The journey to save Java’s Jungle Gremlins

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By Anna Nekaris

The slow loris of Java is one of the most distinct of all of Asia’s lorises. Its large eyes are surrounded by deep and dark forks that stretch down to the tips of its cheeks, and meet at the crown of its head to form a long stripe down its back. These beautiful stripes are so characteristic that it is no wonder that in 2003, after its initial discovery in the 18th century, that Javan slow lorises were confirmed as a distinct species.

I always knew that the Javan slow loris was beautiful. I knew also that many researchers encountered them in the pet trade. At the same time, I also knew that all of Asia’s lorises needed to be studied, counted in the wild, and even identified as species. Since the early 1990s, I had focussed on the slow lorises smaller cousins – the slender lorises. But the call to work on the larger slow loirs was great and I soon found myself journeying to study these remarkable creatures throughout SE Asia – from India to China…to Thailand to Singapore to Malaysia…to Sumatra, to Borneo and Vietnam…so many problems to identify – medicinal trade, bushmeat, black magic, photo props and pets…the lorises of Asia seemed to be exploited for just about everything…

With every colleague that travelled to Java and witnessed the loris’ plight there, the cry from that particular place became louder. Where were the wild lorises? So many in markets but none in forests…and worse yet, those that were rescued inevitably had their teeth cut out…so in 2006 I ventured to Java for the first time to see the illegal wildlife trade there and to help start the first major rescue centre for Indonesia’s slow lorises. In simply measuring these lorises, we affirmed that Javan slow lorises were indeed a distinct species, and found evidence for two new species as well.

This was the start of intensive research on Asia’s slow loris. There was just so much to know – and that included radio tracking them in Cambodia with Carly Star, mapping their distribution in Borneo, measuring every museum specimen I could to work out where they should occur in the wild and what species we would find there, studying their wild ecology in Northeast India with Nabajit Das, and finally, sending Javan slow lorises back to the wild for the first time with radio tracking with Richard Moore.  Despite our knowledge of other lorises, however, it was not enough…and our reintroduced lorises and those awaiting their fight in rescue centres were dying…

So in 2010, we started our wild studies of Javan slow lorises. In 2011, we attracted the attention of the BBC who decided to make a film about our research – the Jungle Gremlins of Java. This film served several remarkable purposes. From 2009 onwards, the world got to know slow lorises through a series of viral videos that were cute at first glance but revealed the tip of the iceberg of a cruel and illegal pet trade. It had been hard to convince the viewing pubic why it was cruel to keep nocturnal animals awake in the day; tree dwelling animals with no branch to touch; exudate specialists made obese and diabetic on a diet of sugar rich fruit; social primates kept alone and apart from their own kind….the list goes on…

Jungle Gremlins of Java changed that – the story, developed by award winning director Stephen Gooder, and championed by Icon Film’s Harry Marshall, was able to convey my own quest to research and conserve these amazing primates, but to tell it to an audience that was apt to care, but needed to know the facts in a thoughtful way. So many people who loved lorises because they were cute now loved them because they were amazing and realised that these special rare primates belonged in the wild.

The trade has not stopped. The YouTube videos go on. People still want one as a pet…and sadly the teeth of slow loris’ are still being ripped out in the hope that they will not bite their owners with their unique venom. Jungle Gremlins of Java has made the rounds now in more than 52 countries, but has only aired once back in January 2012 here in the UK. We hope that the many new people introduced to slow lorises from those cute but cruel videos will get a chance to see the truth behind their story and help support the Little Fireface Project in the their efforts to save them.

 

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