By Anna Panariello, M.S. in Environmental Policy 2016
“In the dark of a Vietnamese forest at night, it is easy to feel completely alone. But unfortunately, we are not the only ones going out to look for small, wide-eyed primates in these forests”—says Mary Blair, Assistant Director for Research at the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation in New York City.
Slow lorises belong to the genus Nycticebus, and their big eyes guide their nocturnal activities. They are found in the thick forests of South and Southeast Asia, but their night-dwelling, secretive, and solitary behavior renders it hard to study them, says Blair.
However, researchers do know that lorises’ numbers are on the decline, because when found, they are hunted.
What are they used for?
Blair explains that “lorises are traded in local communities, in rural villages near protected areas quite ad hoc, opportunistically, and are used for a variety of reasons, as pets, for meat, for religious reasons, and for many different medicinal purposes that vary based on region and ethnic group.” Medicinal uses are diverse, including using loris hair to stop bleeding. In Cambodia and in parts of Vietnam, lorises are smoked, dried, ground up and mixed with rice wine or honey and used to heal broken bones, treat stomach cancer or rejuvenate women after childbirth.
What makes Vietnam different from other countries?
Vietnam is often cited as the most critical country after China regarding demand for wildlife products. However, Vietnam is different than other countries involved in the wildlife trade because it is not only a demand country, but a source and transit country for wildlife trafficking from other parts of Southeast Asia, or even further away in Africa. Animals and animal products from Vietnam, including lorises, are shipped to markets in East Asia and beyond, including China, Russia, Japan, and the US.
A first major step forward
In response to this situation, the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation started a research project on wildlife trafficking in Vietnam. The Center’s Vietnamese partners had expressed rising concern about key knowledge gaps on the nature of the wildlife trade in Vietnam, and the hope is that together they can fill those gaps, help to improve enforcement, and form strategies to curb consumer demand for lorises.
Blair’s research team has chosen to focus on the slow loris in particular because, explains Blair, they can get less biased information about lorises compared to other primates—of all the primates, trade in lorises is the least enforced offense (all primates are protected by law in Vietnam).
In the three years since the program has been running, Blair and her team have begun to assemble the information that will allow them to fill the knowledge gaps, specifically about how lorises are used and traded. “The uses are intertwined with cultural values and livelihoods. But at the elite/urban scale, specific orders are put in for specific types of animals, and for a narrower range of purposes (mostly medicine or for pets) and through an elaborate underground network, where outsiders may come into an area to harvest particular animals for an order.”
Blair continues: “The reported prices are also quite different at these two scales; they are essentially two different markets. Enforcement has been more targeted at poor, rural communities rather than the elite underground trade, which is more likely to be a bigger driver of species decline.”
Avoiding species extinction is a difficult task, and a sense of urgency has moved Blair and her team to engage in this research.
I am happy to report that I will be part of this process as I travel to Vietnam this summer to participate in the research of Blair and her team. My hope is to better understand the links between human cultural diversity and the biological diversity present in the fascinating landscape of Vietnam.