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Saving the slow loris

Have you ever heard of a slow loris or visited the Zoo’s pygmy slow loris at the Primate, Cats & Aquatics building? These adorable primates have a recent history of going viral – but for all the wrong reasons. Videos of slow loris and other “cute” animals are on the rise on social media, but what most people don’t know is that the videos demonstrate a form of animal cruelty that has grown more common over the last few years.

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The endangered slow loris

The slow loris is a rare, nocturnal primate that inhabits the forests and bamboo groves of Southeast Asia. Slow lorises live in trees and rarely touch the ground; they walk hand over foot through branches and sleep curled up in the fork of a tree or a bamboo clump. While they live up to their name and move around quite slowly, they also have the ability to strike rather quickly when needed.

The slow loris is well-known for its wide eyes and fur-covered body that adds to the belief that it is a “cute” and harmless animal. Because of this belief, many slow lorises have been taken from their habitats in the wild to become pets. Slow lorises are very smart, social and adorable looking animals, seemingly meeting all the characteristics that would make a perfect pet, right? Wrong.

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Little Fireface Project mascot educating the public on illegal wildlife trade.

Illegal pet trade

The slow loris is an exotic wild animal that should never be a pet. The slow loris is the only venomous primate with a bite poisonous enough to kill a human. To eliminate the issue of being bitten, illegal pet traders will clip the loris’ teeth. This process is extremely painful for the slow loris and can even kill it when proper medicine or anesthetic is not used, said Dr. Anna Nekaris, Director of Little Fireface Project.

The rise of social media has created an audience that caters to people who own slow lorises illegally. Videos of a slow loris being tickled, a slow loris eating a rice ball and many more videos like these began to gain popularity. These videos motivated people everywhere to want a slow loris for themselves, adding to the illegal pet trade happening across the world.

“All that people see is an adorable animal in a video and oftentimes don’t see everything happening behind the video,” said Dr. Anna Nekaris during a visit this summer to Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

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Dr. Anna Nekaris, Director of the Little Fireface Project

Dr. Nekaris is an Oxford University professor of anthropology and primate conservation studying Asian lorises. She began studying the virtually unknown species of the slow loris in the 1990s. “No one knew what a slow loris even was until 2009 when the first video went viral,” she said.

The video she is referring to is a clip of a slow loris being tickled. The video was illegal, and the video was cruel. Dr. Nekaris said as someone who had spent a long time studying this endangered species up close in the wild, this video really upset her. Unfortunately, it would not be the only video like it to surface.

Dr. Nekaris saw an issue in the fact that so many people were consuming these videos and enjoying them without seeing the real risks behind them. In the mid- ’90s, she began the Little Fireface Project with the goal of continuing her long-term research of the slow loris as well as educating people on which videos are harmless and which videos are forms of animal cruelty that should not be supported. Early funding support from the Zoo and the Cleveland Zoological Society helped Dr. Nekaris get Little Fireface project off the ground. The Zoo has provided core funding annually since the early 2000s.

The Little Fireface Project conducts outreach and education programs for communities in Asia to inspire them to join the conservation movement. The group works on the island of Java to document illegal trade of the species; information collected is used to help law enforcement. The group’s mission is to obtain vital data about all loris species in order to contribute to their conservation in the wild and in captivity. In addition, Dr. Nekaris and her team intensively use, monitor and evaluate social media to inform the people around the world of the threat to slow lorises and how to mitigate their trade.

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“Dr. Nekaris and her team are true conservation heroes. By providing on the ground reporting of the illegal wildlife trade, as well as working to educate audiences and animal lovers around the world about the danger of inappropriate videos, her team is truly interrupting the chain of illegal wildlife trade and making a difference for the future of endangered species,” said Cleveland Metroparks Zoo Curator of Conservation Kym Gopp.

How can you help

“Zoos are essential to conservation work,” said Dr. Nekaris. Each time a guest visits and makes a connection with an animal in Cleveland, it builds understanding of animals in the wild.

Zoos are also playing a vital role in the global fight against illegal wildlife trade. Many people don’t realize the power of Zoos and their ability to raise awareness and support a cause, says Dr. Nekaris. Your Zoo’s Future for Wildlife program works with multiple conservation partners to address illegal wildlife trade by engaging and empowering local communities and educating the public and consumers; working to stop the illegal wildlife trade globally; and monitoring, studying and publishing information on wildlife trade at a global level.

Like the slow loris, other species like rhinos and elephants are hunted or captured for benefits they can provide to humans. Rhinos are hunted for their horns, used in traditional Asian medicine and elephants are hunted for their ivory tusks. No matter the species and no matter the reason, Zoo members and guests can help secure a future for wildlife. By visiting your Zoo, you have the opportunity to learn more about these endangered species and can even donate to support conservation efforts.

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Dr. Nekaris and her team with a slow loris plush that you can find in the gift shop at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

Social media platforms have varying techniques as to how to report these types of videos, and the Little Fireface Project is working to encourage companies like Facebook to filter the videos and eventually take them down. One easy way to fight it is to simply comment that you don’t want to see it and report or flag the content through Facebook. Additionally, the Little FireFace Project website offers specific text you can copy and paste onto your social media feed in a way that is informational and non-confrontational.

“The illegal wildlife trade is a global industry, and we need every Zoo guest and member to learn little ways they can make a difference for wildlife,” said Gopp.

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