Walking through the streets of Cipiganti, a small town near Garut, Indonesia, makes me realize how lucky I have it. Most people in this small town of 300 will never leave. None will go to college, and most will finish school by the age of 15 to begin farming or selling goods locally. Some will leave and make the journey to Garut, the largest city in the area, to work in manufacturing plants, but they make up the minority of the village. The vast majority will be married before 25 and stay in Cipiganti for their whole lives.
It is small wonder that the Slow Lorises (known locally as "Koukang") are threatened by the illegal pet trade in areas like these. The opportunity to make a small fortune by selling exotic animals is too good to pass up for some people. They do not know that the species is endangered, nor do they realize that capturing and distributing them to exporters can have devastating effects for indigenous populations everywhere. Most have just never been taught about the rare and charismatic species living in the midst of their farmland.
In Cipiganti, though, the number of occurrences of capturing Slow Lorises is low. For over a year, the "Proyek Muka Geni" (Little Fireface Project" has been imploring local people to recognize the amazing creatures around them. Through such venues as distributing books and toys with slogans like "Slow loris, Forest Protectors", organizing loris pride days, and making presentations in local schools, the project has been able to cut the pet trade in the area, and the population is thriving.
I had the privilege to work with the project for 4 weeks. During this time, I went out in search of lorises every night (they are nocturnal) doing behavior observations and habitat monitoring. This practice is invaluable to protecting the species, as the rampant farming continues to threaten their habitat. Moreover, not much data in general has been collected on the species, and learning more about their behavior, feeding habits, and distribution range can help protect them from human interference in the future. Moreover, I was able to deal with a few cases of loris capturing and the animal's subsequent release. The data I collected here, coupled with my ongoing work in slow loris phylogeny, will work towards helping populations of these animals, especially in rural villages adjacent to loris habitats, thrive.
As we speak, I am working as a volunteer at the Cikananga Wildlife Center in the small village of Cikananga, 6 hours south of Jakarta. Here, I have been able to get a first-hand look at the effects of the pet trade on slow lorises in Java. In Cikananga, we have four lorises, all of whom have been rescued from poachers. They have no teeth, because as a precaution for potential customers, Koukang salesmen clip off their teeth with nail clippers so they are rendered harmless. So now, these animals have no chance of surviving in the wild, and must remain in Cikananga for the rest of their lives. Unlike the wild lorises I watched for 4 weeks, these animals cannot gnaw on the bark of a gum tree to extract the tasty gum or succulent insects. Instead, they can only eat fruit that has been peeled and sliced so that they do not have to chew. It is unbelievably sad that their cuteness and desirability has led to many of them being captured and treated so inhumanely.
But I find some solace in the fact that my work, and my spread of information both locally and back home, may have a positive impact on people, and force them to reconsider owning not only lorises, but exotic pets in general. I don't want to pass on a world to my grandchildren with a dearth of wild diversity.