This article is a part of The Better India’s series to highlight the work of those who have dedicated their lives to saving some of the most endangered species of plants and animals in India. This Environment Day, join us in saluting their work.
In the Eastern Ghats of India, the beautiful and dense Ayyalur forests — an international biodiversity hotspot — are home to a variety of flora and fauna. This region is also home to rare species, in particular the Grey Slender Loris, a nocturnal mammal native to southern peninsular India and Sri Lanka.
The tiny furry animal grows around 25 cm long and weighs between 200 and 300 grams. Along with long skinny limbs, slender lorises have wide eyes that do not seem to blink, and glow under the reflection of light. The elusive animal lives in trees and moves from one canopy to another, foraging nectar, tiny fruits, insects and agriculture produce from the 40 odd tribal villages bordering the forest.
However, once abundantly found in the area stretching from the southern tip of Andhra Pradesh to the southmost part of India, the shy animal today has lost much of its habitat and now lives in fragmented territories. Apart from habitat loss and massive deforestation affecting its presence in urban pockets such as Bengaluru, anthropogenic and superstitious beliefs have pushed the species to the brink of extinction. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list has described the mammal as an endangered species.
Over the years, a range of human factors have limited the population of slender loris to 2-3 lorises per square kilometre. However, since 2015, residents of the village cluster around the area have been making collective efforts to reverse the damage inflicted upon the species for decades. Six years on, they have succeeded in increasing the population to 15 lorises per square kilometre.
Years of abuse and exploitation
Effects of the declining presence of lorises were experienced first-hand by locals living in the fringes of forest areas, who share a unique relationship with the animal. “The animal has always co-existed with us, but in recent years, their population has dipped,” says VR Ayyapan, a local in the village.
Ayyapan tells The Better India that poaching, superstitions, anthropogenic activities and use of chemical pesticides in agriculture have driven the species to nearly disappear from the planet.
“Most of the villagers were known for poaching and sold the animal for Rs 3,000-4,000. The meat is known to be an aphrodisiac, while their oil is believed to have medicinal properties. Moreover, pregnant women believe that the sight of the slender loris would result in giving birth to her newborn resembling the looks of the animal,” Ayyapan says.
The lorises venture into the villages in the evening, searching for food or water. But in the process, they often get crushed under the vehicles while crossing the streets. “The animal is slow, and speeding vehicles often don’t see these tiny creatures in time,” Ayyapan says.
However, in 2015, P Muthusamy, managing trustee at the SEEDS Trust from Dindigul, identified the problem and took steps to bring back the species from the verge of extinction.
Since 1999, Muthusamy has been working closely with the villages in the forest area for tree plantation and livelihood generation programmes. But in 2015 he learned that a significant income for the villagers came from the slender loris.
“It was shocking and unfortunate to learn that the animal was hunted, killed and exploited for monetary gains. It has a high value in the international market. Children would often tie the animal and play with it, resulting in its deaths. The animals are weak, and any abuse results in trauma and other complications,” he explains.
Moreover, the animal offers environmental benefits and plays a significant role in the food chain, which has since become disturbed over the years owing to its rapid decline. “The slender loris consumes insects, making it a natural pest control and helps in pollination, which contributes in rejuvenating the green cover and maintaining biodiversity,” Muthusamy says.
His observations further revealed that earlier, an abundance of jungle cats existed in the forest area. These cats would feed on the slender lorises, and foxes living in the same forest would in turn feed on the cats. However, once the population of the lorises declined, the food chain broke, and the wild animals disappeared. “The slender loris breeds twice a year. Hence, the regeneration of the species is slow,” he says.
Killers become saviours
Muthusamy roped in Ayyappan, who works as a training director, and began changing the mindset of the people.
“We formed groups of poachers and explained the importance of the species. Each group was made aware of other animals they could hunt in limits for survival. The women heavily depended on forest produce like berries for income. The practice is to climb the trees and shake them until all the berries fall. So they were provided training to limit themselves to extracting only 30% of the produce, and leave the rest as food for the lorises,” he says.
He adds that women were requested to add value to third produce by making products from them. “The move helped earn the same amount of money through food processing and saving forest resources. The students were given lessons about the ecological importance of the mammal. Hunters and farmers were offered other sources of livelihood such as honey farming, planting timber and fruit trees,” Muthusamy says.
During the process, Muthusamy also realised that the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides by farmers was poisoning the lorises who fed on the crops. Hence, he assisted farmers in making the switch to organic farming. “Farmers learned that the lorises would control the pests naturally, and the need to spend on the toxic chemicals would stop, thus helping them save money,” he adds.
Deva Rajan (40) is a farmer in Ayyalur who cultivates brinjal, moringa, and chillies. He switched to organic farming after the trust raised awareness about the ill effects of chemical-based fertilisers. Deva says that not only do his crops now provide better yield, but he also has a sense of satisfaction that he is protecting the lorises.
“I started farming ten years ago after taking over from my father. Every night, I would notice one loris that came by the field to feed on small insects or pests running around my crops. But little did I know that the chemical fertilisers would kill it. After switching to organic farming, I notice at least three lorises running around my crops and keeping them pest-free. Going organic has also helped me fetch better rates for my produce,” he says.
Over the years, the efforts have paid off in helping the population of these lorises increase. “Tree plantation drives are also being held to create a continuous green canopy for the lorises. It will become an extended habitat. The COVID-19 lockdown has affected the conservation works, and efforts are underway to maintain the progress made so far,” Muthusamy says, adding that organisations such as the Habitat Trust, Robert Bosch & Noe-Man and Nature have supported this effort throughout.
Ayyapan says he can guarantee there is no hunting of slender loris in the villages today. “The community is well aware of the animal’s importance and has developed a connection and affection towards it. The residents will go to any extent to protect the animal,” he adds.
Edited by Divya Sethu