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Slender Loris Gasps For Survival As Urban India Expands

A Slender Loris (Loris Tardigradus) walks on a branch at a shelter run by People for Animals in Bangalore, on the outskirts of Bangalore. Measuring six to 10 inches long and weighing about 350 grams (12 ounces), the Slender Loris is increasingly popping up urban India, where it has traditionally either been killed as an omen of bad luck or captured and traded. Photo courtesy of Dibyangshu Sarkar and AFP.
by Jay Shankar
Bangalore, India (AFP) Jun 27, 2006
Hunted for centuries for its purported qualities as an aphrodisiac, asthma cure and as a kind of living voodoo doll, the tiny primate known as the Slender Loris has long faced a battle just to survive.

But the biggest threat to the rare nocturnal animal, which has a distinctive a big head, wide brown eyes and is so small it can be held in your hand, is the recent encroachment of human activity on to patches of forest in southern India and Sri Lanka that the primate calls home.

Measuring six to 10 inches long and weighing about 350 grams (12 ounces), the Slender Loris is increasingly popping up urban India, where it has traditionally either been killed as an omen of bad luck or captured and traded.

"In south India people either trade in them or use them for black magic," Sharat Babu, senior manager of People for Animals in Bangalore, told AFP.

"If a person wants to harm their enemy they will tell their black magic practitioner to use a Slender Loris and cause damage to that exact part of the primate's body," he said.

"Still, to me, the destruction of their habitats is the main reason why these Slender Loris turn up in cities," he said.

Animal rights groups fear this latest trend signals a bad omen for the animal itself -- possible extinction.

The Slender Loris, with long pencil-thin arms and legs and a brown coat, has joined a list of more than 30 species which are listed as endangered in India by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

It puts them in the precarious company of the Asian elephant, blue whale, Indian rhinoceros, lion-tailed macaque, snow leopard and the Royal Bengal tiger.

Wildlife experts say the main reasons for the dwindling numbers of Slender Loris are as much about animal-human conflict and deforestation as the ages-old poaching and hunting.

India, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, faces demand for more land to farm and build housing as its population of 1.1 billion continues to burgeon.

One Slender Loris now known as Murali (flute) recently found its way into the office of a veterinarian in the southern city of Bangalore after it was rescued from a practitioner of black magic.

Named after the volunteer who found him, Murali is the 16th such primate pulled out from schools, factories and homes in the city over the last five years.

During late evenings hospital officials take him out "for an exercise" atop a broken tree branch.

"He is highly stressed and weak," Babu said. "He was (rescued) four days ago and will remain in the intensive care unit for another week. We intend to free him in a month."

Study needed

According to the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, Slender Loris are "endangered species" and a person who harbours, trades or kills the primate is liable to penalties that include five years in prison and a fine of up to 25,000 rupees (555 dollars).

But many are willing to take the risk as the "market rate" for a Slender Loris is close to 20,000 rupees (450 dollars), a princely sum in the country where almost 300 million people live on less than a dollar a day, Babu said.

The Slender Loris is also sold for its eyes, which are cooked with herbal medicines and eaten by some Indians who believe they are an aphrodisiac. Others believe eating the animal's flesh cures asthma.

Its skin and toe nails are dried and worn as a charm around the neck by some tribal people.

The primate survives on insects, shoots, leaves, fruits with hard skin and bird eggs -- foods which are becoming more scarce as their habitat shrinks.

Sindhu Radhakrishna, a researcher at the independent National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore, said the Slender Loris is "definitely in danger".

"No study has been undertaken to find the exact population of Slender Loris. But according to our estimates, based on a pilot project in certain southern states to calculate their density, their numbers are declining," she told AFP.

"Long-term studies are needed to pinpoint their numbers. For that we need huge funds," she said.

"Environmental stress is affecting their birth rates," said Sindhu, who has studied the primates for almost a decade. "The infants die early. They are trapped in many south Indian states as people believe they bring bad luck. The moment they see them they kill them.

"It is also believed their body parts cure diseases like asthma. Many people cage them for the fun of it as they look cute. In the past they were used for scientific studies in laboratories," she said.

Sindhu echoed Babu's views that the disappearing "canopy cover" was the crucial factor threatening the primate's survival.

"They feel secure only when they cling on to tree branches. If a tree is cut then there is no continuity for them to move about. So they come down to the ground and in the process they get electrocuted or run over by trucks," she said.

"Awareness and strict enforcement of law is the key for their survival," she said, but added education about the animal was vital.

"One needs to educate the villagers who live near the forests about Slender Loris. Indiscriminate cutting of trees and old beliefs that it is an omen can only be overcome only through education. That is the only way we can help Slender Loris survive," she said.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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