PHUKET: Over the past year and a half, maybe a little bit longer, the small night dwelling primates known as slow lorises (Nycticebus species in Latin) have had a strong appearance in Phuket's popular Patong beach.
Phuket is famous for having seen illegal wildlife used to attract tourists to pay for photographs already for a very long time, probably since before the 80's, and the well-established Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (GRP) stands in honor of that fact.
GRP has rescued and rehabilitated gibbons from the illegal trade for 21 years now and is the longest running gibbon reintroduction project in the world.
Despite their efforts, the trade in baby gibbons has hardly slowed down due to lack of demand and Thailand's white handed gibbon population has dropped by more than 50 percent in the past 30 years.
Maybe gibbons are now just much harder to come by, but recently tourists to Phuket are much more likely to be confronted by touts with slow lorises than they are to meet someone with a baby gibbon.
Since July last year about 50 individual slow lorises have been confiscated from Patong's infamous Bangla Road by the DNP (Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation) authorities.
Many concerned tourists have helped to push for these amazing results by reporting witnessed use of illegal wildlife as photo props directly to the DNP (http://www.dnp.go.th/complain/index.asp).
But even more tourists are still obliviously unaware of the trade, thus making it plenty worthwhile for the wildlife touts to promptly pay off their fines, get another animal from the wild and return to business.
Throughout the year, confiscations have hardly had any impact on the number of slow lorises seen in the streets.
Tourist information and education need to happen in many different languages and through many different avenues in order to be able to reach more of the international crowds that pass through Patong every day of the week, year-round.
A more frightening thought is that many people intentionally avoid this kind of information before, or during, their holiday because they just don't care and that is why tourist education has had so little effect - but we can't just give up quite that easily.
It is clear that the legal punishments for wildlife offenders in Thailand have to become much more severe in order to have any effect.
It is also clear that the demand from tourists for these kinds of ''attractions'' really do need to stop, possibly through the government action of making it punishable by law to participate in - and pay for photos of - the abuse of illegally caught endangered wildlife.
For the slow lorises used in this business their death warrant is pretty much sealed the moment they are captured from their native forests, often far away from Phuket.
Slow lorises are primates, and like all primates they are born relatively dependent and helpless. The young have a whole array of skills to learn from their mothers before they can survive independently in the wild.
The photo prop lorises are almost always very young, orphaned animals that have been tamed by people and fed inappropriate and unnatural loris diets.
The ones that prove unpredictable almost always have their teeth cut down with blunt tools without anaesthesia or veterinary care, in order to prevent any bite injuries to humans.
Many lorises rescued from the pet trade in Thailand and across South East Asia suffer mouth abscesses and sometimes fatal infections as a result.
Because of all these reasons and many more, the slow lorises confiscated from Patong and elsewhere in Thailand are almost never suitable for reintroduction back to the wild.
Scientific evidence from even carefully conducted reintroduction programs for slow lorises elsewhere in Asia show an extremely high mortality rate - it is therefore almost certain that inexperienced photo prop lorises ''released'' without any monitoring or human assistance to adjust to the wild, will die painful and slow starvation deaths or succumb to pestering injuries received from wild lorises defending their territories.
Unfortunately, the escalating trade in slow lorises within Thailand is a relatively recent problem and the available DNP sanctuaries and rescue centres that suddenly became inundated with these unknown creatures are ill prepared to care for them and to house them appropriately.
Many of the confiscated lorises have been mutilated, are in poor health and many belong to different species of the Nycticebus group that do not even belong in this part of Thailand.
However, so little is often known about them, that the animals simply are ''let go'' from rescue centres
to wander out into the wild and fend for themselves.
Because the released animals rarely are spotted again, people are left to assume that the lorises ''successfully'' became wild again.
That is unfortunately just wishful thinking and yet another aspect of this problem that proves that humans and society on no levels have come to accept their responsibility in this slow loris affair.
Just like the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project on Phuket has focused on offering species specific care for confiscated gibbons for the past 21 years, there is now an urgent need for the establishment of a specialised slow loris rescue and rehabilitation centre on the island.
A handful of lorises are currently safely, but temporarily, housed at the GRP in awaiting the set-up of this loris center.
Luckily such a centre is currently in the planning through collaboration between Love Wildlife Foundation and the DNP authorities.
There is a growing group of concerned people around the world who have a love for the loris and the commitment to help these beautiful, shy animals.
Contact Petra Osterberg at email@example.com
Petra Osterberg is a long term returning volunteer at the Phuket centre and a primatologist by profession. Gibbons were commonly kept as tourist attractions on Phuket in the past, in the same way as we see the slow lorises in Patong today. We still get reports of photo-prop gibbons from around Phuket, Krabi and Phang Nga. Wild gibbon numbers in Thailand may have dropped by up to 80 percent in just 30 years (or one gibbon generation). The Phuket centre has been rescuing and rehabilitating gibbons for 20 years now and during the past 10 years has successfully managed to re-establish a small wild breeding population of gibbons in Khao Phraw Thaew forest - the last sizable rainforest on Phuket.
THE GIBBON Rehabilitation Project has been rescuing and rehabilitating white handed gibbons from the Phuket pet trade and tourism industry since 1992. Every year new baby gibbons are smuggled into the bars and onto the beaches in Phuket to entertain the tourists. Wiped out on the island 30 years ago, the illegal trade is now decimating wild populations throughout Thailand. Since 2002 GRP has successfully re-established a small independent breeding wild population of reintroduced captive gibbons in Khao Phraw Thaew non-hunting area on Phuket.