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 a time-sucking vortex of cute animal videos on Youtube, chances are you’ve come across the loris.
Quite possibly the world’s most adorable animal,* the loris is a small primate famed for its cartoonishly big eyes, tiny hands and soft, teddy-bear-like fur.
Millions of Youtube views have racked up on videos of pet lorises. They tend to feature a) the slow loris species, and b) copious amounts of tickling. These guys just seem to love being tickled. Except… spoilers: they actually don’t.
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 habitat in the rainforests of India, Sri Lanka and parts 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’.)
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 — native to southern India and Sri Lanka — has also seen a steady decline in the wild due to the growing illegal pet trade plus 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, context-setting segue into a potentially happy story. There is hope yet for the lorises. 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.
Here is my report from the field.
Luxury meets ecotourism: Jetwing Vil Uyana, Sigiriya
Location: a luxury resort mere kilometres away from one of Sri Lanka’s biggest tourist drawcards, the lion-paw rock fortress of Sigiriya. May seem an unlikely spot for an ecotourism initiative, sure.
But the Jetwing Vil Uyana is not your average luxury resort. It’s built on 24 acres of restored former agricultural land, a hotel with its own private biosphere. Boasting wetlands, lakes, paddy fields, reeds and bamboo stands, the hotel bills itself as a nature lover’s paradise — and the best place to see lorises in Sri Lanka.
And as skeptical as you may be of luxury chains proclaiming themselves environmentally friendly (you and me both, kiddo)… this claim is not without good reason.
In 2010, the hotel’s resident naturalist, Chaminda Jayasekara, happened to spot a gray slender loris among some thickets on the property. He quickly realised that the resort environment was perfect for the species. Even if its forest was artificially created rather than natural.
Though he didn’t know much about lorises back then, Chaminda has since undertaken extensive research on these guys. He literally wrote the book on them. Among the various tours, walks and programs he runs at Jetwing is a one-hour wildlife walk after dark in pursuit of these elusive, nocturnal creatures.
Eco-friendly or not, luxury resorts are neither my usual accommodation preference nor, let’s be real, within my usual budget, so it was a relief to learn that the loris-watching walks are open to non-guests. Done.
And so it was, one rainy evening, my partner and I found ourselves leaving our humble, no-frills B&B for the luxurious Jetwing just down the road. Driving in, we were instantly wowed. The hotel was beautiful even in 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. Because why not. Chaminda appeared, introduced himself, and set about fetching us our kit for the evening: gumboots plus headlamps that emitted red light — so as not to harm the lorises’ sensitive eyes.** It was on.
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.*** Chaminda explained that while seven lorises called the property home, including one baby that was born there (imagine the cuteness!), we were unlikely to see any given the rainy conditions. This was our last night in the area, and hence our only shot. Fingers and toes tightly crossed.
We squelched our way along the wet and muddy paths as the rain continued. Gazing up at the treetops in near darkness, we scanned every branch for any hint of those tiny creatures and their massive, orb-like eyes.
For a good 20 minutes we wandered around the forest and bamboo grove. Some areas were closed off due to flooding thanks to the heavy rains. No doubt that’s where all the lorises were hanging out. Chaminda led us to an open clearing beside a stream, pointing out two tiny bats hanging upside down from a tree. Cute, but they were no lorises.****
Hard as it was to see anything in the gloomy weather, our hopes stayed illogically high. I’d gasp in delight, spotting the tell-tale big eyes or spindly limbs — 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! About halfway up a tree, casually minding its own business — until it caught sight of us in turn. Then those enormous eyes peered down curiously in our direction. I bit my tongue from squealing in excitement; the loris’ acute sense of hearing meant silence was key.
Chaminda raised his red-light torch to spotlight the outline of its tiny body, just 20cm or so in size. It really was impossibly cute.
But the loris soon tired of looking at us and moved on with its life. We watched, transfixed, as the little one climbed along the branches. Coming to rest, it had a sneaky scratch, lifting an arm above its head and rubbing its underarm with a tiny fist. Cuteness overload.
The loris made its way around the branches in what seemed like slow motion, occasionally peering back down at us. We’d lose sight of it altogether until its eyes would flash our way once more and one of us (usually Chaminda, surprise, surprise) saw it again. Gradually, the loris scrambled higher and higher up the branch, until it vanished among the treetops of the night forest.
Long after our designated hour was up, Chaminda took us to a hut on the hotel grounds: the Loris Information Centre. Its walls were lined with photos of the adorable creatures, and large banners outlining the various loris species in Sri Lanka, their appearance, habitat and diet (mostly insects, for the record, plus geckos and some fruits).
And then, the inevitable sadness of learning about wildlife: learning how humans are effing them up. Though lorises in Sri Lanka have no natural predator, their main threat is habitat destruction. As RoundGlass Sustain put it in a video about these endearing creatures:
Rapid deforestation, linear intrusions slicing connected canopies and fragmentation are all putting the slender lorises’ future under threat.
Sadly, increasing numbers have also fallen prey to electrocutions on power lines and collisions with cars — more aftershocks of removing the large trees and forest habitat 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, instead designating them as a conservation area. Since then, Jetwing has also set up a Loris Conservation Fund. One-third of the money from every loris safari walk goes towards funding this conservation project. Win bloody win.
Departing Jetwing and heading back for our decidedly less glamorous B&B farther down the road, we thanked our lucky everythings that the rain hadn’t ruined our chances of sighting this adorable animal in the flesh, as close up as humanly and humanely possible.
If seeing lorises in the wild isn’t quite an option, this is surely the next best thing. And the best way to support their ongoing research and conservation. Certainly beats the Youtube videos.
*Though my bet’s on the quokka, for what it’s worth. Or grey-headed flying fox pups <3 Or owlet-nightjars. So torn.
**He also 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 all around us here, for a moment we found ourselves asking the same question.
***All other bookings had been scared off by the rain, apparently. Amateurs.
****This was written before I became fascinated by bats, clearly. ‘Cute but no lorises.’ What an idiot.
Tips, Links and Resources
The Loris Night Trail at Jetwing Vil Uyana
What you should know before you go loris-spotting:
- Price: We paid the equivalent of roughly AU$30 during our trip in 2013. But were told beforehand that we’d be reimbursed if no lorises were sighted.
- I emailed the hotel directly to book. Details in the footer here.
- More about the Jetwing Vil Uyana.
- A video of the loris watching experience at Vil Uyana.
Deep dive into the world of the loris with my super nerdy round-up of resources for learning more:
- A BBC report on the hotel’s loris conservation efforts.
- An in-depth species profile on the gray slender loris from New England Primate Conservancy.
- And a comprehensive overview of slender lorises from Animal Diversity Web.
- A YouTube video on slender lorises (in India).
- A YouTube video on the truth behind the slow loris pet trade and ‘cute’ tickling slow loris videos.
- More on Chaminda Jayasekara’s book on the dry zone slender loris.
- This article from The Sunday Times looks at Chaminda’s book and traces his interest in the grey slender loris.
- Info from Zoological Society of London on saving slender lorises in Sri Lanka.
- More on the threats slender lorises in Sri Lanka face from power lines from The Sunday Times.
- More on the threats slender lorises in India face from wildlife photographers, via Mongabay.