Anna Nekaris and Slow Lorises earn 2012 Lawrence Jacobsen Conservation Award

March 27, 2012 / by Jordana Lenon

“Slow lorises that make it into the pet trade almost always have wild origins, stolen from their forest homes to cater to the clamour for an adorable pet. Mothers are often separated from their helpless infants, which usually die within days. Adults inevitably have their teeth cut out with pliers, nail clippers or wire cutters, meaning they can never be returned to the wild.”

Anna Nakaris holding a slow loris

©2012 Anna Nekaris

When Anna Nekaris, M.A., Ph.D., describes the plight of the slow loris, it’s enough to understand why this Southeast Asian prosimian is at a crucial point in its survival. Its resemblance to the Gremlin™ movie characters, or Furbies™ toys could not have done it any favors in recent years as far as keeping it off the illegal pet trade radar.

For Nekaris, to gaze into this nocturnal animal’s large orbs and learn more about its other unique features is impetus to help save them through ecological study, public education and empowerment.

The empowerment part is especially important. How do you stop the capturing and selling? The Lawrence Jacobsen Conservation Award will help with one important step.

“You just can't imagine how this award has come at the right time,” wrote Dr. Nekaris to Joseph Kemnitz, Ph.D., who chaired the award committee at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. “The salary will in fact pay a man who is an ex-loris hunter and help him to have an alternative livelihood in conservation.”

“We are very grateful for the efforts by Dr. Nekaris and her colleagues to promote the survival of this rare species in its native environment” said Kemnitz. “Loss of habitat is a major problem affecting many primate populations, but the slow loris also faces a major challenge of poaching. Dr. Nekaris has been intervening directly to stop this activity, as well as drawing international attention to the problem and educating the local people about its consequences.”

slow loris in a tree at night

©2012 Anna Nekaris

For conservationists, the Javan slow loris – one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world – is one of a unique and complex group of species to study and understand. According to Nekaris’s web site, lorises are a diverse group of primates that, together with the galagos (bushbabies) and pottos of Africa, belong to the infraorder Lorisiformes. Lorisiform primates are linked by a number of unique morphological traits, making them an evolutionary distinct group exclusive to tarsiers, monkeys and apes. They have a grooming claw instead of a flat nail on the second toe of each foot. In the lower jaw, the canine and incisor teeth are clustered together to form a tooth comb, also used for grooming. On the primate family tree, the lorises, together with the lemurs, form a group called the strepsirrhines, a unique lineage of primates separate from monkeys and apes.

slow loris in a cage

©2012 Anna Nekaris

“Not only are lorises nocturnal and highly endangered, but they are the only primate known to produce venom,” Nekaris shared. “Venomous primates do not belong as pets in people’s homes.”

“We want to continue to discover new and exciting things about lorises and show people why these little night gremlins need our help,” she added.

Nekaris’s titles at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK, include professor in primate conservation and anthropology, course leader in primate conservation (MSc), and director of the Little Fireface Project. She is also a scientist with Ocford Brookes’ Nocturnal Primate Research Group, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Anthropology Centre for Conservation Environment and Development.

Nekaris has studied slow and slender lorises and pottos since 1994: “Somehow I wanted to choose a species that would convince people that the environment was worth saving, and humans empathize with primates,” she said.

But primates such as chimpanzees are so well known and so much like us, she adds. “The loris is that link between humans and all the other wonderful wildlife – somehow human but also somehow mysterious and so little known and magical. On top of that, they are the evolutionary answer to just about everything.”

To learn more about the loris, a conservation database for lorises (Loris, Nycticebus) and pottos (Arctocebus, Perodicticus) contains information on taxonomy, populations, field study methods, captive care, behavior, diseases, reintroduction into the wild, how to help support these animals, and more.

The BBC also recently produced a film about Nekaris’s work. Captivating brief scenes appear here:

“I am aware of the great competition of this award and feel so very deeply honoured that you would choose a project with obscure little lorises over the many amazing species about which I am sure you read incredible things being done,” Nekaris wrote to Kemnitz this March.

The Lawrence Jacobsen WNPRC Conservation Research Award supports studies in applied conservation biology that protect nonhuman primate species in their habitat. Preference is given to those working directly with a nonhuman primate species on the IUCN threatened or endangered list. The annual, $5,000 award is available to students and faculty who are affiliated with an academic institution or a non-governmental agency with a focus on primate conservation. Larry Jacobsen was director of the Primate Center Library from 1973-2003. His many honors have included the Distinguished Service Award from the American Society of Primatologists in 1997 and the Library of the Year Award from the Wisconsin Library Association in 1995.

The award selection committee, chaired by Joe Kemnitz, Ph.D, included six primatologist experts. The Wisconsin National Primate Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of eight federally supported (NIH-NCRR) National Primate Research Centers and the only one in the Midwest. More than 250 center scientists, through competitive grants, conduct research in primate biology with relevance to human and animal health.

Photos copyright Anna Nekaris 2012.