The Bengal slow loris, the only one of its kind in Bangladesh, has become globally endangered of late
- Slow lorises form an all-Asian group of little nocturnal primates, mostly reaching the size of a five-year-old human child. They are restricted to northeast India, Bangladesh, Indochina, and the Indonesian Archipelago.
- Study shows tree-gum can make up 30-40% of loris diets. They are also known to prey on insects.
- Loris is the only primate group with the ability to produce toxin. The poisonous secretions come from a forearm sweat gland. A Loris bite is also venomous, often mixed with the secretions coming from the sweat gland.
- These unique creatures have always been in the crosshairs of wildlife trade – as an ingredient of traditional medicine and to satiate the pet supply chain. Habitat loss, misconceptions, and stigma also fuel their extinction process.
Today's story features an exceptional primate, not heard by many and particularly difficult to encounter in the wild. To most of us, the elusory creature may sound like a mythical depiction. It loves to stay within the deep tropical woods.
It is slow and sluggish, a standard mammalian version of snails. It sticks to the trees and loves to hang upside down. It believes in the night life and prefers exploring into the darkness with large, goggled eyes.
It always circumvents the daytime. The reticent and reserved nature has been tattooed to its name.
We are talking about the Bengal slow loris, one of the very few animals titled with the term "Bengal". It is also the only representative of the loris group in Bangladesh.
In Bangla, it is called "Lojjaboti Banor" – a well-justified name given its extreme shyness.
The Bengal slow loris, with its unique nature and appearance, makes to the top of the list of the most beautiful animals of Bangladesh. However, they are in the pink.
Today, we will see what makes the Bengal slow loris unique and how the species is faring in Bangladesh. We will get to some baffling facts unearthed by some young Bangladeshi loris lovers.
The extraordinary primate
Slow loris, a type of small-sized nocturnal primate, makes up the genus Nycticebus. In the west, the genus ranges from Bangladesh and northeast India that goes as far as to the Philippines in the east. There are species from southern China and several islands of the Indonesian Archipelago.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Nycticebus has the following valid species: Greater slow loris, the Bengal slow loris, pygmy slow loris, the Philippine slow loris, the Javan slow loris, the Bornean slow loris, the Sumatran slow loris, the Kayan River slow loris, and Bangka slow loris.
In a broad sense, slow lorises belong to much larger groups, including slender lorises and the African pottos. In a broader sense, they are primates – meaning one of the closest relatives of us, the humans.
Slow lorises are unique in every sense. For an arboreal and nocturnal way of life, they have evolved several key features. They are armed with large eyes to see effectively under darkness.
Lorises have a flexible built with hands and legs equal in length. To get a strengthened grasp for tree-to-tree movement, their grip has become pincer-like.
They are the only primate to produce toxins. They do this in both ways. A Loris bite is venomous and painful. They are also known to produce poisonous secretions from an elbow gland.
Most spectacularly, the round facial profile of lorises comes with a unique masking pattern. Under night-time survey lights, with the reflecting and gleaming large eyes, the lorises appear to be burning bright. Dr Anna Nekaris, a professor in anthropology and primate conservation at the Oxford Brookes University, adores them with a befitting by-name: the little fireface.
Little firefaces in a crammed land
The status of the Bengal slow loris is at stake. Their habitats are in peril as forests are being destroyed. Their arboreal nature puts them at the risk of being electrocuted, which they face often.
For the vanishing canopy cover, they are being forced to roam on the ground, only to become roadkill due to slow gait and poor eyesight under bright light. Monayem Hossain, range officer of the Bangladesh Forest Department, and Sajal Dev, the director of the Bangladesh Wildlife Service Foundation (Sreemangal), resonated with the dilapidated state of the species.
Recently, they have rescued two individuals with bad electricity burn. There were many previous instances of roadkill and electrocutions – both stressed the fact.
Lorises are threatened from another crucial perspective. Their docile nature and beautiful markings have put them into the hit-list of wildlife traffickers. Vine videos frequently released on YouTube often escalate market demand. To get lorises in hobby with safe handling, the traders often uproot loris teeth and keep them wet (to refrain from the delivery of toxins).
These acts ensure a faster but gruesome death in captivity, and, in turn, only lead to the capture of more lorises. The toxin secretion and the mystic nature also make lorises an ingredient of traditional medicines, although there is no scientific ground behind the claims.
Throughout the ranges, all with heavy human settlements, slow lorises are not doing good. All of them are at the final stages of extinction. Of late, the IUCN has globally assessed the status of the Bengal slow loris and declared them as endangered.
From 2015 data, the species is also endangered in Bangladesh. However, the researchers now believe their condition is far worse than previously thought.
Our loris champions
Long since, the Bengal slow loris has been an understudied species in Bangladesh, thanks to a budding group of young, dedicated researchers who pointed out the crisis being faced by the species. Under the supervision of Dr Sabir bin Muzaffar, a Bangladeshi professor of biology at the United Arab Emirates University, UAE, a two-year extensive night-time survey was conducted to decipher the loris ecology and behaviour in Bangladesh.
The herculean task, against the odds of logistic shortages and the risks posed by smuggler-prone trails, was picked by four zoology graduates of Jagannath University and was carried out with success in four semi-evergreen forests of northeastern Bangladesh. This is also the first-ever team formed exclusively for the species.
Rays of hope
The 2017-2019 survey led by the loris champions of Bangladesh revealed several intriguing facts. The researchers directly came across 23 individuals in Lawachara National Park (LNP), 33 in Satchhari National Park (SNP), eight in Rema-Kalenga Wildlife Sanctuary (RKWS), and four in Adampur Reserved Forest (ARF).
"We surveyed the old trail. We had to conduct the night-time surveys to ensure maximum encounters. Per kilometre, we found 1.78 individuals in SNP, 0.82 in LNP, 0.36 in RKWS, and 0.13 in ARF," said Hasan Al-Razi, the leader of the survey team.
"We followed a distance sampling method in SNP. However, due to rugged terrain, it was not possible to get an on-field idea of loris from other forests. We are working on several statistical analyses to estimate the loris population in these habitats," he echoed the voice of the team formed by Tanvir Ahmed, Sabit Hasan, and Marjan Maria. The team is also looking forward to publishing several scientific works, all forthcoming.
Al-Razi provided a few more sneak peeks of the survey findings. In their study, females of the Bengal slow loris tended to be more sluggish than males. The species also showed minimal movement in winter.
In search of food, the researchers found lorises often venturing into lemon orchards of the forest periphery. They exhibited preferences for the gum of the Indian ash trees (Jika in Bangla).
Before these data, the Bengal slow loris has only been known through anecdotes. The great leap forward in the field biology sector of Bangladesh has been well-praised, featured in the book "Evolution, Ecology and Conservation of Lorises and Pottos". It is published by the Cambridge University Press and edited by Dr Nekaris along with Dr Anne Burrows, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
Toward the path least travelled
As an aspiring naturalist, I find myself inspired by the works of the loris champions of Bangladesh. I sense further promises by the concerns expressed by Rezaul Karim Chowdhury, the divisional forest officer (Nature and Wildlife Conservation Department) of Moulvibazar, Bangladesh Forest Department.
"We are against power lines through any forest. However, we have to do it quite often for the national interest. In all these cases, these electric wires must be wrapped with rubber. We are off for the initiatives to lessen these casualties," he stressed the electrocution of arboreal animals in northeastern forests.
Bangladesh is home to about 140 mammals. Most of them are super-secretive. Many new ones are being discovered on a yearly basis. Although these animals are residing in this highly populated land, we know nearly nothing about them.
We have shown our courage and commitments to conserve the tiger, the national pride of Bangladesh. But our lesser faunae equally deserve their righteous conservation attention.
I know the lack of many things is standing on the path: the shortage of funds and supports, the prevalence of out-dated conceptions and stigma, the tendency to discard a species just because they are not easily seen – the list goes on.
Yes, the hurdles are indeed countless. Perhaps, it requires further bravery to stand up for the least-known, often ignored animals than to work for tigers.
Against the tides, however, the loris champions and their efforts are gentle reminders of many good omens: lovely lorises are worthy to conserve and the less-travelled ways do indeed complete the conservation practices anywhere and everywhere.