21 December 2012

A dinner party with animal smugglers

Who or what is killing the slow loris?
Dinner party with animal smugglers

Sonya the slow loris was the star of a 2009 YouTube that went viral. Credit: Dmitry Sergeyev

A few years ago, I was travelling through Indonesia when I found myself at a dinner party with animal smugglers.

Of course, I didn’t know they smuggled animals when I agreed to dine with my otherwise amicable companions. One was a friend whom I’d met travelling through Asia a year earlier, and the others were a group of his friends from around the region. By coincidence, they were all in Jakarta at the same time, and I’d been delighted to be invited to one of Jakarta’s ‘traditional’ Indonesian restaurants.

Perhaps I was naïve – it was my first time to Indonesia, and I’d only been there a couple of days – because in retrospect, it seems like the dawn of realisation for me was slow. I’d innocently assumed that a story about a “pet turtle” – one of which had died recently because they’d overfed it – were your garden-variety, pet-shop species – not an ancient, 60 kg endangered ocean farer plucked from its natural habitat and kept in a backyard, as I later discovered.

That was, quite simply, too far beyond the boundaries of my experience. We were well into dinner before all the pieces fell into place, and I fully grasped what was being alluded to in their stories.

I asked as many questions as I felt I could get away without someone saying, “What are you – a journalist?”. As it turned out, they weren’t professional smugglers; they all had very respectable day jobs. They simply took advantage of an opportunity: they would sometimes buy animals when they visited Jakarta, where there are numerous wild animal markets, and fly them home to keep as personal pets, or to give as a gifts.

But there was still more to discover about my friend. To my horror, he revealed that he owned a pet slow loris – an endangered forest primate with big round eyes, and the adorable star of many a YouTube video. I can still recall the waves of shock and disgust that passed over me as he recalled how he flew it home: sedated, packed in a box full of seashells and wrapped like a Christmas present – a nerve-wracking trip for him, wondering if he would get through airport security.

He did.

Eventually, though, the disgust gave way to intrigue, and I wondered what it was like to own one. He spoke of his slow loris the same way people talk of their family cat or dog: the love was clear.

He spoke fondly of how it liked sleeping on his computer, because of the warmth; he told stories of when he panicked because it wasn’t there when he got home, but it was never too far away – it is, after all, named as such because it moves so slowly.

After a while, the dinner conversation moved on and the subject wasn’t revisited.

A couple of days later, I re-learnt an important lesson about communication in Asia – it’s a lesson I learn anew every time I visit the region. I met up again with my friend for breakfast, and he had some bad news to tell me. He had been talking with his friends after the dinner and unfortunately, he reported, they were not able get me a slow loris.

Not registering the look of confusion on my face, he went on to explain that there were two reasons why. The first was that there was almost no chance that they would get it into my home country of Australia unnoticed. The second was that, once caught, they wouldn’t be able to pay their way out.

In Australia, we have so-called ‘low context’ communication, where the words we say are exactly what we mean, regardless of the context. Many Asian cultures, however, have ‘high context’ communication, where the whole context – the location, body language and facial expression of the speaker, as well as social protocol and the intricate relationships of the listeners to the speaker – all have to be taken in account before meaning can be deciphered.

My dinner companions had interpreted my interest in animal smuggling, and the fact that I described the slow loris as “adorable” – and possibly other terms of endearment I cannot now remember – as a request for a slow loris. There are no words for the horror I felt at the mere suggestion I would keep a wild and endangered animal for my personal entertainment.

In Australia, it’s illegal to keep most of our native wild animals as pets, let alone exotic wild animals. People caught with an illegal animal can face jail sentences of up to five years and fines of $110,000. Border security officers are vigilant and, thankfully, almost all are not for sale; Australia has one of the lowest rates of corruption in the world.

Travelling through Southeast Asia in the past, I’ve found plenty of reasons to feel ashamed of being Australian. But during that conversation at breakfast was one moment when I’ve felt most proud.

I’ve been reminded of this moment recently, as an international group of researchers announced that they had identified three new species of slow loris. As news of the species spread through the Internet, so too did posts about how ‘YouTube is killing the slow loris’.

The barrage of anti-YouTube comments have followed in the wake of the BBC Natural World program Jungle Gremlins of Java, which aired in January 2012, and followed primate conservationist Anna Nekaris as she visits the forests of Java, the main island of Indonesia, and the exotic pet markets of Jakarta.

Nekaris also implies that the 2009 YouTube video of Sonya, a pet slow loris, being tickled, sparked a series of similar videos and a recent fad in slow loris pet ownership. (For his part, the creator of the original video says he lives in Russia, where he can legally own a slow loris, and it had been bred in a local slow loris nursery – Sonya “was never in the wild”, he claims.)

In her journey, Nekaris sees how infant slow lorises are removed from their parents and their venomous front teeth are pulled out. The majority of slow lorises taken from the wild don’t survive long enough to become pets.

It’s a tragic and heartwrenching journey, but to conclude that YouTube is killing the slow loris is to overlook the real issue: when it comes to wildlife trading in Asia, the risks are minimal and the profits are high. In most Asian countries, people caught with illegal animals are let off with a fine, which can be much less than the value of the animal on the black market. By comparison, carrying illegal drugs in the same countries can result in hefty jail terms or even the death penalty.

To say that ‘YouTube is killing the slow loris’ also overlooks the plight of other animals who endure similar treatments in the wildlife markets. Big cats, for example, are popular among men in the Middle East; and reptile pets, such as venomous snakes or Komodo dragons, are becoming more popular in Asian cities. They are all mistreated. They are underfed, dehydrated and crammed into cages far too small for them.

What’s more, the slow loris was the pet du jour before it became a YouTube star – my friend bought his well before the viral YouTube video. The slow loris is popular because it is remarkable in its similarity to a human baby: they’re shaped like a baby, they have big eyes, small hands and a clumsy, slow demenour. The slow loris hits all our cute buttons, and in combination with its docile nature, the animal has become a popular pet, particularly among women.

It’s cruelly ironic that a human response that evolved so we would feel a desire to protect the youngest members of our own species is now part of the reason why another primate species is being driven to extinction.

The rise in exotic pet ownership isn’t the only threat to the future of the slow loris: habitat destruction is the obvious one, but they are also at risk of being eaten and are used in traditional medicine.

In Cambodia, for example, women consume parts of the slow loris to help heal following childbirth and in the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.

One argument for continuing to say that ‘YouTube is killing the slow loris’ might be that is raises awareness for the issue; it’s a one-liner that makes for an easy headline, or a Facebook post that draws people in and then engages with the issue.

But what happens when the slow loris pet fad is over? Will that have helped the next pet du jour?


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