Thursday 13 July 2017

Saving the Slow Loris

Saving the Slow Loris through Research & Education in south-east Asia

Stephanie Poindexter and Claire Cardinal of Oxford Brookes University

A Talk to the Berkshire Mammal Group
3 November 2016

Explaining that the advertised speaker, Professor Anna Nekaris of Oxford Brookes University, was unavailable but had kindly arranged substitutes from her research team, Edwin introduced the two guest speakers and thanked them for stepping in. They were to present on complementary aspects the originally agreed theme – the plight of the Slow Loris – illustrating it with reference to the field studies they had individually undertaken for their degrees. Stephanie was a PhD student (originally from the USA) and would present first, followed by Claire who had recently completed her MSc in Primate Conservation.

Cognition and Conservation: measuring spatial cognition in Slow Loris and its application to reintroduction practices in Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia

Stephanie Poindexter

Stephanie set a sadly familiar scene of population depletion and defined the slow loris as a small nocturnal primate present in southeast Asia. There are nine species of loris in all, of which Stephanie was studying the Pigmy Slow Loris and the Bengal Slow Loris.

Clearly fascinated by her subject, Stephanie described some of their distinctive physical attributes, unusual aspects of their ecology that make them so interesting a species to study. They are conspicuously exceptional in their consumption of gum. They are reliant on a diet primarily of insects and tree sap and gum that is available all year round, supplemented by seasonal nectar. They grasp branches for hours without numbness or tiring. They are unusual among mammals in having periods of torpidity, and are the only primate to be venomous.

Yet there are many threats to the population, and human consumption is the most destructive: captured for the pet trade, used as photo props, and killed for the preparation of traditional medicine. Also deforestation has reduced their natural habitat.

Stephanie’s research was into translocated individuals – those taken from the wild as pets or roadside rescues, taken to a rescue centre and reintroduced to the forest. It sounded a promising idea, but reintroduction can’t be rushed without detriment to the animals. Stephanie was to see how they adjusted, how, or indeed whether, they could re-assimilate.

Her work was based in two locations: The Little Fireface Project’s field station in Java, Indonesia (mainly agri-forest, but where at least the farmers would mark their field boundaries with the gum trees favoured by the slow loris), and Cuc Phuong Nah in Vietnam. This offers scare resources, but has been a protected area since 1993, supported by Frankfurt and Leipzig Zoos. Beside the Bengal and Pygmy Slow Loris, other vulnerable species there include the pangolin and langur. Stephanie spent five months in 2015 monitoring returned lorises and their range.

One of her subject species, the Pygmy Slow Loris, weighs a mere 400 grammes. It has seasonal coats that are distinctly different. Indeed its pellage originally suggested two separate species! It is endemic in Cambodia, Laos, China and Vietnam (but not Thailand where it has appeared but recently as result of human intervention). However, there are distinct genetic populations and so DNA testing is important to establish the historical range of individuals before their reintroduction. This is complicated further by the distinction between north and south populations within Vietnam, and so caution should be observed.

In order to monitor individual lorises, radio collars are fitted for 11 months and over time their movements can be tracked. It has become apparent that male and female home ranges overlap, suggesting promiscuous mating, whereas the home ranges of other species are often more distinct. The home range of slow lorises is roughly 20 hectares. However, reintroduced individuals fail to stabilise their range, which may be as large as 80 hectares, or four times as large as those raised in the wild.

Why, what is missing? What are they looking for? Possibly they looking for the type of home range whence they came originally. Natal Habitat Preference Induction analysis is the tool used to explore this proposition, and spatial cognition is the subject of Stephanie’s PhD.

Her data recorded, Stephanie moved on to Indonesia, to the Little Fireface Project’s field station in West Java. The project (LFP) was founded in 1993 by Anna Nekaris, and the field station in 2011. The staff covers a range of disciplines, including someone responsible for maintaining a positive presence on social media. The station’s motto is ‘Ecology – Education – Empowerment’, and over the past five years the team has collected a huge amount of data and learned quite a lot about the slow loris:
  • Their dimensions vary considerably: 21-31 cm in length, 125-2,000 grammes in weight.
  • Besides gum and insects, they feed on the nectar of flowers. Are they pollinators? They don’t appear to damage the flowers, so it is thought they might be.
  • When not sleeping they are more social than expected, interacting and communicating relatively often. Social foraging, particularly when the flower component of their diet comes into season.
  • They have one or two offspring a year after a six-month gestation. Infants stay with their mother for 16-18 months before dispersal and this is an unusually long period for a mammal of this size. Now first baby has borne her own baby, the full cycle of life has been witnessed.
  • The slow loris is venomous, with saliva and brachial gland secretions. Buy why? Is it a predator avoidance adaptation? It seems that slow lorises cover themselves with brachial secretions when setting out to forage at night, so that hypothesis is supported. It is widespread practice in Indonesia to trim or remove the loris’s teeth in captivity to avoid venomous bites, and when Stephanie showed four photographs of a researcher’s face swelling after being bitten, it was easy to see why.
This is scientific study, however; how do the locals regard them? A positive view is important to the loris’s long-term survival, so the field station runs an education programme to cultivate local attitudes.

The project has helped fund a local school and once a week runs a nature club for the children. The idea is to encourage them to value the wildlife of their locality, and especially the slow loris. LFP has published a picture book entitled Forest Protector, which is now available in German and the languages of Indonesia and Vietnam. The pictures are by the illustrator of Family Guy, Shelley Low (whose name – appropriately, if rendered S. Low – reflects her subject!). The participating children are asked to draw a picture or tell a story, and by the time the programme finishes marked changes in perception can be observed.

LFP also works with university students on Java. Placements are offered, and after participating in research work, the students give a presentation to others on their return to university. Judging science fairs is one of several other ways the Project has become involved in local education. It is a long-term investment.

Other areas of conservation activity

Monitoring fairs
Monthly market fairs are held in popular hotspots like Bali. Volunteers visit them repeatedly, but discreetly to gauge number of lorises and other animals involved in the trade.

Photo props
Lately as many as 10-15 animals can be paraded every day on social media. This is a conspicuous increase driven entirely by the huge growth of social media phenomenon itself.

Traditional medicine
Slow lorises are traditionally regarded beneficial for around 100 ailments, and are given to pregnant women to confer strength to their unborn babies, and placed under houses for good luck. The emphasis on medicine is particularly strong in Cambodia and Laos, though less so in Vietnam and not in Thailand where the slow loris wasn’t historically present.

This is difficult to fight, as Stephanie herself acknowledged. Creatures are pushed to higher altitudes (currently 1,300-1,700 m above sea level) to avoid the activity of farmers who are themselves being pressed to colonise new land. The field station has established a plant nursery to breed gum tree saplings. Farmers will accept free saplings and use these beneficial species as boundary markers, so a source of food remains available to the loris.

Next steps
Further studies are in preparation, as the field station is intended for on-going research. Vocalisation is a new area of interest, and recently acquired thermal imaging cameras offer new possibilities. The Project envisages more market surveys and more work with TV – several documentaries have already been made, including Jungle Gremlins of Java (which was to be shown on BBC 2 the following Saturday). For further information:

Communicating Conservation: using acoustics and education to develop understanding endangered Slow Lorises
and Gibbons in Vietnam and Java

Claire Cardinal
Claire opened by saying she had wanted to make a contribution to conservation so undertook two studies for her MSc – admitting she had probably bitten off more than she could chew. Like Stephanie’s, her work lay in the twin fields of research and education:

  • Whoop Troop – an education programme using puppetry
  • An acoustics study of the Pygmy Slow Loris

Claire’s education work was spread over two locations: LFP in Java and the Dao Tien Centre for Endangered Primate Species (set up eight years ago by Monkey World to protect slow lorises and gibbons).

Her objective was to create and evaluate a new educational resource, and establish whether it would be flexible to use as a template in different countries and for different species. As 70% of Asian primates are threatened, according to the IUCN Red List, human attitudes and behaviour need to change if they are to be saved. Knowledge and affinity are, therefore, an essential first step. It has been found that negative messages don’t help – they engender a rather hopeless sense of “well, what can we do?” It is better to provide positive messages of “awe and wonder”.

The project planned to present a three-month course to rural teenagers (aged about 12-14), a neglected audience for such work, and would compare its effect on participants in both Java and Vietnam. It would include a science component to develop interest and knowledge, and puppetry to engender affinity. Students would be asked to write and perform puppet shows – and at this point Claire demonstrated the use of two large naturalistic glove puppets.

Coverage was extended to six native animals – both countries share a common biosphere – including: the Javan Rhinoceros (of which there are only 50 left in the wild), Saltwater Crocodile, Leopard Cat, Rhinoceros Hornbill and Eurasian Hornbill. In Java the selection would included the Java Slow Loris and Silvery Java Gibbon, and in Vietnam, the Pygmy Slow Loris and Golden Cheeked Gibbon.

Data Collection
As the purpose of the project was to evaluate impact, it was important to find methods to measure the impact of ideas across the three schools and eight puppet shows. Claire turned to the techniques of social science.

By showing photographs and getting the children to write down what they thought of the subject, Claire had free access to potentially revealing terminology, from which she could form ‘word clouds’ in which frequency could be depicted graphically.

Cultural Domain Analysis
The technique assesses shared beliefs and knowledge. Are the participants thinking the same way? As the only commonality between the groups of students was the course, the results would (and did) show that they had learned something from it.

Comparing statements made before and after the course, the importance of each word, based on frequency and average rank, could be established. If present, the course had taught participants something.

Content Analysis
Words were colour coded for ‘emotion’ and ‘knowledge’, or as ‘neutral’. After a course of creative writing there were far fewer neutral words. The change was indicated by a graphic depiction not unlike the election swingometer. Afterwards there were more empathetic, anthropomorphic and taxonomic words, and fewer emotional ones.

Such analyses suggested the effect of puppetry justified the study and such programmes would be useful as a tool in conservation education. The long-term impact is yet to be established – only time will tell – but Claire was pleased to report that after one school visit a girl in the audience arranged for her grandmother’s pet gibbon to be returned to a rescue centre – so a tangible short-term effect in that instance!

Acoustic Study
Claire admitted this was work in progress, with lots of data yet to analyse. The objective was to establish whether the Pygmy Slow Loris vocalised at an ultrasonic frequency. This is a new field of research, not studied before, and so is at the cutting edge. If successful it would provide a useful new tool for population monitoring, as the slow loris is difficult to find by visual means alone.

The task of acoustic monitoring has been made easier by technical advances and the equipment Claire used included: a bat detector, directional microphone and specialist software for birdcalls that transferred recordings into sonographs.

While in the field Claire would spend six hour shifts three nights a week sitting in the forest recording ultrasonic sound, monitoring released and captive Pygmy Slow Lorises in southern Vietnam. She described her time in the forest as feeling safe and secure on an island, hearing the insects waking up at 4am, and gibbons at 5.30.

The forest comprised dense thickets of bamboo growing back after the ravages of the Vietnam War, so Claire would use GPS to pinpoint the loris’ sleep sites, then monitor movement from a static, sedentary position. She now has 60 hours of ultrasonic recording, which she is still going through. The task is made more complicated by the higher frequency calls bouncing off trees; she showed us sonographs that could just as plausibly have been made by bats or insects. As she said, it is work in progress, with more report in future!

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