Children, parents, techies and wildlife enthusiasts are regular fixtures now at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, on Saturdays. Participants of the Urban Slender Loris Project (USLP), they spend their evenings spotting and learning about the rare nocturnal primate. One that — in terms of evolution — predates the monkeys we see today and feeds largely on insects and fruit nectar. Endemic to Sri Lanka and south India, where it’s often found in urban forests, the loris’s original habitat was deciduous or scrub forests. Today, it lives, and forages for its young, in the canopies of tall trees. Confined to Bengaluru’s forested pockets, within campuses like IISc or in large parks, the loris, once a common sight in the city, is cornered today. But the USLP hopes to change that.

The Bengaluru connection

In spite of being listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as endangered, the loris remains one of the least studied primates in the country. Kaberi Kar Gupta, a professor at California State University who is an expert on lorises and principal scientist of the USLP, says, “We want to make the loris a focal species to bring about a sense of ecological awareness in urban residents, who often forget that there is an ecosystem beyond humans and trees in the city. Enabling citizens to monitor and learn about the conservation of lorises could lead to increased interest in the preservation of a plethora of other species, such as the trees and insects that are linked to its habitat.”

Gupta has learnt through oral histories that slender lorises have made the garden city home for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years. Through the city’s many transformations — from a British military base to an IT hub — the loris or kaadu papa (forest baby in Kannada) was often spotted around town. “It speaks of its ability to adapt to newer habitat patches, despite the rapid reduction of tree cover. I have even heard of the loris being sold as pets in the legendary Russell Market, and families who had lorises as pets. These histories could provide valuable insight and evidence when recorded,” says Gupta, who along with concerned locals has set about to do just that.

Citizen science

The idea of engaging members of civil society in research or ‘citizen science’ is a novel approach, especially in urban areas. The USLP is but a motley crew of ecologists, photographers, environmental educators, naturalists and more, who meet once a week. People who are attempting to understand changes brought on by development and trying to make more room for the beady-eyed mammals in a city that has doubled in size since the early ’70s. Other residents who have seen lorises over the years are also encouraged to fill an online form or sign up as night-survey volunteers on the USLP website (urbanslenderlorisproject.org) The Facebook page of ‘Urban Slender Lorises of Bangalore’ has information on loris walks too.

Trained citizen scientists have begun conducting loris-spotting surveys, recording oral histories, and putting in place a monitoring protocol and database that they will collectively maintain. Last week, a team of volunteers spotted a loris in the heart of the city during one such night survey. Care is taken not to reveal an animal’s location to ensure its safety, and thwart the plans of the pet-trade industry. Adarsh Raghu, who has been a volunteer with the project for over four months, says, “It is incredible to see the loris surviving in the midst of this urban jungle. It took me a while to get better at spotting the loris because I wasn’t expecting it to be as small as it is. But it got easier over time. I hope to see more Bangaloreans embracing the opportunity to learn more about this unique species, and give us any information they may have that we don’t already know.”

The USLP is also hoping to co-opt organisations like the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagar Palike (BBMP) and the local wing of People for Animals (PFA) to use any rescue-related information they have on lorises. Once the various phases are implemented, the project promises to offer firsthand data on the primates, inspire more citizen-driven conservation efforts across cities like Chennai and Mysore, which are also home to lorises, and perhaps change the history of some of Bengaluru’s oldest residents.

( Tara Rachel Thomas is a Bengaluru-based writer )

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