Killer pets

Slow lorises are not exactly household names worldwide, but they have become more well known as a number of videos of “pet lorises” have gone viral on YouTube.

“My first exposure to a slow loris was the [YouTube] tickling video,” said Ben Tatton, a student from the University of the West of England doing volunteer research work at the LFP. “Like many other people I just thought it was cute. I was … naive about the situation.”

Fueled by such popular videos, the illegal pet trade has pushed all nine species of slow lorises even closer to extinction.

“They look like teddy bears, they are adorable … However it’s probably just a downside of evolution that they evolved to look that way,” McCabe said. “Their big eyes are because they’re nocturnal. Their small body has to do with their habitat. Everything has a purpose.”

Despite people’s attraction to these big-eyed, furry creatures, McCabe said they are “terrible pets.” She says they smell awful, are very difficult to clean up after, and must be kept in darkness to protect their sensitive eyes. Even more: “They’re venomous; they can kill you.”

“Primates just shouldn’t be pets,” she added. “They’re never going to be psychologically fulfilled as a pet; they’re never going to be healthy.”

The trade in traditional medicine is another, though lesser, threat. Loris oil is still sold online in Indonesia, while slow loris soup remains popular in parts of China and Cambodia.

“They think it cures female problems,” McCabe said. Killing them for black magic purposes remains another issue. But in recent years it’s the pet trade that researchers believe is really taking a toll.

The LFP has worked to get YouTube to take down the videos, to date without success. But they helped pressure the company to create a way for users to report animal abuse.

“Step two is proving that these videos are animal abuse. It’s baby steps,” McCabe said, adding that anyone can help lorises simply by not watching or sharing these videos.

“If I’m an American sitting in New York and I just share this funny loris video, it promotes it, and next thing you know someone in China is looking at it and buying one.”

Hunters often target mother-baby loris combos. They kill the mother and take the juvenile. The baby’s teeth are then pulled out to make it more attractive to buyers — an operation that many lorises likely don’t survive.

A camera trap image shows a loris making use of an irrigation system provided by the LFP to cross through an agricultural area. Photo courtesy of LFP.

Prior to the LFP’s establishment, the area around Cipaganti was “heavily hunted,” according to McCabe, to feed this cruel and illegal trade. But today it is a sanctuary for lorises. Indeed, the LFP now has farmers from neighboring villages bringing in injured slow lorises when they find them; 10 so far this year, all of which have survived. “It’s thanks to our research that we are able to do that,” McCabe said. “We know what they need. We know the space requirements. We know the food. We know if they are showing positive behaviors, if they are going to be able to survive on their own.”

Before any slow loris is released back into the wild, the LFP conducts an evaluation to see if the animal can successfully feed: that it can gouge for tree gum, that it can slurp nectar and catch insects.

“We need to make sure they can decapitate [insects] in the correct manner and squeeze their juices out,” McCabe said.

When they started tracking and collaring slow lorises, the team was surprised at how many were in the area, which is mostly composed of farmland lined by trees.

“People see our area and say ‘It’s so degraded, how can anything live here?’” noted McCabe.

The forest lying above Cipaganti is ostensibly a protected forest — but the sign declaring that lies in a carrot field, according to McCabe. Much of the forest has been illegally cut for agriculture, while the surviving stand is too cold to house high loris densities.

But lorises, at least, are surviving in the farms due to their constant source of nectar and insects. The habitat is not as good as forests (loris density is lower in these ecosystems) but it stills allows for viable populations.

In return, the lorises provide a service to the farmers by pollinating the crops and eating lots and lots of insects; several people at the LFP described slow lorises as “natural pesticides.”

No one knows exactly how many Javan slow lorises are left, but the LFP’s research proves that the critically endangered primates can survive in agroforestry landscapes, so long as the hunting and killing stop.

The Real Slow Lorises of Java

The LFP has collared 18 lorises to date, giving them and their offspring names such as Rufio, One Eye and Maaf.

“Some [lorises] are shy, some are highly aggressive, some have boyfriends left and right, some are very loyal,” McCabe told me.

Ostensibly, slow lorises are considered monogamous, mating for life and having numerous children with the same mate. The reality, though, is much more different.

“Our lorises are cheating on each other, left and right … So we can’t assume that if a loris has a baby that it’s her mate’s,” McCabe said. “They go off and have extra pair copulations pretty often. And they’ll switch partners sometimes.”

McCabe pointed to a particular Don Juan, a male named Fernando, who’s had three mates since researchers first collared him.

“He just loves them and leaves them … Doesn’t even leave a note. It’s rough,” she said. For a long time, Fernando was mated with Maya. They had three children that researchers know of.

“Then one day we went on shift and he wasn’t in his home range, and then we looked and looked … He was literally in a tree with our most beautiful loris, Shirley.  He’s with her now.”

McCabe says that when a loris loses a mate, either to death or to the vagaries of love, they will see signs of depression, such as decreased activity. “We do get worried about them psychologically.”

Researchers also see obvious psychological impacts on lorises that have spent time as pets or in captivity. Ben Tatton described the behavior of one such loris, Bintang, as “massively weird,” including spending lots of time on the ground — a rare and risky activity for wild lorises. “[Captivity] is going to leave scars,” he says.

Personality doesn’t impact just the love life of lorises,  but family life more generally. For example, juvenile lorises usually leave their mother once another baby comes along, but Mungkin,  a son of Maya and Fernando, didn’t. He stayed even after two younger siblings were born, grew up and left.

“Then we realized ‘Oh, this a 40-year-old man who’s going to live in his mother’s basement for the rest of his life,’” said McCabe. “It was the most adorable co-dependent … relationship. He slept with her every single night; they would sleep in the same branch and they’d cuddle up together.”

Sadly, Mungkin died in August.

Alomah, the son of a loris the project named One-Eye, who has been monitored since 2011. The LFP is starting to see the grandchildren of the original cohort of collared lorises. Photo by Andrew Walmsley/LFP.

The long-term study is revealing that slow loris lives are far more dramatic and complex than anyone initially expected. “Slow lorises continue to be some of the weirdest animals on earth. Every time we think we start to know them, we find yet another bizarre behavior that is rare for mammals, rare for primates, or just totally weird!” Nekaris wrote in an email.

Slow lorises, and their relatives in the Strepsirrhini taxonomic group (which also includes lemurs, pottos and galagos), remain largely understudied.

“I can see why a lot of primatologists stay away from smaller, strepsirrhine primates like these,” said McCabe. “If you don’t know them, it may look like they don’t do a lot or they’re not that sentient. [But] it just means that you need to learn to speak the language of this species. And once you do you see they’re incredibly intelligent.”

Indeed their stories remind one of another primate species: us.

Ecology, Education, Empowerment

While long-term behavioral research is the cornerstone of the LFP, the group employs a number of other conservation strategies.

“Our motto is ecology, education and empowerment,” McCabe said. “We try to keep it even between them.”

On the education front, the LFP has built an elementary school in the village that serves 150 students. It also runs a nature club that currently includes 70 kids who learn about their environment every week.

It has also published an upbeat children’s book, Slow Loris Forest Protector, that helps teach kids (and the parents who read it to them) about the importance of slow lorises. In a recent paper in Conservation Biology, the team analyzed the impact of the book on 1,000 kids; they found that three months after receiving the book, the children had retained key concepts, including the importance of slow lorises to farmers as insect controls.

“We see [children] making new independent choices about their wildlife and futures rather than repeating facts, which is really exciting,” said Nekaris.

The team also has a number of programs to empower local farmers. Recently, the LFP provided free irrigation systems that can also serve as loris bridges, so the nocturnal primates, and other species, can move over the fields without going down to the ground, where they are more vulnerable to predators. The team has recently confirmed via camera traps that lorises are using the bridges; they have 877 photos of lorises on the bridges from the first round of camera trapping.

“From our first observations, the bridge project seems to be very efficient for lorises and other mammal species,” said Birot.

A common tree shrew (Tupaia glis), one of the many species making use of the LFP-provided irrigation systems. Photo courtesy of LFP.

The team is also working on setting up a coffee program using shade-grown, organic coffee, which would result in higher payouts for farmers while at the same time helping lorises and other wildlife.

 “[We are] looking at this farmland and seeing how we can take one plot of land and turn it into loris habitat and farmland,” McCabe said, noting that they also encourage crop rotation and mixed-species farming. Pesticides are a major issue in rural Java: a number of sources said they believed pesticide overuse is rampant and water sources are becoming contaminated. As a result of this and habitat loss, McCabe said they’ve seen a huge decline in amphibians, reptiles and insects.

To combat pesticide use, the team also reaches out to farmers to show that lorises can be an alternative in fighting insects.

“We say, ‘Look, they are helping you. You need to support them. You don’t need to pay money for that chemical [because] you have a slow loris,’” McCabe said.

A slow loris captured by one of the LFP’s camera traps. Photo courtesy of LFP.

Home to around 2,000 people, Cipaganti lies in one of the most socially conservative regions in all of Indonesia. The LFP staff work very hard to maintain good relations with their neighbors: staff and volunteers dress conservatively, don’t drink and don’t smoke out in the open.

According to Birot, the “amazing trackers” have helped create a bridge between the LFP and the village. Most of the trackers grew up and live in the village and are able to help smooth over any stressors that might arise.

One such tracker, Dede Ahmad, 24, has been working with the LFP since its inception in 2011. He calls the project a success because “locals are now protecting lorises” instead of allowing poachers in. Indeed, the first tracker employed by the LFP was a former hunter who helped train the researchers and trackers to safely catch lorises.

“People here are really happy about the project because from [the LFP] people learn a different culture, a different language,” said Dede. Not only has the LFP been a regular source of income for Dede, but he has learned English and photography from his connections there.

“[The loris is] really special for me, because with [it] we can show [off] our area. Cipaganti is now getting famous. Not only in Indonesia, but in other countries … because of the loris,” Dede said.

Daenerys

We’re far above the town’s lights now and the stars feel close, as Hélène Birot and I watch three trackers try and catch two slow lorises in a patch of tall bamboo. Using a rope, they pull a stalk of bamboo down toward them; in the red glow of their headlamps, I can see, for a moment, the slow loris swing forward and then back up, its body swaying, its eyes alight: a true fireface.

But the trackers miss it. A few minutes pass, and then we hear shouting.

“They caught one,” Birot said. “Let’s go.”

It turns out these skillful trackers have actually caught both lorises. Not only that — they’ve caught them in the midst of loris lovemaking. “That’s never happened before,” Birot says, upset that we’ve disturbed coitus. There’s nothing that can be done about it but finish the job quickly and leave them alone, hoping the pair can recapture the mood. The team has been doing these kinds of captures for six years, and although clearly stressful in the moment for the lorises, the researchers say they’ve seen no signs of behavioral changes following the 10-minute captures. Once released, the lorises quickly return to their normal nocturnal activities.

Efficiently, the team goes about taking vitals from the lorises: saliva and the oil from the upper arm that makes up their venom. The male is scared and shy. But the female, captured for the first time, is aggressive, baring her venomous fangs and struggling, pivoting like a poorly stringed puppet. Contrary to YouTube videos, lorises can be vicious, both to other loris and to any perceived threats.

Daenerys holds the hand of Hélène Birot as trackers take her vitals. Photo by Jeremy Hance for Mongabay.

Within minutes, the capture is over. The lorises are released back in the bamboo thicket, with the female wearing a new collar that will track her movements for the project — and hopefully reveal more secrets about these furry, big-eyed goblins.

Volunteers here do a six-hour shift every night, which means spending most of the night outside watching a single loris.

“It’s cold, it’s miserable, you’re tired, you’re popping coffee sweets trying to stay awake, staring at a tree where you haven’t seen a loris for an hour or two,” Tatton said, before adding, “I’d recommend it to anyone.”

He said the work has been more rewarding than he could have expected. It has also been an education on the complexities of conservation. To him, lorises have become a “little bit of a metaphor” for everything he is learning at university.

“Unfortunately, people don’t realize that we’ve gotten to the point in the field where there isn’t much left,” McCabe told me earlier that day. “We’re past the crisis point. We’re working in farmers’ fields; I mean, this is the reality. There are some conservation organizations that have the privilege to work in really beautiful forests, but they are all struggling to protect them. Those of us who are past that, I think, are realizing that it’s so important to work with local people. And you can’t fight them; they aren’t the bad guys. We are all just trying to survive.”

I thought about this as the team gave me the honor of naming the new female loris in their study. I dubbed her Daenerys, after the Game of Thrones character. Because she is one feisty, proud queen — and because she is one of the last of her kind, just trying to survive in a world that is undergoing cataclysmic change.

Long may she reign and may her offspring be plentiful.

Feisty during her first capture, Daenerys bares the sharp teeth, capable of delivering venom, that are one of the many reasons the species are unsuitable as pets. Photo by Jeremy Hance for Mongabay.

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Article published by Isabel Esterman
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