A slender loris.
Photo credit: Abhinand.

By Anne Nekaris, Smitha Gnanaolivu, Marco Campera, Vincent Nijman, Roopa Satish, Sharath Babu, and Mewa Singh.

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Many wild animals and plants have been traded globally for their use in traditional medicines, various rituals, magical spells, cultural practices, use as pets and décor.  When demand increases, the market value of the traded items increases thereby leading to excessive illegal trafficking.  This uncontrolled illegal trade can pose a threat to biodiversity through population declines, as well as acting as a channel for introducing invasive species and spreading of diseases.

The grey slender loris (Loris lydekkerianus), a small nocturnal primate, endemic to India and Sri Lanka, has also fallen prey to this illegal trade. They are used for both medicinal and ritual purposes, but little information is available on how the user is meant to extract these properties, or the potential impact these practices have on the species’ populations.

In this paper we documented the beliefs of people towards slender lorises, and the use of slender lorises or their parts in cultural practices. We interviewed 293 informants over a period of 7 years in 12 different slender loris habitats, spanning three states in South India: Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Informants included villagers, urban or rural locals; their acquaintances and relatives; and slender loris rescuers. We collected information on people’s beliefs regarding the use of slender lorises in traditional medicines, black magic rituals, and other cultural practices.

We further collected data on 139 live slender loris rescues from three rescue and rehabilitation centres and one government organization in Bengaluru, India over a period of 18 years. We found that 116/139 live individuals had been involved in black magic rituals. Live slender lorises were used as effigies and were pierced in their eyes, limbs, heart, anus, or head with tiny pins; or their mouth, eyes or limbs were burnt; or their limbs were cut off. These practices occurred more often during the new moon days. We were also told that only slender lorises that remained alive during the rescue process reached the rescue centres.

The interviews with the informants revealed that almost all of them considered slender lorises to be a bad omen. Superstitious beliefs consider slender lorises to be evil or to carry dark magical powers. We found frequent references to live slender lorises or their body parts being used in traditional folk medicine, in black magic practices, or for warding off evil. For black magic, live or dead slender lorises or their urine were used for five negative purposes. Tears of lorises were added to kajal or kohl (a black paste applied to the eyes), which when worn, is purported to give the wearer powers of hypnotism. Non-black magic purposes were largely to ward off evil, and with the exception of keeping bones, the slender lorises were kept alive. The eyes, liver, faecal matter, or their body fat was used to make medicines to “cure” eye related diseases, and to “heal” joint pain and leprosy. Astrologers regularly used live lorises for fortune- telling, for warding off evil and healing ailments.

Habitat loss and anthropogenic pressures, coupled with the existing slender loris trade for inhumane practices, are a cause for grave concern. Numerous deep-rooted superstitious beliefs and rituals continue to thrive in modern India, and this could be one of the major threats to India’s already imperilled slender loris population. Our study provides preliminary information and more research into the prevalence of slender loris use for black magic is needed to assess the impact on species sustainability.