Rihanna’s well-established penchant for selfies has landed her — and two unlucky Thai animal handlers — in hot water. The pop megastar/feminist pariah/Unapologetic jetsetter posted a shot of herself getting friendly with a cuddly-looking Ewok slow loris while vacationing in Phuket last week. The only problem? Lorises are endangered throughout Southeast Asia due to rampant deforestation and their popularity in the illegal wildlife trade. Local police took a humorless view of the snapshot; they quickly tracked down the duo that facilitated the singer’s impromptu photo op, and the AP reports that the two men are facing up to 4 years in prison.
Sometimes, celebrities hang out with cute animals to raise awareness about the dire plight of threatened species worldwide (remember Leo and Knut?), but I think it’s safe to assume that wasn’t the case here. Nevertheless, in own her backwards way, Rihanna has provided us with a terrific peg to discuss one of the strangest mammals in the animal kingdom. Lorises are, yes, somewhat slow-moving. Yet these daylight-hating primates move like silent ninjas through the forest despite have a basal metabolism akin to that of the tree sloths Lorises, like their lemur cousins, have a network of capillaries in their hands and feet that allows them to hang from branches for hours at a time without losing circulation.
And although the adorable loris may look harmless, it’s actually incredibly poisonous to humans. You shouldn’t mess with them. Seriously. Gaze upon this glassy-eyed, not-so-innocent visage and tremble:
Poisonous defense mechanisms are common amongst arachnids, lizards, and fish, but exceedingly rare in mammals (the platypus being another notable example). The loris secretes a powerful toxin from its brachial gland (near the elbow) which, when transferred to humans via bite, can cause severely painful swelling, allergic reactions, and even death via anaphylactic shock. The poison lives on the animal’s skin in small concentrations, perhaps acting as a natural deterrent to predators such as civets and bears. But when threatened, the loris raises its arms, releases around 10 microliters (think 10 individual grains of salt) worth of toxin, gathers it into its mouth, and delivers it via a bite from its sharp lower incisors. Remember this video of one being tickled? That’s generally not a pose that you want to encourage.
Little is known about the chemical makeup of the brachial toxin itself besides the fact that it shares similarities with common cat allergens. Scientific studies are still relatively few and far between. However, there have been enough instances of loris bites in the past few years to suggest that the poison acts as an inflammatory anti-coagulant that prevents wounds from healing. Loris bites are usually bad enough to warrant at least a hospital visit. Fortunately, death is an exceedingly rare outcome; there is only one documented fatality from a loris bite on record.
Poachers, all too aware of the loris’s inherent dangers, take all the risk out of the equation by forcibly removing the animal’s teeth with pliers. No incisors, no toxin delivery, or so the thinking goes. Any loris being sold on the streets of Thailand has likely been maimed in this fashion, and thousands of them pass through the black market each year. In Cambodia, carcasses are often dried and boiled down to create traditional remedies; the fur is said to heal wounds, the eyes are used as an aphrodisiac, and the intestinal meat is thought to aid women in childbirth. (There is, as you may have guessed, no scientific evidence for the efficacy of any of this.) Local customs notwithstanding, fines for trafficking lorises anywhere in Indonesia can run as high as US $10,000.
Friends, let’s let Rihanna’s recent escapade be a lesson to us all: Slow lorises are weirdly adorable, but for the sake of world conservation efforts and your personal health, maybe just let poisonous mammals do their own thing..?
Trent Knoss is the digital media editor at Backpacker Magazine and lives in Boulder, Colorado.