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The Rihanna effect: How an Instagram 'selfie' alerted the world to the plight of the slow loris in Phuket

The Rihanna effect: How an Instagram 'selfie' alerted the world to the plight of the slow loris in Phuket

PHUKET: We all know they’re there, the Patong Entertainment Association know they’re there, and now, thanks to Rihanna posting an image of her with one ‘dirty talking to her’, the 10 million Instagram users that follow her know that slow loris can be found on any given night on Bangla Road, being used as tourist photo props.

By Jody Houton

Thursday 10 October 2013, 05:43PM

In fact, as the story has subsequently gone global, the number of people who know about the plight of the slow loris has grown exponentially.

There are two schools of thought emerging regarding Rihanna’s most likely inadvertent exposure of Phuket’s cruel animal trade. One, as voiced by Instagram user yadi1308 in a comment on the Barbadian’s loris photo, read, “What were you thinking girl? Hello everyone knows those animals are endangered and are sold in the black market. Read a book for once!”

The other commonly held point of view is that Rihanna was merely acting the same as any other holidaymaker in Phuket: visiting Bangla Road and taking part in everything the notorious walking street has to offer, including sex shows and loris-enhanced selfies. After all, she’s only 25, albeit a global superstar.

Taking the second point of view, the problem then is not that Rihanna took the photo, but rather that such animal-cruel services are so readily available in Patong and elsewhere in Phuket. Or is it?

Stopping the trade

According to Petra Osterberg, loris project coordinator with the Love Wildlife Foundation, a member of the Nocturnal Primate Research Group, and a long-term volunteer at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (GRP) in Thalang, participation in such ‘tourism’ is the main issue that needs to be addressed.

“There are only a handful of Thai people who are benefiting from this kind of thing, and who are actually involved, so in that regard it’s very much not a Thai problem. Whereas there are literally millions of tourists who are participating in it, who are complicit in getting that holiday snap.”

However, as Petra tells The Phuket News, it has only been recently that loris have become a common sight on Bangla Road.

“In the last two years people have reported seeing loris. It used to be gibbons, but they’re not so popular now – there are also just not as many around as there once were.”

In fact, the wild gibbon population in Thailand has decreased up to 50 per cent in the past 30 years, due to the continued demand for them as pets and photo props.

Slow loris have replaced gibbons for multiple reasons: They can be purchased cheaper (B5,000) compared to the more expensive gibbons (B15,000); they are easy to hide and put in a bag when police are near; and they don’t bite tourists as often.

Petra believes the ‘cute factor’ and current popularity fuelled by two minute YouTube videos also cannot be understated, as is their ease to capture.

“Loris are easier to poach as baby gibbons almost never leave their mother, so mother gibbons need to be killed, but mother loris typically leave their babies on high branches when they go foraging, so the babies are much easier to steal.”

Petra has been volunteering at the GRP on and off for the last decade, but in the last year she has been volunteering full time at the centre and working on what she sees as an absolute imperative – creating a dedicated rescue centre for slow loris on the island.

There are currently already seven loris at the centre, in cages that have been madesuitable for lorises through the use of small mesh and other adaptations. The problem, says Petra, is that the GRP do not have enough cages available for new arrivals.

That is why the three loris that were recently rescued in wake of the Rihanna photo scandal have instead been taken to the Phang Nga National Park run by the Department of National Parks’ (DNP) Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department.

And according to Edwin Wiek, founder of the Wildlife Friends of Thailand (WFFT), this is exactly where rescued loris should be going.

Private or public

“Rescue centres are just not necessary,” Edwin says, “It’s not worth opening a Phuket Loris Rehabilitation Centre – for what, just eight to 12 lorises?” says Edwin.

“If they want to help the loris, they should just buy a few loris cages for some of the existing government facilities.”

Petra vehemently denies this small estimate, believing the real figure to be significantly much bigger.

“Over 50 slow loris have been confiscated from Patong in the past 15 months,” she says, “and many more have been rescued and are now living in pet situations around the island.

“In addition, there are the seven animals that have been brought to the GRP and we still see high numbers of lorises in the streets.”

Regardless of the numbers, the main reason Edwin believes it’s unnecessary to open a loris centre is that he estimates around 90 per cent of loris can be released successfully into the wild, whereas Petra believes it’s more like 35 per cent, owing to the majority of them having had their teeth clipped.

“Four out of the seven lorises brought to the GRP have had their teeth clipped and are not suitable for release,” says Petra. “A vet in Thalang treats one or two pet lorises a month for complications due to cut down teeth.”

Petra tells The Phuket News that the majority of lorises used in the tourist photo prop and pet trade on Phuket, and also in Pattaya, have had their teeth clipped. On a recent trip to the Phang Nga facility, she observed that at least one of the three recently caught loris appeared to have had her teeth removed.

“[It] had a visual abscess in her upper jowl, something that will require veterinary care and is caused by the practise of cutting the animals’ teeth in order to make them ‘safe pets’.

“I would estimate that the majority of Patong lorises have had this mutilation done – rendering them forever unable to survive in the wild and making them in need of long-term captive care (20-25 years).”

Ironically, given his advocation of government-run centres, Edwin says that his own WFFT centre in Phetchaburi has around 50 to 60 lorises a year pass through, there are currently around seven or eight loris currently on-site, and that he has high hopes for all of them, having released the majority of captive loris before.

Call of the wild

Like most animals, loris need the use of their teeth to survive. In particular, they use their teeth to gouge resin out of tree trunks, which forms a vital part of their diet.

It is for this reason that Elisabeth Key, the communications manager at International Animal Rescue, which runs the largest slow loris rescue centre in the world in Indonesia, says that 80 per cent of the animals (the percentage of those who have had their teeth removed) have a long journey ahead of them if they ever hope to be released back into the wild, though it is not impossible.

“Since we began the release programme about three years ago, we have released about a dozen slow lorises back into the wild. We currently have a hundred at the centre and another hundred on the waiting list."

Working with the DNP, the Bangkok-based Love Wildlife Foundation opened up a Loris Rehabilitation Centre in Pattaya in June this year.

It is with the help of the Love Wildlife Foundation, and the experience and drawing on the success of the Pattaya facility, that Petra is hoping to open a similar centre on Phuket.

Love Wildlife Foundation Founder Nancy Gibson welcomes Petra’s plans, noting that she considered it absolutely essential to have a centre in Pattaya prior to its opening.

“Before we opened [the Pattaya centre] in June, the 12 loris that are there now were scattered around the 24 different facilities in the area, which were actually old breeding centres and so were not so well equipped.

“In the new Pattaya Loris Rehabilitation Centre, we have specially designed cages, as loris are quite small, so they have smaller mesh on the cages. This is not necessarily to keep the loris in, but keep snakes and other animals out. We also have people coming trying to steal the loris from the centre!”

“The smarter an animal is, the harder it is for them to be released and rehabilitated – loris are not very intelligent, nor social animals and when they released they are fine on their own,” says Edwin.

The process of rehabilitation, he explains, is simple.

“We follow the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) guidelines: After loris have been rescued, they are put into quarantine for 6 to 8 weeks to check if they have diseases.

“If they are clear, we begin the strengthening and re-socialising process where they are put into larger enclosures, help them to forage and eat, by putting on a night-light (to attract insects) for example.

“We monitor them for six months and then we release them into the wild.

The downside of selfies

Although there are obvious disputes regarding how, if, when and even where rescued Slow Loris should be rehabilitated with the ultimate aim of release, the end game for all concerned – except those that profit from their plight – is the same: getting the loris off the streets.

For International Animal Rescue’s Elisabeth, the key to stopping the trade is to remove the demand.

“The internet phenomenon of people posting clips of pet slow lorises being tickled or looking cute has really fuelled the trade. And certainly, if there wasn’t a demand for them, poachers and traders would soon stop catching and selling them.”

You just have to hope Rihanna’s millions of followers and the rest of Phuket's visitor's get the message.

Patrolling Patong

Helping to get that message across is American Gregg Tully, who on September 27, along with other concerned local individuals, decided to contact the GRP to inquire if they could help.

Petra provided Gregg with leaflets and pamphlets about the plight of the loris and the negative consequences of the tourist trade and he and eight other volunteers headed to Patong to hand them out.

We went to Bangla Road, and although we didn’t see any loris touts that night, we probably handed out a couple of hundred leaflets.”

Gregg said that although many people were originally suspicious when they approached them, many did show an interest and wanted to learn more about it, even the other touts and local people.

What’s important though is to be consistent. We could tell everybody in Patong about it today, but we need to keep on doing it in order to tell the new tourists.”

Gregg plans to do this regularly, ideally every Friday and Saturday night, but in order to do it, he needs volunteers.

To join Gregg on regular patrols, email him at:

For more information about the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, visit:

For more information about the World Wildlife Friends of Thailand, visit:

For more information on the International Animal Rescue, visit

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