Primate Conservation Limelight


Dr. Anna Nekaris is a Professor of Anthropology and Primate Conservation at the Oxford Brookes University, where she started and runs the MSc Primate Conservation program. Her many accolades include roles as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of the journal Folia Primatologica, Convenor of the Nocturnal Primate Research Group, and Founder and Director of the Little Fireface Project on the island of Java in Indonesia. The Little Fireface Project includes the long-term field study of Asian slow lorises (Nycticebus javanicus), the longest continuous study of nocturnal primates to date. Though initially there were thought to be only two species of Asian slow loris, through Anna’s expertise and long-term work in the field, she has identified eleven different species, naming some newly recognized species and elevating six species from subspecies.

Where are you currently based?
I’ve lived in the United Kingdom since 2001. I’m in Oxford, about an hour from London.

​What is your current role at Oxford Brookes?
My main role is running the MSc (master’s program) in Primate Conservation, which I started 20 years ago. We also have a MSc of Research in Primate Conservation and a MSc in International Conservation. We’ve had over 400 students do field work in more than 50 primate-range countries. Many students start their own charities, field sites, and rescue centers, so now we can send new students to all those places around the world to work with primates.

I also lead the University in instructing researchers on public engagement and outreach. A side job I have is running a charity in the University for slow loris conservation, which contributes to Little Fireface projects in Indonesia. A current project is working with Indonesian farmers to develop wildlife-friendly coffee. The coffee has been graded as a “premium luxury coffee” in the U.K. and certified by the international Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network. Ultimately, we’re hoping that revenue from the coffee business will elevate local farmers, then fund conservation projects.

​How did you become involved in primate conservation?
As an undergraduate, I heard Jane Goodall speak. She described stories of the individual chimpanzees so evocatively. I could see that the people in the audience were identifying with the chimps as individuals. It’s easy to do that with a chimpanzee. I realized that I want to do what Jane Goodall did for the species most like humans, for the species least like humans. If you can get humans to identify with prosimians, maybe then those humans will want to conserve other animals, since lemurs and lorises are perceived in much the same way as small carnivores, rodents, or squirrels—other animals that no one knows about, cares about, or has ever seen.

I still find that in primate conservation, 75% of our students want to study apes. While there are over 600 primate species, there are only a handful of apes, and all are very well studied. More than half of the primate species, maybe two thirds, are not studied at all. In school I became attached to lemurs, lorises, and bushbabies because no one knew about them. Although lemurs are well-studied today, I went through all of the main primate textbooks and found that bushbabies and lorises got only three lines. They comprise about 50 species and occupy almost all of Africa and Asia, but the prosimian section of these textbooks almost exclusively feature lemurs, who inhabit just one island (Madagascar).

How did you come to be involved in the conservation of slow lorises?
I did my PhD in India on slender lorises (Loris tardigradus) and then worked in Sri Lanka, around the time email started. I began receiving emails saying the slow loris is being annihilated, and markets all over Southeast Asia have hundreds taken from the forest. I started connecting and working with different researchers in different countries. In 2007, I was the head scientist on the campaign to transfer the slow loris to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which precludes all international trade. Slow lorises were so internationally traded that they were the first primates to move to Appendix I since 1986. They’re still one of only a few primate species in Appendix I. I’ve helped with quite a few field studies with different species of slow lorises in Cambodia and Thailand. In 2011, I named quite a few species and identified some new species of Indonesian slow loris. 

Where in Indonesia is your work located?
It’s on the most populated and ecologically damaged island, Java. In 2011, I chose Java as our long-term field study site because less than 5% of forests remain there and, with the massive transformation in agriculture occurring, the island is being destroyed very rapidly. Java also has the most slow lorises (Nycticebus javanicus) traded.

“Little Fireface” translates to “slow loris” in Sudanese. We picked the name for our project (instead of the other cool names slow loris are called, like “winged monkeys,” “shy shy,” or “moon face”) because we also work with other animals like civets, ferrets, badgers, owls, and bats, who also have fiery faces. I have a permanent field team there with 17 staff members consistently watching the animals and conducting community outreach, conservation education, and work on the illegal wildlife trade. Since we advertise with other universities for our volunteer program, we’ve had many students, both Indonesian and international, stay out for many months. Half of the project staff is from the village where we work. We essentially have no borders now. Java’s protected areas aren’t really habitable for slow lorises, but the slow loris thrives in these agricultural landscapes where their conservation is not legally protected. We work to facilitate local involvement in mitigating species loss since the law won’t save the slow lorises where they actually occur. Essentially, only the local people will.

Can you tell us about your work with the Little Fireface Project?
Our field study is now in our 10th year continuously studying the same slow loris family groups on Java. It’s the first ever study of nocturnal primates where the animals are continuously studied, and I argue that we’re the longest, continuous nocturnal study of known animals. Each week we discover something new and amazing. Slow lorises are really unique and interesting. They’re the only venomous primates. They go into torpor. They hibernate. They’re exudative-feeding primates. And from our long-term work, we know they live in wonderful, highly social family groups with intensive sibling and parental care. For nocturnal primates, that’s very rare. They communicate and produce ultrasound. And they’re slow, right? They have the slow locomotion, which is unusual, especially considering that they have one of the longest periods of pregnancyamong primates relative to their body size. Everything you can learn about them is weird and unique, which makes it incredible that hardly anyone studies them.

Have there been any challenges you’ve encountered in Java?
​A fundamental component of my work is educating people—especially the rescue groups involved in slow loris release—on the species differences in slow lorises and animal taxonomy in terms of the behavioral ecology. It is critical that rescue centers understand and implement the IUCN primate translocation specialist group rules for releasing animals to the wild. The first rule is knowing the animals’ behavioral ecology. The second rule is that you should know what species it is that you’re releasing. My first project in Java planned to follow slow lorises for a year after their release, but all of the animals died within nine days. Rescue groups were placing the wrong species on the wrong islands, regardless of the animal’s age, and usually during the daytime. What the best studies of reintroduction back to the wild show is that a 20% survival rate is very good. Having rescue groups recognize that there are different species of slow loris that occupy different islands, and that the slow loris is a nocturnal animal who won’t leave its home or family group until it is two or three years old, are crucial first steps in improving these survival rates.

Can you tell us about any favorite moments or memories from your time in the primate conservation field?
​There are a couple because it has been such a long journey—over 20 years now! There’s a slow loris paper published in 1970 (which people still cite!) that says the slow loris moves 10 meters (33 feet) per night. Since they’re really slow, they live in only one tree. One of the first nights I spent observing a slow loris, a tracker and I were sitting by a tree and realized we didn’t see him anymore. Where could he be? After the next few nights, we saw that there wasn’t only one tree these slow loris occupied because they move 10 meters (33 feet) per minute! The animal that first night was already in another tree, hundreds of meters away. Their home range can span as far as three hectares (7.5 acres, or the size of three football fields), which is huge for this tiny animal. That was a cool moment, you know, just realizing that everything that was written was wrong.
Another amazing moment was in Indonesia. It’s an Islamic country, so there are laws where you can’t touch the animals or have them as pets, and the relationships between humans and animals aren’t really emotional or empathetic. We had a really special female loris called Charlie. She was a good mother, and everybody wanted to watch her since she was funny and cheeky. When Charlie eventually died of old age, I met with her tracker team—these farmers who worked for us. They actually cried. They loved her and made the connection—that chimpanzee connection—and saw Charlie as an individual. While I hoped they would, I never presumed they’d see those animals beyond a mechanistic way to get an income. It was a big cultural boundary cross and transformative moment on the conservation side with the animals. 

What do you think are the most concerning things when you think about the conservation status of the slow loris today? (Trigger Warning)
They’re very popular as pets and are the most common protected primate species in the illegal wildlife trade. Sometimes you’ll see 50 in a market at once. Unfortunately, there are places where it’s legal to have captive-bred primates as pets, including Japan, the Middle East, and parts of eastern Europe. If a wild slow loris is illegally smuggled in, it’s difficult to prove whether they’re captive-bred or not. Yet, we know that slow lorises don’t breed in captivity. So, even in these places that consider captive-bred pet lorises legal, these pets were actually illegally taken from the wild.

Throughout Indochina, slow lorises are considered curative in traditional medicines. I’ve studied animism in Cambodia, and what everyone said was western medicine might alleviate your symptoms, but it won’t cure your disease. They believe that loris medicine cures the disease. Slow lorises are used for medicinal purposes because they’re considered strong. They’re kept alive while the medicine is extracted to preserve the power in the animal, so you become strong, too. People saw slow lorises in half, smoke them over open fires, wait for their eyes to explode, and collect the tears from their eyes. People draw bile from their glands and oil from their skin, apply loris fur to wounds, and wear the bones as a talisman. Though it’s not as far-reaching, the slender loris, which we didn’t think had many conservation problems, is similarly used in black magic. Trying to battle those very traditional beliefs is very difficult. It’s a really complex area since it’s also important to maintain traditional culture.

Since public engagement is such an integral aspect to your work, can you tell us about how social media plays a role in your conservation concerns?
People often put their pet lorises on social media. On YouTube there’s a very famous video of a slow loris eating a rice ball, posted by a user in Japan, where the slow loris cannot have been legally obtained. Still, these sites refuse to take the videos down, which fuels the illegal wildlife trade. Since it’s illegal to show drugs or incriminating images on YouTube, showing this loris is an equally illegal offense, right? Some of the penalties for wildlife crime can be similar to the serious penalties for these other crimes, but actual enforcement of punitive measures is rare. Indonesia is in the top three Facebook-using countries and is the number one TikTok-using country. A big thing there is using these animals to increase the “like” currency of posts, which is very rarely prosecuted. In the last 20 years, one person was sent to jail for illegal possession of a slow loris, and there are only five people ever who have been prosecuted for it. Rescue centers may confiscate an animal, but if the person the animal is rescued from is not prosecuted, it doesn’t really matter. They’ll just get more endangered animals.
In Thailand, lorises are captured and traded to be brought around for photographs. The government there is being more responsible because there’s so much international tourism, and photo props are a real tourist attraction. I think more people are becoming aware of the problem and don’t take pictures with the animal, but plenty of people still do. If you go on to Instagram now, you’ll see a photo with a loris captioned, “My lovely memory cuddling this cute animal in Thailand.” I’m hopeful it’s something we can change through spreading awareness because the Western tourists take the photos. There’s something inbuilt in Western culture to love animals and not want to destroy things that are meaningful.

That said, in the USA, a cartoon sitcom has just come out (“Housebroken”), in which a loris is depicted as a pet holding a cocktail umbrella. Awareness is needed now more than ever!

How are you combating these threats to species survival in your work?
Our project’s foundation is keeping the animals in the wild. People need to know that just like when you cut flowers and they die, when you take animals out of the wild, it’s very hard to put them back. Everything we do tries to keep with traditional culture and connect with local people. One way we’ve spread our messaging was by authoring a children’s book, and we used traditional printing and batik in order to place lorises in the local culture. We also have a community conservation project with a village carver who makes a lot of items that we sell on our online Etsy shop. I was wearing a Loris necklace in the Dubai airport, when a lady saw it and said, “Oh my gosh, that’s that animal! They’re really cute, but we’re not allowed to keep them as pets.” I’ve received that kind of response a number of times while wearing a slow loris accessory. That recognition was amazing, and I believe the awareness is growing. There are more people who know you shouldn’t have slow lorises pets or recognize that lorises’ teeth are removed to keep them as pets. And we have evidence from comments on YouTube videos: in the past, people would have written, “It’s so cute! I want one.” Now, more and more, we see, “It’s illegal. You’re a scumbag.” It’s amazing to see the army propagating itself.
What brings you the most hope when you think about the conservation status of the slow loris today? 
Slow lorises are unusual in that when left alone, they do very well in Java’s disturbed habitat. During the colonial period, Dutch tea plantations brought in a number of invasive species to help stabilize the soil in Java for tea production. Two of those species—a gum-producing acacia tree and a nectar-producing tree—established themselves on Java for 200 years. Java has frequent volcanic activity, so when one of the volcanoes erupts, the forest is destroyed, with these two invasive species being the first colonizers. They grow quickly, stabilize the soil, are hyper-abundant, and are among the slow loris’s favorite foods. These trees also create usable agricultural zones for farmers, while providing ideal conditions for our group to easily track populations. Because slow lorises are found relatively low to the ground in these landscapes, we’re able to place a radio collar on the individuals, which is why we can monitor, protect, and study them so well.
Photo courtesy of ©Dr. Anna Nekaris
Photo courtesy of ©Dr. Anna Nekaris
Photo courtesy of ©Dr. Anna Nekaris
LITTLE FIREFACE PROJECT Photo courtesy of ©Dr. Anna Nekaris


Is Social Media Saving or Enslaving the Slow Loris?
​Professor Anna Nekaris at TEDxNashville, May 2013

Photo courtesy of ©Dr. Anna Nekaris
Photo courtesy of ©Dr. Anna Nekaris
Photo courtesy of ©Anna Nekaris


The Little Fireface Project (LFP), headed by Professor Anna Nekaris, studies the ecology of the slow and slender lorises, and contributes wherever possible to the conservation and ecology of loris species throughout their range. The project’s scope of research is widespread encompassing behavioral ecology, museum studies, genetics, acoustics, taxonomy, conservation education, and chemical ecology. The LFP team also conducts evaluated outreach and education programs for local communities to get them to join the conservation movement. Our mission is to obtain vital data about all loris species to contribute to their conservation in the wild and in captivity, including aiding rescue centers in reintroductions and aiding in the welfare of slow loris pets in countries where it is still legal to keep them. We intensively use, monitor, and evaluate social media to inform the public world-wide about the plight of slow lorises to mitigate their trade.

LFP began under the remit of the Nocturnal Primate Research Group at Oxford Brookes University, UK, in 1994, and became an independent project in 2011. Our work covers all lorises, including the African pottos and angwantibos, and Asia’s slender and slow lorises. We have since named seven new species, and have studied six species of loris for a year or more in the wild, contributing novel data on diet, habitat use, social organization, and population status.

Our current main field project is on the Indonesian island of Java, where we have initiated the first-ever long-term study of a lorisiform primate in the wild—the Javan slow loris. At the same time, during country-wide surveys in forests and wildlife markets, we also make observations of other obscure nocturnal animals, including colugos, pangolins, civets, small cats, mustelids, and owls. 

By Cookie Koch, September 2021