In early 2009, a man in St. Petersburg, Russia, uploaded a video onto YouTube in which his pet pygmy slow loris — a small, threatened Asian primate — gets tickled. The video quickly went viral, garnering millions of views and thousands of comments. But such videos of "cute" exotic species may be fueling the illegal pet trade of the animals, pushing them nearer to extinction, new research suggests.
Researchers analyzed the public's perception of slow lorises (Nycticebus) by perusing more than 12,000 YouTube comments posted over a three-year period in response to the tickling slow loris video. Viewers most frequently commented on how cute they thought the slow loris in the video was, but comments expressing a desire to own one of the animals — or even asking where to get one — came in a close second.
In fact, an average of one in 10 viewers who commented on the video said they wanted a slow loris pet, which suggests a direct link between the animal's online popularity and their illegal trade, researchers say. [The 10 Most Viral Videos Ever]
"I've been studying slow lorises for a long time and the video completely changed everything," said study lead author Anna Nekaris, a primatologist at Oxford Brookes University in the U.K. "Nobody knew what a loris was before the YouTube video, but now everybody knows them."
Slow lorises go viral
Slow lorises are nocturnal primates that live in the rainforests of a number of South and Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Once considered common, all eight species of slow lorises are now recognized as "threatened" — their numbers have dwindled significantly because of habitat loss and collection and hunting for the wildlife trade, traditional medicine and bushmeat. Though there are national laws in place to protect the slow loris in all of its native countries, those laws are rarely ever enforced, Nekaris told LiveScience.
In addition to being illegal, the pet trade of slow lorises is especially concerning because the animals being sold are undoubtedly taken straight from the wild. Dmitry Sergeyev, who initially uploaded the tickling video, claims that his pygmy slow loris came from a loris nursery.
"Anyone who says they are breeding them are lying," Nekaris said. "We have skilled zoos that can't even breed them successfully."
Sergeyev originally uploaded his video onto Vimeo in February 2009 and then to YouTube a couple months later. In June of that year, Wired also uploaded Sergeyev's video to its YouTube page. Wired removed the video in February 2012, but by that time, it had amassed 9,338,000 views and 12,411 comments.
When Nekaris first saw the popular YouTube video, which lacks any information on the conservation issues facing the slow loris, her first thought wasn't that the overweight female loris in the video is cute. "My initial reaction was one of despair," she said. "I thought this was the end for the slow loris because it was already dealing with a devastating local pet trade."
For their study, published last month in the open-access journal, PLOS ONE, Nekaris and her colleagues downloaded and analyzed all 12,411 comments from the tickling slow loris video on Wired's YouTube page. They categorized the comments based on content — which ranged from comments asking what the animal in the video was to posts stating that the slow loris was stolen from the wild — and looked at how the remarks changed over time. They also tracked celebrity shares of the video and noted what impact those endorsements had on the YouTube comments.
The researchers found that soon after the video went viral, about 25 percent of the commenters said they wanted a slow loris, but this percentage decreased as the months passed. Overall, about 11 percent of the comments were from viewers expressing their desire for a slow loris pet (comparatively, about 23 percent of the comments were about how cute the animal is).
The team also found two spikes in the number of comments, which corresponded to slow loris-related events. The first spike occurred in March 2011, when Nekaris and a colleague created a Wikipedia page on slow loris conservation in response to another slow loris video becoming a hit. The second spike occurred in January 2012, when the BBC aired a documentary on the slow loris trade, called “The Jungle Gremlins of Java”. (Wired took down the viral video shortly after the BBC program aired.)
Interestingly, as people became more aware of the conservation issues surrounding the slow loris, the comments section of the video turned into a kind of forum for that information. After the Wikipedia page went up, people increasingly posted comments mentioning facts about the slow loris's biology or conservation, such as how the animal is the only venomous primate in the world and how traders gruesomely remove the teeth of slow lorises after capturing them. "But the number of comments of people who want slow lorises always far outweighed the conservation comments," Nekaris said. [In Images: 100 Most Threatened Species]
For better or worse, celebrity reposts brought much attention to the video. Based on comments that specifically mentioned a celebrity, at least 2,400 users visited the video after seeing it shared on a celebrity's Facebook, Twitter or personal blog.
The effects of popular media
"It’s great to see more empirical investigations of the potential effect that popular media can have on public perceptions of wildlife," said Stephen Ross, a primatologist at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Illinois, who wasn't involved in the study.
In 2011, Ross and his colleagues showed that people were more likely to think chimpanzees would make great pets if they saw images of the primates in anthropogenic contexts, such as standing next to a person. He is interested in seeing if the same is true for slow lorises — for example, what type of reactions would result from a viral video of a loris "acting cute" in its natural habitat? Whatever the case, Ross is alarmed by the number of YouTube commenters who said they want a pet slow loris. [Image Gallery: 25 Primates in Peril]
"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."
Though it's difficult to directly link viral videos to increased pet trade, one thing is certain: The illegal business appears to be getting worse. In recent years, there's been in increase in the number of international confiscations, domestic market sightings and YouTube home videos of slow lorises. And while slow lorises were a rare sight on the streets of Thailand in 2009, you now see up to 12 of the primates being paraded around each night, Nekaris said.
And it's not only slow lorises that are potentially harmed by the popular media. The illegal pet trade of sloths and kinkajouhas recently spiked — Nekaris noted that some celebrities have advocated for making the exotic animals pets.
The bigger problem, however, may be YouTube itself, Nekaris said. The popular site readily removes pornography, videos of drug abuse and other graphic scenes, but videos showing illegal animal activity are left on the site.
"The slow loris video should have been taken down a long time ago because it's illegal," Nekaris said. "By not removing the video but removing others, YouTube is telling the public that this illegal, multibillion dollar industry is OK."
Follow Joseph Castro on Twitter. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.