots, are the most abundantly traded animals according to CITES, followed by reptiles and mammals. But reptilian and mammalian species were more likely to be threatened in the wild where they are frequently sourced, although conservationists say due to the often illegal nature of the business, it's hard to know exact figures. Captive breeding of such animals does happen and is seen as a viable way to meet demand, but is rarely an alternative to wild-sourcing as fresh stock is required to "bolster breeding programs," according to a study looking at the #link:http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.12240/suppinfo:global trade# in exotic pets.
Wild-sourcing includes collateral damage. To catch birds in the wild, traffickers sometimes slather a sticky resin onto trees that can damage feathers and limbs. In other cases, they clip the bird's wings to prevent it from flying away. In the case of large primates, like apes, traffickers will kill adult animals.
"It's easier to tame them if you get them before they are six months old," says Noga Shanee of Neotropical Primate Conservation in Peru, which she notes has a huge domestic trade in exotic pets openly traded in large markets. "So they kill the mother. Then they give them usually to little children, who take care of them for a few weeks until they understand that they have to be with humans. They then take them away from the child, which is bad for the child too."
Aside from posing a threat to the conservation of animals, the exotic pet trade also poses a more general welfare issue. Because animals are packed together for live transport, mortality rates during transit are high. About ten monkeys die for each one traded alive to the consumer, says Shanee. Others die due to inadequate care or are abandoned early on.
Aside from fuelling the demand for unusual pets, social media has also spurred on another human desire: to record and post our up close and personal encounters with wildlife.
"Humans are hardwired to want to interact with animals," says Moorhouse. "People really want to have their selfie taken with the animal. People want to touch the animal; they want to interact with it."
But that's not necessarily good for the animal. Recently, pictures circulated of a woman dragging a distressed swan from the water for a quick picture. And in Florida, a man was caught on camera pulling a shark from the sea by the tail to get some snaps. Another story that went viral apparently showed people passing around a dolphin for photo opportunities, with reports that it subsequently died. However, witnesses later said the animal had washed up dead before people started taking selfies with it.
That same desire can be satisfied in wildlife tourist attractions where visitors can interact with tigers or elephants and other wild animals in a controlled environment. But not all such attractions are created equal.
While some are "genuine where you can go see gorillas in the wild and have genuine conservation benefits, or visit sanctuaries with animal welfare benefits, the vast majority are pretty bad," says Moorhouse.
Visitors tend to positively review even the problematic attractions on travel websites such as TripAdvisor because they don't pick up on the animal welfare issues, and you end up with a "self-sustaining system," according to a #link:http://:recent study# carried out by Moorhouse and his colleagues.
"We are talking about hundreds of thousands of animals, the welfare of which are suffering as a result of being kept in inappropriate conditions and being forced to interact with tourists. Millions of tourists are paying for this," Moorhouse told DW.
Educating people is an important step in halting demand and, in turn, supply.
"People do change their opinion and realize it's terrible. We can have a very positive impact if people are made aware in the right ways," says Musing.