Walking down the paths of the Indian Institute of Science campus at night, what wildlife would you expect to see? – Researchers, scientists and graduate students walking, bicycling, and of course these days, zipping past you in cars. You may occasionally see some nocturnal birds flying across those forest patches. But pay closer attention and keep your ears open, and you might hear an occasional shrill whistle coming from somewhere high in those trees alongside the roads. You may not even think twice about it. Or think it is some bird’s call, or some other noise coming from the tree.
Looking for the Slender Loris.
If you happen to have a torch handy, though, and search the canopy for the sound, you might see something light up in the dark – burning pinpoints like cat’s eyes at night. But what cat would be so high up on a tree? Look closely – it is not a cat, but another mammal; a primate, in fact, but not like the monkeys you see in the same forest in the daytime. Those eyes burning bright belong to a small nocturnal primate that is more ancestral than monkeys in our evolutionary history. It is the Slender Loris, primarily found in the forests of southern India and Sri Lanka. In Kannada, they are called kaadu papa.
So if they are found in forests, how do you find them in the middle of Bangalore city? Well, we know very little about their life in the city so far. What we do know about their social behaviour comes from studies done in a reserved forest and a tiger reserve. They are solitary nocturnal creatures that live in the tree canopy, hunting for bugs to eat at night, and sleeping away the day in some dense tangle of vines. Adult males and females may live in pairs or alone, or females with infants form small groups.So, why are they in this city? Well, lorises were once found in and around Bangalore before it became a big city. As Bangalore grew over the centuries into a garden city, first the local kings and then British officials who made Bangalore their home and military cantonment planted trees to create an urban forest. A lot of them are exotic, large trees with beautiful flowers or shade trees along the roads. Of course, before the British horticulturists, the local kings and denizens of Bangalore planted Banyan trees and other ficus species, as well as various fruit orchards. For irrigation and drinking water so high on the dry Deccan plateau, the locals also dug and created a network of lakes all along the city and outskirts. Some of these lakes date back several hundred years. In the 20th century, urban parks and educational institutes contributed further to the urban forest cover with their large forested campuses. Sacred groves around temples, mosques and cemeteries also provided green cover. All of these together created habitats for many species that found niches in those human-made green spaces of urban Bangalore.
The Slender Loris, a denizen of the scrub-forest land nearby, became a common species in the urban woods. This arboreal canopy-dweller likes a thick canopy for sleeping sites and hiding from predators. The horizontal branches of large, connected trees draped with big vines or thorny plants like Zizyphus, serve as walkways for movement through the canopy. Lorises eat mostly insects, with an occasional bite of fruit or some gum. They found an abundance of food in the urban forest canopy. They quickly adapted to exotic trees and plants such as Eucalyptus or large Gulmohar trees.
An illustration of a Slender Loris with prey.
Old-timers who grew up before the recent rapid urban growth tell us that lorises were found everywhere throughout the old garden city. Right from the middle of the city near busy downtown, to neighbourhoods at the edge of city, and in surrounding villages. People even sold lorises in the main city market, most likely caught from surrounding areas. Often, naturalists bought lorises in the market and released them in the forested campus of the Indian Institute of Science. These stories came from friends and parents of friends who grew up not too long ago, ranging from the 1960s to 1990s.So what is happening now? Can you still find them in the city? Where are the lorises now? People do not see them so often now. Many of the beautiful large trees have succumbed to rapid urbanization. All those orchards, backyard or front yard gardens full of trees have disappeared to give space for high-rise buildings or offices of India’s Silicon Valley. In recent years, news media of Bangalore have reported many injured Slender Lorises being found in the city, or lorises caught and brought to animal rescue centers. We even have reports of road-killed lorises in urban areas of Bangalore.
A Slender Loris road-kill.
Many may ask why we care for lorises in the urban environment? Wouldn’t it be better to protect them in protected areas? After all it is a species that is found throughout southern India. Slender Loris is a unique species that requires such specific habitat characteristics for their movement and sleeping sites, that even in a disturbed forest or habitat, they would require a certain canopy structure for roosting or parking their nursing babies while the mothers go foraging at night. These habitats are also used by other species of urban wildlife including various migrant and resident birds, arboreal small mammals, butterflies and various pollinating arthropods. Some of them are endemic to this region. Therefore, protecting and understanding the ecology of Slender Loris in urban habitats will also help protect other species and habitats that are disappearing fast.
Mother with infant, at IISC.
To help understand these iconic little urban primates, we are initiating The Urban Slender Loris Project, with help of local citizens. The goals of this citizen-science project are: A) to document the past and current distribution and status of the lorises in urban Bangalore, B) to assess the pressure of poaching and pet trade, C) to train volunteer citizen-scientists to monitor the Slender Loris and other wildlife in the city. This will be a collaborative project between citizens, environmentalists, educators and scientists, all coming together to study urban wildlife, and to help conserve biodiversity even in a fast-sprawling city like Bangalore. Here is the link to participate in the web survey, and a website about the project – http://bit.ly/urbanlorises