The making of the Little Fireface Project, by Professor Anna NekarisMake your donation
I always loved animals and had a passion for conserving the environment, yet I thought that occupations with animals meant being a vet or a zoo keeper. I then learned that it was possible to study animals, specifically primates, in the wild as a career. I immediately went to my academic advisor at my University to change my subject, only to be told that ‘I would never get a job.’ I thus had to prove that person wrong. I immediately sought out a nocturnal primate to study, feeling that they were somehow a connection between monkeys and apes, charismatic to so many, and the many small brown cryptic mammals that few people had ever heard of. Also, being a devout nyctifile, I thought I would enjoy spending my life under the moon and stars, and being a vegetarian, I looked into countries that respected this lifestyle choice, which meant I did my PhD in India, conducting the first ever study of slender lorises in the wild.
Even at this choice, I met my Indian supervisor who said slender lorises had never been studied before, not only because they ‘weren’t primate-enough to be primates’ but that it was impossible! Luckily, I was able to follow several families during all night follows for a whole year to learn key aspects of their behaviour that has not only revolutionised their keeping in captivity, but also led to my later on describing a new species.
This new species was in Sri Lanka, where my path led after my PhD. Sri Lanka has very little of its rain forest left, meaning not only lorises, but most other animals find themselves teetering on the edge of extinction. Despite this precarious situation, animals were rarely hunted, and the forests were full of birds and wildlife. If only there was more forest left! For several years, I worked with a group of local scientists engaging in conservation education, reforestation projects, and describing the behaviour, ecology and distribution of the island’s primates, small carnivores and mouse deer. During this time, I had many emails from colleagues in SE Asia, asking me when I would come to ‘help’ the slow loris instead because ‘nobody cared’. I heard tales of 1000s of animals in trade and in rescue centres, where they would die within days or weeks. It struck me that this was a more rapid and urgent problem – animals being culled from the wild for meat, medicines and pets, in addition to the forest loss that was plaguing all of Asia. So I began a process of moving country to country assessing the state of slow loris conservation.
Things came to a head and in 2006 I was invited to re Red List all of Asia’s lorises. These animals that ‘no one cared about’ had been classed as Data Deficient but it was clear that intense levels of trade of these edge species meant that they all moved to Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered. Then, in 2007, I was invited to be the scientific representative to make a case for slow lorises to move to CITES Appendix 1. We found at that time three new species (and later another four!). All species were moved to Appendix 1 with consensus, as trade in the species had grown to a pitch.
Where to start?
It seemed there was so much to do for slow loris conservation it was hard to know where to start. We began a 1.5-year study of pygmy lorises in Cambodia with radio tracking and a two-year study in North India, where radio tracking was not permitted. Still these studies were giving us insights into the behaviour of two species never studied before. In Indochina, most lorises captured were for medicine and sadly our work in trade revealed 1000s of dead animals. In Indonesia, however, where trade was largely for pets, rescue centres reported an urgent need to help the animals to survive in captivity and in the wild.
We tried to apply what we knew about Indochinese lorises to Indonesia, but animals still perished. We then did the first monitored post release of Javan slow lorises and found more than 90% died, freezing, starving to death or running until they were exhausted as they looked for their mental image of home. It became vital to know their behaviour and ecology in the wild. This of course is the first recommendation of any release project, and remains a major threat to lorises today with well-meaning organisations releasing slow lorises left, right and centre, not considering their health, taxonomy or habitat needs.
That viral video
At the same time all of this was going on, in 2009, a new threat to slow lorises had emerged. I had grown so used to no one knowing what a slow loris was, with people working in Asia claiming they were so common, that was why there were so many in trade. But whenever we looked in the wild we found few to none. Where slow lorises suddenly became abundant, and the problem of their trade became even more clear, was their huge and sudden prevalence as cute pets on the Internet.
The first video to go viral in the west was a video of a pygmy slow loris being tickled in a Russian flat. The video uploaders claimed they bought it legally as a pet, but never was a pygmy loris ever imported under CITES into Russia or the Soviet Union for the pet trade meaning that that animal and any others on Russian social media were illegal. Yet to this day, the tickling video remains a cute and iconic popular image, showing the incredible danger that social media can have on people’s perceptions of conservation.
The birth of the Little Fireface Project
Thus the Little Fireface Project was born. I wanted to create a multi-disciplinary and multi-faceted project, uniting field work, conservation, captive welfare and outreach both nationally and internationally. Naming the project after the Sundanese word for slow loris, I found the field site in 2011 while looking for localities to make a film with Icon Films for BBC Natural World and Animal Planet called Jungle Gremlins of Java. The main site where we filmed wild lorises became my long-term study site in 2012, where I and my team have monitored 8 families of lorises continuously since then!
No one ever tells you the huge challenges of running a long-term field site. These go beyond the obvious of ‘who will provide funding for a boring little brown nocturnal animal’ to the changing political tides of the country, to the complexities of working with a team, to the worries of maintaining the employment of local people, to the enormous task of maintaining the finances and a gigantic database! Sometimes it can feel like you want to give up, but just being high on the mountains under the stars and seeing a loris family being more social than anyone ever predicted, and doing new behaviours all the time even after six years, is more reward than is imaginable.
Working with the locals
To keep our project going, it is vital to engage local people, and we are trying new ways all the time. These range from workshops to mini conferences to participating in national and international conferences; football and volleyball tournaments; cooking and talent competitions; building a school and holding weekly children’s nature club meetings; writing and distributing materials from calendars to t-shirts to a children’s book, and so much more!
Our next stages are to work with local people in the areas where lorises persist, as most of these are in anthropogenically disturbed, and develop alternative livelihoods namely through the production of wildlife friendly organic shade grown coffee.
The power of social media
From the international perspective, we use social media to try to change people’s perspective that slow lorises are not a cute pet, but beautiful wild animals that look wonderful where they belong – in a tree – not in a flat or in a person’s hands. It is a huge task since the first reaction of most people is to get angry or defensive, and the reaction of the online audience is to defend the person who takes a photo prop selfie or buys a pet. “They must have rescued it; it is okay if its teeth are not cut out; why do we want to ruin a person’s nice holiday; surely the animal is happier as a pet than in a forest where it can get eaten by a predator.”
We also need to remind people of the amazing fact that slow loris is the only venomous primate and such naïve interactions with them can lead to a person’s death! We still have a long way to go. Of course, we cannot forget that it is still important to quantify this trade, and we can do this by downloading and tracking online trade, or by visiting markets. This process is never easy but without these data, we never could have proved that slow lorises have for a long time been one of the most traded ‘live’ mammals, as well as for their parts.
I could not be more grateful to PTES for their continued support of this project from the very beginning. Through difficult times and challenges, knowing that PTES supporters are routing for the underdog slow lorises really makes it possible for the whole team to carry on with this difficult yet incredibly rewarding work.