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Rihanna’s Controversial Photo Op with a Loris Might Actually Aid in Conservation Efforts

Rihanna—queen of selfies and songstress behind hits like “Umbrella” and “Diamonds”—has found herself and a cute critter in the midst of an international firestorm.

On Friday, RiRi posted this shot of her cradling the endangered loris in Phuket, Thailand, on her shoulder with the caption: “Look who was talkin’ dirty to me! #Thailand #nightlife.”

Local officials weren’t too happy with Rihanna’s photo op: The two men helping to hold the loris in the photo were arrested and face up to four years in prison for possession of a protected animal, plus a fine of $1,300.

Here are four facts about the Rihanna-loris controversy you need to know.

1.  Lorises are endangered.

Lorises are rare in the wild and have become rarer, thanks to a booming pet business.

Poachers are easily able to spot—and capture—lorises.

“They have big eyes because they’re nocturnal,” said Kuhar. This means that loris eyes enlarge and shine brightly in the dark when poachers point flashlights at their face.

Making the job easier? “Their natural response to a threat is to hunker down.”

2. Lorises are valuable.

Being adorable means lorises command high prices in the black market.

They’re particularly popular in Asian countries like Cambodia and Japan, where they’re valued for their cute appearance; Indonesians see lorises as magical. In countries where poachers sell the animals to locals, lorises are valued at $32 to $54; Westerners have been known to pony up over $100 for a pet loris.

That said…

3.    You wouldn’t want a loris to be your pet.

“Videos make people want them as a pet,” said Rachel Munds, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri-Columbia who has worked extensively with lorises and knows firsthand the adorability factor of a loris. “[But as a pet], they’re not that great.”

For one, they’re really high maintenance. Chris Kuhar knows a thing or two about keeping lorises—he’s executive director at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, which holds lorises.

“These are animals that are nocturnal,” he says. Unless you’re willing to make your nighttime your morning, this isn’t exactly ideal.

Also, lorises require a bit more attention than the average pet.

“They have a slower metabolism than a chimp because they move so slowly. They can get really fat fast. That has a whole other level of health care and welfare issues.”

And as cute as these lorises may be, remember: Lorises have some bite. Yes, even that loris that was perched on Rihanna’s shoulder.

“There’s a good chance that that loris’s teeth had to be pulled out,” said Munds. “They have a toxic bite, so their teeth are pulled out to ensure that the toxin doesn’t get into humans.” Humans who get bitten might go into anaphylactic shock.

4.   Videos about lorises don’t necessarily help conservation efforts—but Rihanna’s photo op might.

Cute and cuddly makes for hit, viral videos.

But homemade videos have been detrimental to the plight of the loris, according to a recent paper, which notes that videos do not lead to increased knowledge of the loris’s plight—and could make more people want a pet loris.

“It’s important to recognize how powerful images in media actually are,” Kuhar says. “We’re really advocating for audiences to think about these images when you come across them. Think twice about liking them and forwarding them.”

On the other hand, Munds notes of the Rihanna photo: “There’s a part of me that’s upset, [but] in a weird sense, [it] helped” bring the loris to public consciousness.

“Rihanna has a much larger following [than a person in the conservation community],” she said. “The center of the story is that these people were arrested because this is a protected animal. That emphasizes that these animals aren’t something to be photographed with.” And the swift negative backlash could aid in conservation efforts as well.

One footnote: What might be good for the loris isn’t necessarily good for Rihanna. @therealkatburns commented on the photo, urging, “Don’t support people that have illegal/protected animals :(”

-Tanya Basu


  1. Craig
    October 6, 2013, 11:55 am

    A loris is still being offered to tourists on Bangla Road, Phuket as of 5 minutes ago – London to a brick it is the same one.

  2. Peter Houlihan
    September 25, 2013, 2:11 pm

    This instance is hardly going to help conservation efforts unless Rihanna actually speaks out and comments on the situation. Her photo instigated outrage in nearly every conservation and animal rights organization in Southeast Asia and now across the world. Because of THIS, the two boys who provided the loris for her photo op were sought out and arrested. Rihanna had no involvement in this arrest and I wonder if she is even aware or cares that her parade through Phuket resulted in getting two boys arrested. Regardless, the impact of arresting two touts in Thailand does not outweigh Rihanna’s worldwide influence, particularly through her social media accounts. Her 32 million twitter followers saw an animal portrayed as cute and cuddly, and now many of them want one was a pet. This is NOT different from the YouTube video that made many viewers comment saying “I want one” or “Where can I get one.”

    Despite all of the news outlets rightfully bringing light to this issue, it’s possible that this message has not reached, or is not of concern to, Rihanna’s followers. Unfortunately in this case, she has a greater influence on many of her fans across the world than news agencies do. That said, when news agencies cover this story, there is no need say she did something good until she does. It only encourages the image that naive tourists can take photos with lorises (or any endangered and/or abused animal) and not have any consequences.

    It is understandable that she was unaware of the tortured “lives” endangered lorises experience. Most people have no idea. However, now that the news is out enough that someone in her crew has probably heard about it, it would be really easy for Rihanna to sway her followers into supporting the conservation of lorises in their wild natural habitats, rather than being toothless and drugged in a cage. It’s definitely true that her influence would have a stronger impact in relaying a message than the conservation community. If she took the time to get a photo with this loris, surely she can take five seconds of thought in the midst of this media attention to convert the situation into something positive. However, she has yet to do so, and until then, she has done NOTHING to “aid conservation efforts.” At the very least, she could post a tweet on how the pet trade (and taking selfies with these animals without any accompanying conservation/animal cruelty message) supports the removal of Endangered primates from the wild and subjecting them to tortured lives. It is the conservation community that brought awareness to her posts, and it seems that it will have to continue to be the conservation community that has to single-handily attempt to pick up the pieces from this mess.

    Certainly, with her influence, more could be done, but it would be a responsible action to at least send a tweet or make a statement to correct the original post containing this photo. A simple statement from Rihanna could alter the fate of these endangered and helpless primates, and result in a future of saving rather than enslaving. It’s the least she could do.

    A comprehensive and balanced article on what really goes on in the loris trade and how instances like this actually influence the public can be found here: http://www.onearth.org/articles/2013/09/hey-youtube-rihanna-stop-promoting-the-illegal-pet-trade-loris

    And if you’re interested in slow loris research and conservation, check out: http://www.nocturama.org/

  3. clem
    September 25, 2013, 12:52 pm

    “Humans who get bitten might go into anaphylactic shock.”

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    September 25, 2013, 2:05 am

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  5. steve smith
    melbourne Australia
    September 24, 2013, 8:36 pm

    It is so all about us isn’t it!