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7 Jun 07
Slow loris trade: Too cute for comfort
By Richard Black Environment correspondent, BBC News website, The Hague
Some pictures may speak a thousand words, but this speaks just two: "cuddle me!" The slow loris, native to large swathes of Asia, must be one of the most appealing creatures on the planet.
"The pet shops advertise them, and they're very popular to Japanese ladies," says Masayuki Sakamoto from the Japan Wildlife Conservation Society. "They're easy to keep, they don't cry, they're small, and just very cute."
In Japan, a slow loris will cost you between $1,500 and $4,500; but that conceals the real cost of the pet trade, measured in ripped fingers, bloody mouths, and babies unable to clean up their own defecation.
"They'll pull out its teeth so the vendor can say it's a baby," recounts Anna Nekaris, a loris specialist based at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. "They're kept in wire cages; and because of the special network of blood vessels they have, when they're pulled out of the cages it cuts their hands and feet."
Babies separated from their parents are unable to clean themselves. Their fur becomes caked with urine, faeces and oily skin secretions; a large proportion (between 30% and 90%) die in transit.
The Cambodian government is applying for a ban on the international trade in the slow loris; in technical terms, uplisting these primates from Appendix 2 to Appendix 1 within the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
That bid will be heard here, at the CITES meeting. But not all conservation groups are backing it, the implication being that sentiment may be obstructing rational analysis of the problem.
The big unknown
It used to be assumed that the slow loris was a single species, its range stretching from northern India down through Burma, Thailand, and peninsular Malaysia, across into Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and into the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines.
Dr Nekaris is one of the researchers who have repainted the loris picture, and five species are now recognised, though that may still be an underestimate.
The scale of the threat is also unclear. Population estimates are often based on small surveys, and the official Red List of Threatened Species notes a lack of data from many areas, although a more recent specialist workshop categorised all five species as either Endangered or Vulnerable to extinction.
Nobody knows the scale of the international loris trade either. Between 1998 and 2006, Japanese authorities seized 363 animals, while Thai, Indonesian and Singaporean officials uncovered 358 specimens bound for Japan.
Wildlife trade experts work on the basis that about 10% of shipments are found, but that might be an underestimate in the case of the slow loris, whose survival instinct is to curl up and do nothing, making them easy to hide in a suitcase.
The animals are also traded to the Middle East, Europe, China and the US; even so, trade may not be the biggest issue.
"The species are in international trade, but current information indicates that the extent of that trade is relatively limited and its impact likely to be insignificant compared with other factors," notes the expert assessment from the World Conservation Union (IUCN) prepared for the CITES meeting.
IUCN suggests that habitat loss may be a more important factor in their decline.
If delegates agree with this sober assessment, the slow loris will be judged not to meet the criteria for CITES Appendix 1, and international trade will not be banned, whatever the loris' emotional appeal.
In southeast Asia, cuteness is not all the slow loris has to offer. A traditional Cambodian medicine to alleviate childbirth pain is loris wine, each bottle made from the bodies of three animals mixed with rice wine. Carcasses are dried and smoked for use in other traditional remedies. There is trade here, often from rural areas into cities, but it rarely crosses international borders.
"I think domestic trade is by far the most urgent issue we should be looking at," says Chris Shepherd of the wildlife trade monitoring organisation Traffic. "We'd like to urge enforcement agencies in range states and consumer countries, which are often the same, to close down the domestic markets
"Domestic trade is prevented under law in all the range states, yet it's widespread and carried out in an open manner which points to a need for better domestic enforcement."
As a specialist agency officially charged by CITES with gathering data on some issues (such as the ivory trade), Traffic's advice is influential, and it does not support the uplisting - not through lack of concern, but because it does not see international trade as the key issue.
Anna Nekaris, though, believes uplisting would increase awareness of the loris' plight among the public, and within enforcement agencies. "At the moment they're seen as just a little brown animal, and most CITES officials probably wouldn't distinguish it from a lemur," she says.
"An Appendix 1 listing would bring more education for these officers, and would help them realise that this is something they should be looking out for."
The Cambodian bid is backed by animal welfare groups.
Pictures of these cutest of creatures apparently shivering in terror in market cages have tremendous emotional appeal. But CITES is supposed to work on sound science, not emotion. We will see whether delegates can resist the appeal of those big round eyes and clinging fingers.
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