Life in the slow lane – jungle adventures with the loris man

Published: 13 January 2016

Life in the slow lane – jungle adventures with the loris man

A South Devon scientist has been talking about his exploits researching strange primates in tropical forests – including tree gum so caustic it burnt his skin, habitat laid waste by illegal logging and attacks from wild pigs…

Francis Cabana is Nutrition Research Officer with the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust. Francis, originally from Laval in Eastern Canada, is an expert on – and enthusiastic advocate for – slow loris, curious nocturnal primates from the forests of South East Asia. He came to the UK to do the MSc in Zoo Conservation Biology run jointly by Paignton Zoo and the University of Plymouth.

The former zoo keeper said: “I always liked slow lorises, we had them at my first zoo in Canada. When I started at Paignton Zoo as a nutrition intern, I researched animal diets and saw that lorises were not being fed anything from their wild diet. We also had some health concerns with the individuals in the Zoo and, after I sent out a Europe-wide survey, I realised we weren't the only ones. Feeding them sweet, sugary fruit grown for human tastes was causing dental issues.

“Talking to Paignton Zoo Senior Head Keeper of Mammals Matt Webb, who said how much slow lorises need help in the wild, was my final motivation.” With the help of Dr Amy Plowman, Director of Conservation and Education at Paignton Zoo, he designed a project to improve the diet of slow lorises. “We saw a host of benefits right away – and shortly after babies were born!”

His research was published with the help of Dr Anna Nekaris, the world expert on slow lorises. Anna, through her Little Fireface Project, then offered Francis the chance to do a PhD on slow loris nutrition, part-funded by WWCT. He carried out research at the NGO’s study site in Indonesia.

“I was shocked by how desolate and dead my field site was due to illegal logging in the surrounding areas and the catching of wild birds. Most trees were in plantations and not from Indonesia at all. Luckily, lorises can eat gum from almost any tree that makes it.”

Fieldwork can be tough going, with difficult terrain, high humidity and obstacles at every turn. Francis has had more than his fair share of hardships and setbacks. “I was attacked by wild pigs while observing lorises in the field – we had to fend them off with a machete! On another occasion, a wild loris disappeared while I was observing it – I later found the radio-tracking collar in front of someone’s house…”

Surprisingly little is known about the slow loris. “They’ve been overlooked by researchers – I think some primatologists look down their noses at them, because they are a bit weird – and perhaps so are the people who study them! But I owe slow lorises everything - publications, PhD, job, guest lectures, conferences - none of that would have happened if I hadn't become loris obsessed!”

Many major European zoos now use the diet Francis created, which includes insects, some vegetables and gum Arabic in crystal or powder form. “Naturally I had to produce concrete scientific evidence to persuade keepers and curators and conservationists of the need to change.”

Ask Francis about how amazing slow lorises are and he gushes with an inspiring mix of enthusiasm and knowledge: “They have a venomous bite, which is rare among mammals and unique among primates. Their hands and feet have adaptations that enable them to grasp branches for long periods. Their metabolic rate is unusually low, like sloths - this might help them deal with toxic compounds in their food, as they eat noxious insects and gum that no other animals can eat – they must really like it spicy! Their defence posture includes raising both hands behind their head, with their arms making the shape of a cobra hood. They have spines that go side to side like a snake. In some ways they are more like reptiles than primates…!”

Slow lorises make terrible pets, but they are too cute for their own good; the illegal trade consumes innumerable animals – often, their teeth are pulled out to stop them biting people. On top of everything else, traditional medicine is another threat. Most slow loris species are listed as either Vulnerable or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Does Francis see any hope for the future? Slow lorises are not that common in zoos and generally don’t breed well. Francis has some hopes that his dietary changes may improve matters. There is a European Endangered species Programme and he has worked closely with the studbook holder – the person who keeps detailed records of pairings, births and deaths in zoo collections.

“In the wild, the presence of bodies like the Little Fireface Project is good, but we are still losing lorises at an unsustainable rate. It’s not a great situation but we have to keep working at it.” Slow lorises need swift action, and the support of dedicated scientists like Frances Cabana.

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