Take a night-time wildlife walk in search of the world’s cutest animal, at an eco-resort striving for their conservation — arguably the best place to see lorises in Sri Lanka.
If you’ve ever found yourself trapped in the incessant time-sucking vortex that is watching cute animal videos on Youtube, chances are you’ve come across the loris.
Possibly the world’s most adorable animal (though my bet’s on the quokka, for what it’s worth), the loris is a small primate famed and adored for its cartoonishly big eyes, tiny hands and apparent* love of being tickled. Videos of pet lorises — particularly of the slow loris species — have racked up millions of views on Youtube.
The curse of cuteness: Why loris numbers are diminishing
The problem? The popularity of these videos has fuelled a rising demand for slow lorises in the exotic pet trade. There’s every chance the lorises we all giggle and coo at online were poached from their natural habit in the rainforests of South East Asia, smuggled in inhumane conditions, and subjected to cruelties such as having their teeth ripped out without anaesthetic, all to be sold as pets. (Worse fates still await those who are sold for superstitious quack ‘medicine’. The ignorance.)
And the suffering doesn’t end there. When kept as pets, these animals are typically confined to small cages — a far cry from the kilometres of trees they roam in the wild — and fed a diet so nutritionally inadequate they’re often malnourished.
*Oh, and the tickling? For the slow loris at least, it’s equivalent to torture.
Another loris species, the slender loris — which is native to India and Sri Lanka — has also seen a steady decline in the wild due to the growing illegal pet trade and deforestation. One subspecies, the montane slender loris, has an estimated 80 individuals left. Eighty.
Getting a little heavy for a travel blog, I’m aware, but consider this a long, dark segue into a potentially happy story. There is hope yet for the loris. Ecotourism initiatives aiming at conservation and education — such as one I visited in Sri Lanka — form a crucial potential ray of hope for these creatures.
Luxury meets ecotourism: Jetwing Vil Uyana, Sigiriya
A luxury resort mere kilometres away from one of Sri Lanka’s biggest tourist drawcards, the rock fortress of Sigiriya, seems an unlikely spot for an ecotourism venture.
But the Jetwing Vil Uyana is not your average luxury resort. It’s built on 24 acres of abandoned agricultural land, rejuvenated to form a private nature reserve. Boasting wetlands, lakes, paddy fields and reeds, the hotel bills itself as a nature lover’s paradise — and the best place to see lorises in Sri Lanka.
And not without reason. In 2010, the hotel’s resident naturalist, Chaminda Jayasekara, happened to spot a gray slender loris among some thickets on the property. He realised that the resort environment, albeit artificially created rather than natural, was perfect for the species.
Though he didn’t know much about lorises back then, Chaminda has since undertaken such extensive research you could pretty much say he wrote the book on them. (Literally.) Among the various tours, walks and programs he runs is a night-time wildlife walk in pursuit of this elusive, nocturnal creature.
Eco-friendly or not, luxury resorts are neither my usual accommodation preference nor within my usual budget, so it was a relief to learn that the one-hour loris-watching walks are open to non-guests.
And so it was, one rainy evening, my partner and I found ourselves leaving our humble B&B for the luxurious Jetwing just down the road. Driving in, we were instantly wowed. The beauty of the hotel was clear even amid the dark and the pouring rain. Illuminated footpaths connected spacious chalets, some built on stilts over the wetlands.
Upon entry, we were offered fresh juice served in cocktail glasses. Chaminda appeared, introduced himself, and set about fetching us gumboots. He asked why we weren’t staying at Jetwing. Even despite our usual preference to stick to local, family-run accommodation, thinking of a) the basic B&B we’d just left vs b) the glamour here, we asked ourselves the same question!
A nocturnal wildlife walk: The best way to see lorises in Sri Lanka?
A short golf cart ride later and we were off on our private night-time loris walk. At the time there were seven lorises on the property, including one baby that was born there, but Chaminda explained that we were unlikely to see any given the rainy conditions. Fingers (and toes) tightly crossed.
Donning headlamps that emitted red light so as not to harm the lorises’ sensitive eyes, we squelched our way along the wet and muddy paths. Gazing up at the treetops in near darkness, we scanned every branch for any hint of those tiny creatures with the massive, orb-like eyes.
For a good 20 minutes we wandered around the forest and bamboo grove, avoiding some areas that were inaccessible due to flooding induced by the heavy rains. Chaminda led us away from the denser, more jungle-like areas to an open clearing beside a stream. Along the way, he pointed out two tiny bats hanging upside down from a tree. Cute, but they were no lorises.
It was hard to see anything in the gloomy weather and even harder to keep our hopes down. I’d gasp in delight, thinking I’d spotted the big, red eyes of a loris — only to realise it was just the red light of my headlamp catching on glints of rain on the sodden leaves.
Until finally, Chaminda spotted one! There it was, about halfway up a tree, casually minding its own business — until it caught sight of us in turn. Sure enough those enormous eyes peered down curiously in our direction. I tried not to squeal in excitement; the loris’ acute sense of hearing meant staying silent was key.
Chaminda raised his red-light torch to illuminate the outline of its tiny body, just 20cm or so in size. But the loris soon tired of looking at us and moved on with its life. We watched, transfixed, as the little creature climbed along the branches and, coming to rest, even had a sneaky scratch, lifting an arm above its head and rubbing its underarm with a tiny hand. Cuteness overload.
It made its way around the branches in what seemed like slow motion, occasionally peering back down at us. At times we lost sight of it altogether until its curiosity would tempt it to flash its eyes our way once more and one of us (usually Chaminda, let’s be real) would spot it again. Gradually, the loris scrambled higher and higher up the branch, illuminated by the spotlight of Chaminda’s torch.
Long after our designated hour was up, we were taken to a little hut on the hotel grounds: the Loris Information Centre. Its walls were lined with photos of the adorable creatures, and large banners containing information on the various loris species in Sri Lanka, their appearance, habitat and diet (mostly insects, for the record, as they’re easiest to source, plus geckoes and some fruits).
We learned that though lorises in Sri Lanka have no natural predator, their main threat is habitat destruction through deforestation. Sadly, increasing numbers have also fallen prey to electrocutions on power lines and collisions with cars following removal of the large trees they call home.
Happily, the lorises here won’t be facing a similar risk anytime soon. Chaminda explained how Jetwing had halted its development plans among the ‘hot zones’ of loris habitat on the property, designating them as a conservation area instead. Since then, Jetwing has also set up a Loris Conservation Fund.
Departing Jetwing and heading back for our decidedly less glamorous B&B farther down the road, we thanked our lucky stars/moons/miscellaneous celestial bodies that the rain hadn’t ruined our chances of sighting this adorable animal in the flesh, as it were. If seeing lorises in the wild isn’t quite an option, this is surely the next best thing. Certainly beats the Youtube videos.
Ethical tourism in Sri Lanka: A quick note
Sri Lanka has seen some of the 21st century’s most horrific human rights abuses, and the bloodshed and conflict continued through to 2009. Even now, it’s important to consider the impact and reach of your tourist dollars when travelling there as some big businesses in Sri Lanka — including within the tourism and hospitality industries — have been linked to the war crimes and human rights violations of the former regime. The Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice is a great source of information for research on travelling ethically in the country.