Slow Loris Conservation: Little Fireface Project

Slow Loris Collection | Pigments by Liv
When I first arrived in the rainforests of Malaysian Borneo at 21 years old, I had never heard of a slow loris, and I had no idea just how much they were about to change my life. My name is Katey, and this is why I have dedicated myself to slow loris conservation.

My Journey into Slow Loris Conservation

In 2015, as an undergraduate student studying Zoology at Cardiff University, I decided to undertake a Professional Training Year at Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC) in Sabah, Borneo. As a student I was required to complete a research project. After discussing the options available at DGFC, I decided to join their Nocturnal Primate Project studying the Philippine slow loris (Nycticebus menagensis) and the Horsfield’s tarsier (Cephalopachus bancanus).

I spent the next nine months getting up close and personal with these elusive primates. Learning where they sleep, their favourite foods and watching them navigate the forest with ease. Whilst I could write an entire separate blog on my experiences in the rainforest, for now I will just say that my year with DGFC was life changing, and I fell totally and completely in love with slow lorises.

Slow Loris Conservation | Pigments by Liv
Katey releasing infant Philippine slow loris “Gebu” at Danau Girang Field Centre, Borneo. Photo credit: Katey Hedger, DGFC

Now at 27 years old, I am the Indonesian Project Lead for the Little Fireface Project (LFP), the first ever long-term study on the critically endangered Javan slow loris (Nycticebus javanicus). The study is directed by Professor Anna Nekaris, the world expert on slow lorises.

Prof Nekaris has been studying slow and slender lorises across Asia since 1993. She founded the Little Fireface Project under the Slow Loris Fund of Oxford Brookes University in 2011. I am the manager of the field research station, based in Garut, West Java and I am responsible for all of the activities that LFP undertake in Indonesia, including research, education, and outreach.

What's a Slow Loris?

So, what exactly are slow lorises? The slow loris is a nocturnal and cryptic species of strepsirrhine primate that is found across South and Southeast Asia. Nine species are currently recognised by IUCN and six of those species are classed as endangered or critically endangered.

The level of research on the slow loris varies between species and region, but experts agree unanimously that all species are currently under threat. Slow lorises are highly adapted to their environment and these adaptations make them unique and enigmatic.

How venomous is a slow loris?

The slow loris is the only venomous species of primate in the world; it secretes a substance from the brachial gland located on the upper arm that becomes toxic when it is mixed with their saliva. When they feel threatened, lorises will mix saliva with this secretion to create a venom in their mouth that they can then administer through a sharp bite.

The venom can cause serious wounds and may cause necrosis and even anaphylactic shock in their victims. Lorises use this venom for intraspecific competition (fighting with other members of their own species), such as fighting for the rights to females or territory.

They have markings similar to venomous snakes. Lorises even make snakelike movements thanks to extra vertebrae in their spine to deter attacks from predators. They also possess a tapetum lucidum behind the retina of their eyes, and this causes their eyes to glow red when a light is shone on them.

Slow Loris Conservation | Pigments by Liv
“Smol”, a subadult Javan slow loris followed by the LFP team.

There are many myths and legends surrounding the slow loris in their native regions. Many believe them to have supernatural powers and that the presence of a slow loris to be a bad omen. You can imagine how these myths might have started when unsuspecting villagers came across a silent creeping animal with bright glowing eyes in the pitch black of the forest!

In fact, that’s actually how LFP got its name. When our researchers first arrived in Java and sought out slow lorises, locals brought them to see the “muka geni”. Muka geni is the Sundanese name for slow lorises, and directly translates to “fire face”, a name given to them due to their glowing red eyes and distinctive facial markings! When we decided to set up our research station in West Java, where the locals speak predominantly Sundanese, the name “fire face” was a clear choice and thus the Little Fireface Project was born.

Why do we need slow loris conservation?

Despite misgivings about lorises, many local communities also believe that slow loris body parts can cure a myriad of diseases and ailments. They have been used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years.

In more recent times, slow lorises have become highly sought-after pets thanks to their super cute appearance and widespread social media attention. The illegal wildlife trade in slow lorises has become one of the biggest threats to their existence.

When slow lorises are caught for the pet trade, their teeth are crudely removed so that they are unable to administer toxic bites. This often leads to blood loss and infection and causes the death of many captive individuals. Individuals that have had their teeth removed can never be returned to the wild.

Wild populations of slow lorises are also under threat due to habitat loss and fragmentation in their native ranges. Across their geographical range, great areas of land are being cleared for infrastructure development and agriculture, such as palm oil plantations and crop farming.

Slow Loris Conservation | Pigments by Liv
“Sundama”, a juvenile slow loris followed by the LFP team.

Little Fireface Project: Protecting the Slow Loris

Truthfully, when the facts are laid out the future for slow lorises does not look bright. Here is where the Little Fireface Project comes in. Through the use of VHF tracking, we have been able to study the behavioural ecology of over 100 Javan slow lorises in our field site. We have also followed families over multiple generations through the years.

Focal lorises are equipped with lightweight VHF radio collars that allow us to locate them using a VHF signal and tracking equipment. Slow lorises are not able to detect red light. This means we are able to follow them throughout the night using red light head torches, recording their movements and behaviour with very little disturbance to the individuals.

the LFP team | Slow Loris Conservation | PIgments by Liv
Katey taking morphological measurements of an adult Javan slow loris at LFP.

Researching Slow Lorises

Over the years we have been able to disprove many of the misconceptions about lorises, such as the use of their venom which was originally thought to be an anti-predator mechanism, and their sociality.

Slow lorises are widely thought to be solitary but we have found that they are social animals! They live in family units consisting of two parents and up to four offspring. Publishing our data is vital to slow loris conservation.

They say, “knowledge is power”. To date, publications include data on activity budgets, feeding ecology, the role of venom, social behaviour, illegal trade, and the response to habitat loss, to name just a few.

Taking Action for Slow Loris Conservation

Of course, in conservation terms, pure research is not enough. We have worked extensively with our local community to foster a love of lorises (and other wildlife), by educating people on their ecological importance.

We have successfully installed a number of wildlife bridges within our study area to help increase habitat connectivity! You can learn more about this in The Guardian or the BBC People Fixing the World podcast. Recently we’ve been awarded Wildlife Friendly™ certification for our sustainable coffee programme.

We teach wildlife and conservation curriculums across Indonesia. We also hold a weekly Nature Club in our village with primary age children, teaching them all aspects of ecology and encouraging respect and appreciation for their environment.

The LFP team with local children during Nature Club.

We also work heavily in illegal wildlife trade, conducting surveys across Indonesia and working with international organisations such as TRAFFIC. Luckily, we have a great relationship with our local branch of the Ministry of Forestry. We are often called to assist in slow loris rescues and rehabilitation (we have conducted four rescues in 2021 alone!).

Each year we hold Slow Loris Outreach Week, an online campaign to increase awareness of the slow (and slender) loris. We work with many zoos, rehabilitation centres and conservation NGOs across the globe.

Rehabilitating a slow loris | Pigments by Liv

How can You Support Slow Loris Conservation?

Hopefully by now you have also fallen in love with slow lorises and would like to help us conserve them. The first and easiest thing that you can do is educate yourself and others around you about slow lorises and their threats.

Secondly, always refuse to take selfies with captive animals when travelling and encourage others to do the same.

And finally, report any instances of animal captivity/sales/abuse that you witness on social media. Sometimes this is easier said than done, but you can always send anything that you find to us at the Little Fireface Project.

I feel unbelievably privileged to be in a position where I am directly influencing the conservation of a critically endangered species. It can be so easy to fall into a state of hopelessness when working in conservation. I know that many wildlife conservationists struggle under the weight of carrying this knowledge.

Pigments by Liv Slow Loris Collection

10% of every sale from the new Pigments by Liv Slow Loris collection will be donated to the Little Fireface Project to support their amazing work and research!

The design was inspired by Ena, a slow loris protected by the Little Fireface Project!

Reusable Slow Loris Bottle | Pigments by Liv

don't give up!

I have found that, although I am often a first-hand witness to some of the atrocities inflicted on the slow loris, I am also witness to incredible demonstrations of passion and commitment from others around me who are also driven to devote their lives to conservation.

I strongly believe that if I don’t do it, then who will? Meeting and working with others who share my mindset gives me the strength to continue. The fight to save this planet will always be an uphill battle, but I think we can all agree that this planet is worth it.

A moment captured between Katey and slow loris “Loopi” during a routine medical check-up | Slow Loris Conservation | Pigments by Liv x Little Fireface Project

If you would like to find out more about my work with the Little Fireface Project you can check us out on Facebook and YouTube, Instagram and Twitter @littlefireface or visit our website www.nocturama.org.

Best,

Katie

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