It seemed like a bit of internet fun. Tickle a cuddly pet primate and post the results on YouTube.
To use the jargon, it went viral. In just ten days the clip had received three million hits. Even Stephen Fry commented on how cute the slow loris appeared. The creatures, which resemble the Gremlins of movie fame (below), became the most searched-for animal on Wikipedia – and illegal pet traders began rubbing their hands in anticipation.
Primate conservationist Anna Nekaris has studied the slow loris for nearly 20 years. When she saw the clip after it was posted in 2009, her heart sank. “It made me sick. This was a wild, nocturnal primate being filmed in a brightly lit room for the enjoyment of others. The worst thing was that people kept sending me the clip saying how cute it looked.”
She analysed the comments posted below the 57-second clip and they shocked her almost as much. “More than 60 per cent said they wanted one as a pet. It was very, very depressing.”
Based on what Nekaris has just observed for a new Natural World film, many have got their wish. On the Indonesian island of Java, where numbers would once have exceeded one million, the slow loris is about to be listed as critically endangered. Today, the best place to see them is in the markets of the capital Jakarta, where they are openly traded for $25. “That’s what the dealer makes, but the guy who captures them gets just 30p – the price of a packet of cigarettes. They are literally catching every single one of them and putting them in the pet trade. The rate is so high it is completely unsustainable.”
On a two-hour tour of the markets, which she secretly filmed, Nekaris saw 23 loris available for sale. “They were all so badly dehydrated, their eyes sunk deep into their heads. It was just horri- ble.” And there was one final barbarity; because the animals have a defensive venomous bite – the only primate that does – most had had their front teeth pulled out to improve saleability.
If video killed the radio star, it seems that YouTube is killing the slow loris. “There’s no way of quantifying just how many loris are being lost, but if you Google the name in Russian or Japanese you get so many sites where you can buy them. Once they’re out of the country it’s too late. Local law enforcement has got to improve and people have got to understand that no matter how cute they look you can’t take a primate from the wild and put it in your house and expect it to make a good pet. Apart from anything else they are incredibly smelly.”
Natural World: Jungle Gremlins of Java is on Wednesday at 8:00pm on BBC2
This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times published 17 January