The Javan slow loris is incredibly cute and critically endangered. They are easy to hunt and sell on the illegal market. Rehabilitating them takes more effort.

A Javan slow loris in its cage iron box before the release in a cage habituation enclosure.

A Javan slow loris before its release in a cage habituation enclosure at Gunung Halimun Salak National Park in Sukabumi, West Java, Indonesia, 19 January 2024. The Indonesian branch of International Animal Rescue released 37 Javan slow lorises from illegal wildlife keep by residents and illegal trade. (Photo by Garry Lotulung)

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The Javan slow loris is a nighttime creature that, as its name implies, moves oh-so slowly. It lives in trees alone and is adorable, with sad, round black eyes in a furry black and white head.

Though it lives in the rainforests of South and Southeast Asia, you won’t likely spot one there.

Commonly known as “kukang” in Indonesia, the slow loris is also called “malu-malu”, meaning “shy” — a nod to its reclusive nature.

But you might find the monkey species in an open market or an online trading site, even though it is critically endangered and selling one as an exotic pet is illegal.

In animal markets in Indonesia, slow lorises fetch up to anywhere between $110 and $210 each, but can be resold internationally for much more.

The illegal trade in exotic animals

According to data from International Animal Rescue (IAR) Indonesia, at least 5,500 lorises have been observed in physical and online markets since 2012. Activity peaked in 2017, with over 900 traded.

I had the opportunity to watch the release of 37 Javan slow lorises rescued from captivity back into their rainforest home in Gunung Halimun Salak National Park.

“The keeping of slow lorises as pets is having a devastating impact on wild populations, particularly as their natural habitat is also under threat,” said IAR Chief Executive Alan Knight. “So it’s always extremely uplifting to see animals returning to the wild, where they will be given a second chance to live their lives as nature intended, far from disturbance and interference from human beings.”

The Javan slow loris (Nycticebus javanicus) has suffered a population decline of at least 80% over the past three generations, or 24 years. Surveys have indicated that the species persists at low densities in unsuitable, fragmented habitats.

It is protected under Indonesian law and is listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which prohibits any commercial trade of the species.

However, laws in the region are often unenforced by officials and therefore disregarded by dealers, as slow lorises are openly displayed at animal markets among other protected wildlife species.

To save a species you must save habitat.

The current geographic distribution of the Javan slow loris remains unclear, and the impact of environmental factors on these species is mostly unknown.

Gunung Halimun Salak National Park is one of the natural habitats that are pivotal for this species. A conservation area located in the West Java province of Indonesia, the park is the largest protected land habitat for wildlife on the island of Java with a total area of 87,699 acres.

It is where the IAR returns slow lorises that have been rescued and rehabilitated. But to get to that point is a long process.

Their condition when they first arrive at the IAR’s Primate Rehabilitation Center is generally poor. They suffer from stress, trauma and malnutrition, and often display behavioral changes because their needs as wild lorises haven’t been met.

Wild animals don’t fare well in captivity.

Captors often deprive the animals of a suitable living environment and appropriate food, and keep them from behaving as they would in the wild. Before they can be released veterinarians and wildlife keepers must restore their health and wild nature.

Most of the lorises have been surrendered by members of the community and rescued from illegal trade by the Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) in the West Java region. They have since undergone lengthy rehabilitation at IAR’s Primate Rehabilitation Center in Ciapus, Bogor, West Java Province.

It is the largest rescue center for slow lorises and the only one in Indonesia specializing in their rehabilitation and release. To date, it has saved over 1,000 lorises, with more than 670 returning to the wild in the last 14 years.

Before being released back into the wild, the lorises had undergone a recovery and treatment process to stimulate their natural behavior. Starting with medical examinations and time in quarantine, they also underwent behavioral observations until they were declared healthy and ready to be translocated for habituation and then final release.

Veterinarian Nur Purba Priambada said that during the lorises’ habituation, the team in the field will continue to observe and record the changes in their behavior for two to four weeks.

Releasing the loris back into the forest

The lorises are kept in enclosures at the release site with walls made of plastic fiber sheets and nets. The enclosures give them a good diversity of trees and plants that provide natural food sources.

“The habituation process enables the lorises to adapt to their new habitat before they are finally granted complete freedom,” said an IAR field staffer who goes by the name Nedy.

If, during the habituation period, all the lorises are active and don’t display any abnormal behaviors, then they can finally be set free.

Nedy said the release operation I observed was carried out by a joint team from BKSDA West Java, IAR and local volunteers. They transported the lorises in special cages as far as the habituation enclosure deep in the Gunung Halimun Salak National Park forest.

After the release of the lorises, there is still a long process that must be carried out to ensure they survive in the wild, Nedy said. Every day, the team gathers data on the progress of the slow lorises in the habituation enclosure.

“Teams are on the mountain every night,” Nedy said. “They provide food and collect Javan slow loris scat for research.”

Freed on good behavior

If the animals display good natural behaviors such as foraging, adapting to their new environment and being able to survive, only then can they be released.

After final release from the forest habituation enclosure, the lorises will be monitored for about six months to ensure they are successfully fending for themselves. To facilitate monitoring, the lorises are fitted with satellite collars.

A team member explained that the radio collar has a signal range of three kilometers. It will transmit a signal that the receiver will then pick up to measure the distance between the slow loris and the monitoring team.

Team members keep track of each animal in the forest on a daily basis, recording its physical condition, behavior, food supply and living conditions.

Nedy said that the Javan slow loris is often actively found outside their natural habitat, seeking food or shelter in agricultural areas like coffee and rubber plantations, bamboo forests and settlements.

“Then hunters can go in and take them off those trees, put them in crates and send them off for wildlife trade,” Nedy said. “It happens at any time of the year and at any age or sex. It’s really terrible, and their numbers are just plummeting.”

Social media spreading animal cruelty

The illegal wildlife trade has been fueled in recent years through the popularity of YouTube videos where lorises are showcased as exotic pets.

But this internet craze results in thousands of species being poached from the wild and illegally sold on the street or at animal markets. And to make wild primates easier to handle, traders clip their teeth, which can often result in their death through blood loss or infection.

In the wild, lorises slowly pick their way through branches in search of tree sap and insects. This bears stark contrast with how they’re typically kept in captivity where daylong, they will awake during broad daylight and eat fruit in the animal market for sale.

This treatment is torture for a loris. Bright lights damage their sensitive eyes, and a fruit-filled diet leads to obesity, tooth decay, diabetes and kidney failure.

The Javan slow loris is one of the most threatened species in the genus Nycticebus. It is endemic to the Indonesian island of Java, which contains 141 million people and has one of the world’s highest human population densities, greatly restricting the Javan slow loris’s island-wide distribution.

Saving a natural habitat

Aside from hunting and illegal trading, wildlife in Java has encountered the loss of natural habitat over the past decades that poses a threat to the loris population.

Deforestation in Java is just a tiny percent of the total deforestation happening in Indonesia, an archipelago of thousands of islands. But the habitat loss is a major threat to the survival of the loris. Expansion of smallholder farmland, large-scale monoculture plantations and infrastructure, which has helped Indonesia achieve economic growth, has resulted in forest loss and decline over the last 25 years of 2,500 hectares per year. The forest area on the island of Java is currently only around 24% of the area of the island, which is just over 128,000 square kilometers.

Robithotul Huda, Programme Manager at IAR Indonesia in Bogor, said that hunting or capturing a slow loris in the wild is much cheaper and easier than rehabilitating them and returning them to the wild.

“Rescuing and rehabilitation requires much effort and funds to ensure the individuals are suitable to be released into their natural habitat,” Huda said. The process and stages are also time-intensive and have to be in accordance with strict operational procedures. Habitat assessment at release sites, habituation and post-release monitoring to ensure adaptation and long-term survival are processes that must be followed rigorously to give the lorises the best chance of thriving back in the forest.

Huda said people need to stop thinking of wild and endangered animals as pets.

“Based on the economic principles of supply and demand, buying a loris as a pet contributes directly to fueling the illegal trade,” Huda said. “Therefore, hunting will continue as long as there is a demand. For this reason, we strongly urge the public never to buy or keep slow lorises as pets, because it is synonymous with exploiting them.”

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why do people hunt the Javan slow loris?
  2. What is the best way that that author suggests to stop the illegal trade in endangered animals?
  3. Why is it important to spend a substantial amount of money and effort to save an endangered species?
Garry Lotulung

Garry Lotulung is a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Jakarta. Lotulung has specialized in stories about the human condition, social change and environmental crises. Lotulung joined the international news agency Anadolu Agency in 2022 and has been a regular contributor and stringer since.

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