Petra Osterberg, a volunteer with the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project in Thalang and the Phuket Loris Rescue Co-ordinator for the Bangkok-based Love Wildlife Foundation, spoke to The Phuket News today (September 26) about the slow loris trade, which has been thrust into the spotlight after R&B singer Rihanna posted a photo on Instagram of herself with one of the animals on Bangla Rd.
Many of the lorises were brought to the Gibbon centre by tourists, who “on a drunken night out in Patong” had purchased a loris to rescue them from being exploited, Miss Osterberg said.
“Recently, we took in a loris that a tourist had paid B40,000 for, and their intention was to rescue it. They’d negotiated while they were probably drunk, and they just wanted the best for the animal.”
She said B40,000 was at the extreme end of the scale – the average selling price was around B10,000 – but touts would try and get as much money as possible from the tourists.
Miss Osterberg said there were currently seven lorises at the Gibbon centre. An additional 40 to 50 lorises are being kept at the Department of National Parks Phang Nga reserve. These animals cannot be returned to the wild, and need “long term captive care” because of their teeth being clipped – to prevent them biting tourists – often causing infections or damage, which need regular care.
One vet in a remote part of Thalang saw one or two pet lorises per month at the clinic, she said.
“To me that indicates we could be talking about 100 or more in private ownership that are being illegally kept as pets. It’s not just the photo shoots – they are the tip of the iceberg.”
Miss Osterberg said the slow loris “explosion” on Phuket began around 2011.
“It’s a very recent problem considering how large it is now. Rescue centres and authorities aren’t equipped to deal with this sudden explosion,” Miss Osterberg said.
Miss Osterberg said Bangla Rd in Patong was the most popular location for the touts, and there was a “flow of lorises” to this area. However there have been reports of sightings in Kata and Karon.
Miss Osterberg said she posted The Phuket News story of Rihanna on the Facebook pages of both animal rescue groups she worked with.
“I was surprised at the reaction. There was a lot of angry reaction from people aware of the trade, but who perhaps would not have reacted like this if the photo had been of a regular person.
“I’m convinced we need to use this [Rihanna’s photo] to our advantage to educate more people about the loris. We don’t get this opportunity very often, and I’m hoping this will help us reach a wider audience. Thanks to her this issue is getting international attention, even from people who haven’t been interested before.”
Rihanna was “no more to blame than the millions of other tourists” who had their photos taken with lorises, she said.
Education for tourists was key, she added, but also education for officials – many of whom she believed knew the loris was endangered but did not know details of its plight. She also said it was important to educate tourists before they arrived on the island and went into “holiday mode”.
“There’s not a simple solution” she said, when asked about what the long term solution was for getting the lorises off the streets of Phuket.
"[The solution] should include both education as well as stricter punishments. It is important that tourists realise that the whole business (buying, selling, soliciting of wild animals) is illegal and perhaps ideally one day, tourists could also risk getting fined for participating."
Because lorises are small, they can be hidden easily by touts when police or volunteers approach – there’s also the threat of violence towards those trying to help the lorises.
“It’s known that people get threats. When people go in to get photos of the lorises for education purposes, they [the touts] can turn quite aggressive.”