The Slow Loris: The Venomous Primate
A Creature of the Night
Last night I sat and watched a ‘Natural World’ documentary on the BBC, about the slow loris, a rather strange looking arboreal creature with huge eyes and strangely familiar looking hands, that dwells in rain forests across South-East Asia. For mammals, they are quite unique, as they have extra vertebrae in their spine to allow for greater flexibility whilst moving through the trees. Indeed, as I watched them move, it almost seemed as if I was watching a furry snake slither silently through the tree boughs. Stranger still, they have just four digits on each hand, somewhere along the course of their evolution, they have lost a finger. But, as with most things in evolution, the loss of the finger does serve a specific purpose for the slow loris, it enables them to capture prey with much greater ease in the trees, that along with their extra vertebrae allow them to sneak up on their quarry, usually anything from insects to small birds virtually unnoticed. The next revelation, shocked me even further, I learnt that they secrete toxic venom from their elbows, which they mix with saliva when they bite; as a result this makes the slow loris, one of the world’s venomous mammals. Moreover the slow loris is in fact a type of primate, the very same order of mammals that we belong to. I found it quite astounding to think that we have a poisonous relative somewhere out there.
A Venomous Bite
The Brachial Gland on the Loris' Elbow
The program explored exactly what the function of the venom was, the obvious answer was to capture and kill prey, like snakes and spiders do, but that wasn’t the full answer. Most of the loris’ prey is relatively small and would be easy to catch, even without the venom. The next theory mentioned by the scientist, Dr. Anna Nekaris, was that it served to protect the loris from biting insects and ticks. She remarked that she had never seen a cleaner mammal than the loris. I was particularly interested when she conducted an experiment using blood sucking Leeches. She placed several in a saucer and then dabbed them with a sample of the loris’ saliva, astonishingly all of the leeches died after just several minutes.
The next theory she postulated was that the venom acted as a defence against predators, and again she decided to conduct an experiment using a rattan basket, a towel covered in loris scent, two cotton buds dabbed with venom and a female sun bear. Anna placed the basket in the cage, and after a few moments the bear was released. Instantly the bear was intrigued clawing and sniffing at the basket, but as soon as she caught scent of the cotton bud, she bade a hasty retreat. But she did not give up, curiosity forced to investigate a further couple of times, but with the same result. So, the venom served as a defensive as well as an offensive weapon.
The final theory was perhaps the venom served as a weapon when males fight over territory or a mate. One of the shocking things about the venom is that who or whatever is the unlucky recipient of the bite is permanently scarred with wounds that never fully heal. Images were shown of loris’ with rather gruesome bald patches on their head and flanks. Anna herself had been the victim of a Loris bite, she told how the wound had bled consistently for several days, and even after a few months it still looked like a fresh cut.
To most westerners like me, the idea of a venomous ,ammal seemed absurd. But the people of South-East Asia have known this for centuries. Indeed when Anna interviewed a local tribal elder, he declared that he was far more scared of encountering a loris, than a spider or a scorpion. He also stated that he did not hunt the loris, he and his tribe just simply gave it a wide berth.
Crammed into tiny cages
The Shocking Video of a Slow Loris being Tickled after being Illegally Purchased
Dr. Anna Nekaris during her investigation
Highlighting Animal Cruelty
Threats and Conservation
Anna wanted to desperately to see the loris’ in their natural habitat, so she travelled to the Indonesian Island of Java, a renowned biological hot spot abound with primates ranging from the tarsiers, Loris’ to monkeys and gibbons. The Island is supposedly a safe haven for the loris. But as she trekked through a protected jungle in the dead of night, she encountered not a single individual, where had they all gone? Eventually she and her local tracker managed to locate a lone loris clinging onto a surviving stand of bamboo, lost in one of the fields of vegetables planted by the inhabitants of a village that was barely fifty feet away. They watched as a creature, described as exclusively arboreal descended to the ground and walked clumsily across the ground. As I watched my strange looking primate cousin amble across the ground, I was struck at how similar it was to a tree sloth.
Next, the program shifted its attention to one of the most heart wrenching things I have ever witnessed in a documentary. The illegal pet trade is rife in places like Jakarta, despite the fact that it is totally illegal and that many of the animals being sold; including the Loris are protected species. Anna told us that the local police know what is going on, but they turn a blind eye to it. She wanted to investigate further, so she elected to go undercover as an ignorant western tourist, who was interested in buying an exotic pet. She approached dealers who kept the loris, along with monkeys, birds and cats in tiny, cramped cages; one dealer explained that the loris was very popular with Indonesian tourists, but also tourists from further afield, hailing from China, Japan and Russia. He told her that one animal sold for 25 US Dollars, to a Japanese tourist. After approaching several more, she witnessed something totally horrifying. A burly man lifted a relatively small crate onto the counter, Anna peered in and saw to her horror that it contained four Loris cramped together, with nothing to hold on to apart from each other. For Anna, this was the end; she made a quick getaway, just about holding herself together before she blew her cover. Once she was in the relative safety of the production van, she broke down and wept openly. At that point, I felt like crying too, not just for the plight of the loris, but also for the monkeys’ with their wide eyes full of fear, the same sort of fear you would recognise on a human face.
The loris’ abduction into the illegal pet trade however, is especially cruel. As I’ve mentioned the locals are all too aware of the toxic contained in the animal’s saliva. So what the dealers do is to remove their canines and lower incisors to ensure that they will not harm them or their prospective new owners. The problem comes when an illegally traded loris is then rescued by people like Anna, without its teeth, it cannot use its venom; therefore it can never be released back into the wild, sentencing them to a lifetime in captivity. Anna did mention that she had tried to rehabilitate rescued loris’ into the wild, but not one of them had managed to survive, purely because they need the venom to help with hunting but also for protection from a number of different things including their own kind.
Another shocking fact that emerged from this documentary was the fact that some loris owners had decided for whatever reason to post videos on YouTube of themselves tickling their pet. At first glance they do look cute, with their furry bodies, large heads and large eyes; they bear a strange resemblance to babies. We humans have a fixation on the cute and cuddly, we cannot help it, we seem to have a ‘cute’ instinct. But it is this very cuteness that may cost the loris its existence as a wild animal, thanks in part to the YouTube videos; demand for these primates has sky-rocketed. All I can say is that if you are thinking of getting one for a pet, then don’t; because you would help to fuel, what is an illegal industry and also denying a protected species a chance to live a natural existence. If you do watch the videos, then try to look past the cuteness, and understand that these people are breaking international law. The slow loris is a fascinating creature, the world’s only venomous mammal. Moreover it’s a primate, thus making it a close relative, the forward facing eyes and grasping hands that have nails rather than claws are a testament to that. It’s just one out of a large number of our closest relatives that need to be protected by us from us.
More evidence of the Illegal Pet Trade in Java
- The Little Fireface project, saving the slow loris led by Dr Anna Nekaris
Little Fireface Project, saving the slow loris through ecology, education and empowerment. Led by Dr Anna Nekaris, Reader at Oxford Brookes
- BBC Two - Natural World, 2011-2012, Jungle Gremlins of Java
Dr Anna Nekaris travels to Java to find out about the slow loris and its toxic bite.
- BBC Nature - Slow lorises videos, news and facts
More information on the Slow Loris
- International Animal Rescue - Home
A Charity devoted to rescuing animals from all over the world, that have been the victims of cruelty by Humans.
- Venomous or Poisonous Mammal? The Loris Uses Venom
The loris is the only venomous primate. These unusual primates move slowly through the trees using long, slender limbs. Their most notable physical characteristic is their very large, round eyes.
- Loris - The cute little Cousin of ours
- Buying a Slow Loris Pet (is illegal)
© 2012 James Kenny