Loris: Lost and found

After 72 years the montane slender loris was sighted in Sri Lanka last year. This was the culmination of zoologist Saman Gamage and his team’s untiring pursuit of this elusive primate.
Kumudini Hettiarachchi reports, Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

A bundle of limbs and fur with huge, soulful eyes disproportionate to its body, it is considered by some to be one of the ugliest creatures in the world. For zoologist Saman Gamage and his team, however, on that chilly morn on Conical Hill in Nuwara Eliya when it came into their “sights” it was “beautiful”.

Just like a teddy bear, smiles Saman who has been on the trail of this elusive primate for many a long year. We named it ‘Big Male’, says Saman who along with Chaminda Mahanayakage, Vidupa Ratnayake and Chamara Hettiarachchi on that dawn of teeth-chattering shivery cold last August not only photographed this montane slender loris (Loris tardigradus nycticeboides) but also took its body measurements. Usually a loris weighs about 180 gms but ‘Big Male’ was 220 gms, says Saman.

It is the first-ever photograph of the montane slender loris in the wild in Sri Lanka. Listed as the “rarest primate” and among the 25 “most endangered” primates in the world, the montane slender loris has not been sighted in Sri Lanka for 72 long years though many primatologists and fieldworkers have been “pursuing” it for a glimpse. Primates are mammals that include humans, apes and monkeys.

Although Saman and his team had seen “eye shine” of the montane slender loris in their headlamps like others before them, it had been way back in 1937 that planter A.C. Tutein-Nolthenius captured two of them in the Horton Plains region and kept them as pets. An offspring specimen of this pair is being exhibited at the British Museum of Natural History in London.

Explaining the family history of this primate in Sri Lanka, garnered from current literature, Saman says there are two species of slender lorises here -- the Sri Lanka red slender loris (Loris tardigradus) which is endemic (found only in this country) and the grey slender loris (Loris lydekkerianus) which is found both in Sri Lanka and India.

The Sri Lanka red slender loris has two sub-species – the montane slender loris (Loris tardigradus nycticeboides) which Saman and his team sighted and photographed last year and the western red slender loris (Loris tardigradus tardigradus), according to Saman. The grey slender loris also has two sub-species the northern grey slender loris (Loris lydekkerianus nordicus) and the highland slender loris (Loris lydekkerianus grandis), the Sunday Times learns.

The montane slender loris is found in “undisturbed or virgin forest” in Nuwara Eliya, says Saman, adding that the western slender loris lives in the lowland wet zone ranging from some parts of the Colombo district like Horana, to Kalutara going down to Matara and also up to Gampaha.

Forest and woodland in Kurunegala, Dambulla, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Trincomalee and Jaffna in the northern dry zone are home to the northern grey slender loris, it is learnt while Matale (the Knuckles region) and Kandy are the habitat of the highland slender loris.

Saman’s quest for the loris began in early 2000, after nearly 12 years of bird watching under the guidance of acclaimed ornithologist Prof. Sarath Kotagma. The pursuit of the loris was not without its trials and triumphs. Collaborating with a well-known and influential scientist from the United Kingdom for two years, Saman was in shock when he found his fieldwork published under her sole authorship in 2004.

Team of 12: Tedious work covering one-third of Sri Lanka

Saman and colleague Wasantha Liyanage had done initial slender loris surveys under Prof. Asoka Gunawardena of the University of Ruhuna, collaboratively supported by an Oxford Brookes University team from the UK.

His battles began then. With this scientist being on many top-level committees Saman had a hard time securing funding for his research. “But now we are spearheading the action with regard to the loris in Sri Lanka,” says this 36-year-old who is spending all his youth either camping or making-do with the minimal facilities in village homes to follow his dream of tracking the loris.

In 2006, the tide turned in his favour with British Petroleum presenting him with the ‘Future Conservationist Award’, along with another 11 others after a competitive selection process. Currently Saman is working on his Ph.D which is on ecology, taxonomy and behaviour of lorises. The 12-member field team, with Saman as the Principal Researcher is conducting the study under Principal Investigators Prof. Kotagama of the Department of Zoology, University of Colombo and Dr. U.K.G.K. Padmalal of the Department of Zoology, Open University.

It is with the wider objective of resolving the taxonomy of slender lorises, identifying their range distribution and current threats and creating a conservation plan that Saman and his team embarked on this research.

“This is the first time that this type of study application, Occupancy Monitoring Programme, is being used in Sri Lanka,” says Saman, adding that for each forest patch a 2 km line is used, which in turn is repeated nine times.

And how many forest patches are they studying?

A huge 120 in the wet, intermediate and dry zones, he says, when pressed, conceding that it is a large area. About one-third of Sri Lanka, all with limited funding and in the night!

Surveys between 7-9 p.m. and at the crack of dawn 2.30-4.30 a.m. have been the lot of the team, using headlamps with red filters “because nocturnal animals get scared of white light and will hide”.

It was after 200 night hours last year that they spotted the montane slender loris. The day is etched in Saman’s mind. The night survey had been done and they had laid their weary heads down for a short nap. Up again at 2.30 the next morning, they were meticulously searching the area when around 3.30….there he was, “delicate and beautiful” dispelling the belief that the monatne slender loris may be extinct. - Saman on the trail of the Loris.

Strenuous work, walking at the speed of 2 km for two hours peering here and there for the loris, with a line handled by two people, one turning left and the other right.

The areas were chosen after a statistical analysis and because the method is consistent there is a good chance of confirming whether a loris occupies the area, says Saman, who spends 20 days every month out in the field away from home and family and 10 in Colombo writing up the findings. Most previous studies have been opportunist samples, he says.

It was after 200 night hours last year that they spotted the montane slender loris. The day is etched in Saman’s mind. The night survey had been done and they had laid their weary heads down for a short nap. Up again at 2.30 the next morning, they were meticulously searching the area when around 3.30….there he was, “delicate and beautiful” dispelling the belief that the monatne slender loris may be extinct.

We have had a few other sightings, assures Saman, adding we can’t say how many are there but there are a few of them at least.

A massive challenge overcome -- proving to the scientific community, both international and local, and also funding organizations that what Saman and his team set out to do they have achieved.
Sri Lanka has high diversity and is at the top with regard to primates, says Saman, holding out the promise of a few more findings soon.

No signs of illegal trade

There is no evidence of illegal trade of the loris in Sri Lanka or that people are harming them to collect their body parts, said Saman when the Sunday Times questioned him on a media release issued by TRAFFIC, a joint wildlife trade monitoring programme of IUCN and WWF.

Titled ‘Lorises at risk from illegal trade’ the report issued from Cambridge, UK in May, states that a study recently published in the American Journal of Primatology examined the trade in Slow and Slender Lorises in Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Indonesia and found clear cultural differences between countries in the way the animals are viewed.

It states, “……….in Sri Lanka Slender Loris body parts may ward off the ‘evil eye’ and can be used to curse enemies. Finally, their tears are a secret ingredient in love potions. Every year thousands of lorises are caught to supply such uses”.

Those were old beliefs, stressed Saman, adding that during his fieldwork he had not come across such a situation.

Isolated and under threat

The montane slender loris is under threat in Sri Lanka, laments Saman pointing out that they are “isolated” in Conical Hill, Hakgala and Horton Plains in Nuwara Eliya.“They can’t cross over to the other area, can’t move, can’t breed,” he says, stressing that this is critical for their long-term survival.

Illegal encroachments exacerbate the situation while extensive firewood collection is resulting in the loris losing its habitat rapidly. “The undergrowth is being collected as firewood, while saplings are cut down, leaving only the older trees intact. When these trees die off there are no saplings to take their place.”

These are “big threats” to this tiny primate, he adds.

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