Slow Loris Video: Are Cute Animal Viral Videos Harming Endangered Species? [VIDEO]

By Josh Lieberman on August 15, 2013 12:38 PM EDT

slow loris
Cute viral animal videos like the slow loris tickling video, uploaded in 2009, may increase the illegal trade of protected species, according to a new study. (Photo: Reuters)

The cute 2009 slow loris video that went viral may have led to an increase in the illegal trade of the threatened species, a new study suggests.

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The "slow loris tickling" video was first uploaded to YouTube in 2009 by a man in St. Petersburg, Russia. The video of Sonya the slow loris was seen by millions of people and was commented on thousands of times. Many YouTube viewers commented that they wanted to acquire a slow loris, and that's where all the trouble began, according to Anna Nekaris, a primatologist Oxford Brookes University in England and the lead author of the study.

"My initial reaction was one of despair," said Nekaris, commenting on the first time she saw the video. "I thought this was the end for the slow loris because it was already dealing with a devastating local pet trade."

"Nobody knew what a loris was before the YouTube video," Nekaris said, "but now everybody knows them."

In the study, published in PLOS ONE, Nekaris analyzed the 12,411 comments posted on the slow loris video over a 33-month period. They found that about 25 percent of commenters expressed a desire to own a slow loris as a pet. Selling (or owning) any of the eight threatened slow loris species is illegal in all of the Southeast Asian countries where the animal is found, yet they are often sold in illegal wildlife markets there. And because it's all but impossible for even expert zoos to breed slow lorises, almost every slow loris pets are snatched from the wild.

Stephen Ross, a primatologist at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Ill., who wasn't involved in the study, said that the slow loris video could have a troubling effect.

"If 25 percent of the 10 million viewers of the video are expressing a desire to have a loris as a pet, that is a huge number, even if only a very small proportion of those people actually take action on those urges," Ross told LiveScience. "These populations are precarious enough that any upswing in demand could have catastrophic consequences."

Ultimately, though, the comments on the slow loris video shifted after the initial cuteness uproar died down, with more commenters pointing out the conservation issues facing the slow loris. Commenters started pointing out that wildlife traders pull out the teeth of slow loris pets, so they won't bite their owners, a painful; process that can lead to infection or death.

A comment written by YouTube user clarevh, posted two months ago (after the study period), is representative of the more serious commenting that began to emerge over time.

"These animals are too cute for their own good; the cuter they look, the more people want to own one," wrote clarevh. "Because of videos like these, the illegal animal trade is driving these animals extinct. Barely any are left in the wild, and hundreds die of infection and malnutrition before they even get to the pet market."

Indeed, a decade ago, when a Saigon zoo captured slow lorises to display in their zoo, 80 percent of the animals died in transit. In the Czech Republic, between the years of 1999 and 2000, every pygmy loris confiscated at the Prague airport died.

Partially in response to the slow loris video, Nekaris made a video of her own (below). Nekaris also runs the Little Fireface Project, a slow loris conservation project begun in 1993.

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