Ending a toxic love affair: The fight to save slow lorises
To win the race against extinction, IAR Indonesia’s slow loris champions are going the distance
Eyes like tapioca pearls glisten from a round, quizzical face.
Safe in her box, Meli the baby slow loris inches through the folds of a warm blanket, cuddling up to her scruffy soft toy companion. Greedily, she laps milk formula from an offered syringe, inadvertently getting the white liquid all over her mouth.
It’s a sight that easily elicits sighs of delight from most. Yet, her adorable appearance is exactly what makes her — and the rest of her kind — unintentional victims of their own lovable looks.
Sought after as exotic pets, and paraded as photo props at tourist traps, countless lorises are snatched each year from their rainforest habitats, and sold online or in animal markets.
Rescued late last year after falling from a tree, baby Meli and over 200 other slow lorises are currently being cared for at IAR Indonesia in Ciapus, Bogor, about a two hours’ drive from Jakarta. Established in 2008, it is the world’s largest rescue centre for slow lorises, and the only one in Indonesia specialising in their rehabilitation and release. To date, it has saved over 1,000 lorises, with over 670 returned to the wild in the last 10 years.
For head veterinarian Wendi Prameswari, who has been with the centre since 2011, the eyes are the window to a slow loris’s soul.
“Their eyes tell you what they feel,” she says. “And they often look sad when they [arrive] in a sick condition.”
She recalls the story of Maya, another slow loris rescued as a baby from a student’s home. Living in a flower pot, the terrified loris was only three months old, and too young to be separated from her mother.
“She looked at me and seemed to say, ‘Please save me, because I cannot live here.’”
Like many other pet lorises, Maya’s teeth had been clipped off. The young loris also suffered from metabolic bone disease caused by malnutrition, resulting in stunted growth and abnormally soft bones.
The centre’s goal is to return as many slow lorises to the wild as possible, after a rigorous programme of regular health checks, monitoring, medical treatments and dental surgery if necessary. It is also a permanent sanctuary for lorises like Maya, who cannot be released due to permanent disabilities, or behavioural issues caused by life in captivity.
“She will be [prone] to tremors and fall easily,” says Wendi. “Maya will not last more than three months in nature.”
IF LOOKS COULD KILL
It’s not an overstatement to say that slow lorises are among the most endearing creatures in the animal kingdom.
But their wide-eyed gaze and cuddly countenance conceal their deadliest secret.
“My favorite animals are slow lorises because they are cute… and also dangerous,” says Wendi with a knowing smile, eyes twinkling. “Two opposite things that shouldn’t go together.”
The world’s only venomous primate, these fluffy furballs are capable of inflicting a lethal bite, which can cause death through anaphylactic shock. Similar to the compound causing allergic reactions to domestic cats, their toxin is stored in an elbow patch, which is mixed with saliva before the deadly cocktail is delivered.
Not that this deters people from clamouring for lorises as pets. Sellers routinely remove lorises’ teeth to prevent them from biting their new owners — an inhumane procedure that places the animals at risk of dying from blood loss or infection.
“[Pet owners] think they can take care of their slow lorises, but many of them end up dying within six months,” says Ismail “Agung” Rusmadipraja, campaign officer at IAR Indonesia. “This is because of the cruel treatment of hunters and traders who pull out their teeth.”
BRISK TRADE THREATENS SLOW LORISES
Commonly known as “kukang” in Indonesia, the slow loris is also called “malu-malu”, meaning “shy” — a nod to the reclusive nature of this nocturnal animal.
Their inability to leap from tree to tree, unlike the rest of their primate relatives, is one reason they’ve been dubbed “slow”. The other being their low metabolic rate, comparable to those of sloths.
As for “loris”, it derives from the old Dutch word for “clown”. This likely refers to lorises’ unique facial markings, which serve as warning signals to would-be predators by drawing attention to their most deadly feature: their mouths.
Though useful in the wild, these defensive face masks do little to protect lorises from their most grievous threat: the rampant illegal wildlife trade.
All slow loris species are listed in Appendix I of CITES, making international commercial trade illegal. Yet, despite protection under local and international law, they remain traded in large numbers.
Indonesia’s rich biodiversity makes it a magnet for the illegal global trade, estimated to be as much as US$23 billion a year — a deadly operation that is bringing species to the brink of extinction.
The Javan slow loris is now among the world’s top 25 most endangered primates. Categorised as Critically Endangered on IUCN’s Red List, it is feared that their population has declined by at least 80 per cent over the last two decades.
Sold in animal markets or online, slow lorises fetch up to anywhere between US$110 to $210 each. According to data from IAR Indonesia, at least 5,500 lorises were observed in physical and online markets since 2012. Activity peaked in 2017, with over 900 traded.
Captured lorises are transported under appalling conditions. Crammed in filthy crates for days on the road with little food and water, almost 30 per cent of slow lorises die during the trafficking process. Those that survive often suffer from stress, dehydration, malnutrition and wounds, including severe injuries from air gun pellets.
“They would scream very loudly in fear,” says Wendi, recounting the horrific scenes during rescue operations. “And when we put them in the box, they rolled around abnormally. Like they were being chased by something.”
She calls a particularly heartbreaking rescue of 238 slow lorises in 2013.
“It was raining slow lorises. They were all injured due to self-mutilation. Diarrhoea. Respiratory problems. I could not save all of them,” she says.
“As doctors, we definitely want to save as many as possible. When even just one of them doesn’t make it, it feels terrible.”
DYING FOR FAME
A slow loris nibbles at a rice ball. Another extends its arms when tickled, as if begging for more. And yet another clutches at a tiny purple cocktail umbrella.
These scenes, and so many other viral videos, have made Internet sensations of these unwilling, Insta-worthy stars. Such content fuels demand for these endangered primates as pets, along with the dangerous misconception that lorises make perfect domestic companions.
Behind their placid demeanour in the footage are silent cries for help — a passive defensive reaction to stress, misinterpreted as tameness. And far from attempting a Mary Poppins impression, the umbrella-wielding loris is merely acting on its arboreal instincts to cling onto a branch.
Social media posts of pet owners flaunting their acquisitions further fan the trade.
“The more people see the shared posts, the more they desire to follow suit, and keep [lorises] as pets,” says Agung. “When that happens, it encourages the cycle of trade. Unknowingly, they are contributing to illegal crime and animal cruelty.”
A PET PAYS THE PRICE
For Juliawaty (“Yuli”), a former pet owner living in Cirebon city, the appeal of slow lorises was immediate.
“I remember seeing that you could carry a slow loris around like a doll,” she says.
She eventually purchased a loris from a local dealer, and named her Mimi.
“I loved Mimi like a mother loves her child,” she says. “I think Mimi also loved me because if I ignored her, she would call out with her voice: kek, kek.”
“I would say, ‘Mimi, kiss Mummy’, and she would kiss me.”
Yuli’s misguided affections are not uncommon.
“When the slow loris cuddles or kisses its owner, it is an unnatural change in behaviour,” says Wendi.
Yuli indulged Mimi with the “best” food: fruit, jangkrik (crickets), imported German caterpillars, and bolo kukus (steamed sponge cakes). But in the wild, slow lorises need a highly specialised diet of tree gum, nectar and insects to survive and thrive.
Mimi started refusing food one day, and began running a temperature. Despite frantic visits to the vet, her fever returned unabated, and she began having convulsions.
A week later, Mimi suffered one last seizure.
“I tried to pat her, calling her name,” remembers Yuli, sadly.
“I was crying. She didn’t move, and I knew she was dead.”
THE CYBER GUARDIANS
Previously in primate research, Agung now heads up the team behind Kukangku. Founded in 2014, Kukangku is an ongoing social media campaign that aims to break the chain of wildlife crime — by increasing public awareness about slow loris conservation, and educating existing and potential pet owners.
With recent government crackdowns since 2013, slow lorises are increasingly harder to buy openly on the street. To evade the law, sellers have turned to online platforms to market their illegal stock.
“Social media presents a new and greater threat [to] slow lorises because it makes it easier for people to access and witness the trade online,” says Agung.
Based on his data, buyers are usually young urbanites between the ages of 18 and 35, who believe that “keeping a slow loris is saving them”.
Using hashtags like “#kukang” to scour the Internet, Agung and his team tirelessly track pet owners through social media.
“When I find negative content of people posting their slow loris pet photos, I leave a comment behind asking them to delete that post, and encourage them to hand over the loris to the nearest conservation centre,” he explains.
“Some understand and remove their posts, but there are also [those] who are resistant and end up confronting us.”
Since 2016, Kukangku’s work has reduced negative online posts and trading activities by 60 per cent — indicating that their efforts to eradicate harmful content have been successful.
But in 2019, Agung and the team were shocked by the mass seizure of 79 slow lorises in the district of Majalengka. The animals were bound for Shanghai, all signs pointing to the underground, simmering threat of transnational wildlife crime.
“These sellers are using different methods, and no longer using social media.
“Locals don’t do that. Not secretly like that. This is international,” says Agung.
The setback only made Agung more determined to keep up his watch.
“Our biggest challenge to save slow lorises in the future is not only on social media, but also through information technology as it develops,” he says. “And we must master it before it’s too late.”
Complementing Kukangku’s positive social presence, education activities are also carried out near slow loris release sites to increase local knowledge about loris welfare and ecology.
“It is very important because a lot of children who [live] close to their habitats don’t know what a slow loris is,” he says. “These children will be the future slow loris rescuers.”
Among these “slow loris rescuers” is Yuli, who now advocates for their conservation. Speaking out against the pet trade and convincing friends to surrender their lorises, she also sponsors food and medical supplies for the centre and its rescue operations.
“I realised that the best place for slow lorises is in the forest,” she says, firmly. “As a pet, however comfortable they are, it will not be as good as being in the forest.”
It’s a balmy evening, and Wendi has brought Meli out for exercise at an enclosure fitted with ropes, creepers and trees. Such facilities help lorises learn important skills like climbing, foraging for food, and hanging upside down.
“She must not forget that she is a wild animal,” Wendi says.
“Rehab is a second chance for lorises to survive after going through sad events. And we hope that in the remaining time they have as slow lorises, they can have happy lives.”
Coaxed gently from her blanket, Meli ventures out and tentatively navigates her surroundings. Under Wendi’s watchful eye, she ascends a branch with intense concentration.
Hand over hand, foot over foot, eyes looking forward — the tiny loris clambers up, up and away into the foliage.
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