Sunday, January 04, 2015

The slow loris: A ‘night owl’

ALTHOUGH its existence has been documented for over 100 years, very recent research has cast more light on the nocturnal perambulations of the slow loris, essentially through night camera vision techniques.

The name slow loris is derived from a Dutch word ‘loeris’, meaning a clown. With its big eyes, set on a pleasant and seemingly smiling face, it is easy to see how this mammal acquired its name.

It does move in slow motion, almost sloth-like by day, but as an essentially nocturnal animal it can move more rapidly at night, stealthily creeping along the rainforest canopy to steal up to an unsuspecting bird, insect or lizard. The speed of its powerful hands to catch its prey has to be seen to be believed.

I have only ever seen three slow lorises in very different locations and situations in Sabah and Sarawak.

The first time was on a night incursion into the rainforest at Danum Valley in Sabah, where I caught a glimpse of its glittering eyes with my head torch. My second sighting was in daytime at Bako National Park but again it was a fleeting view of this furry ball asleep as a pack of marauding macaques snapped at my heels!

My third encounter with a slow loris is the most indelibly inscribed in my mind — when I stopped to buy vegetables from a roadside stall in Sabah. The stall owner invited me behind the facade of his roadside vegetable stall to buy captured wild animals.

I saw curled up and penned-in pangolins, caged birds, and most tragically a slow loris tethered by a dog collar and chain to a roof rafter. This was my first experience of the truly dark side of illicit animal sales. Suffice to say without sufficient money, I walked away in absolute disgust.

Robert Shelford, Sarawak Museum curator from 1897 to 1904, described the slow loris in his 1916 book ‘A Naturalist in Borneo’ as “a slow moving arboreal animal with no tail and large eyes”. According to Shelford, this animal was “used to provide medicinal and magical properties”. He then lists, how each part of the animal’s anatomy was used for alleged, but never scientifically proven, medicinal potions for this or that ailment. It makes for gory reading.

Shelford assumed that there was only one species of slow loris in Borneo, which he recorded as Nycticebus tardigradus. A century later we now know of five species, each with its own distinctive head markings.

The smallest species of this animal, which lacks a second incisor tooth, the Borneo slow loris (Nycticebus menagenis) is named after the Menage Scientific Expedition to the Philippines in 1894. Found mainly in primary and secondary lowland forests, it weighs up to 300 grams and is distinguished by its round head, very short ears, red to golden brown fur and vestigial tail.

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