The Power of Education

Welcome to our first official blog post for The Sloth Conservation Foundation – and just in time for International Sloth Day which we celebrated on October 20th. One of the most important things for us here at SloCo is education. That doesn’t mean just helping those individuals or organisations who work directly with Sloths (although we do like doing that as well), but also the future generations and local communities. In order to instigate long-term change, we strongly believe that planting the seeds of knowledge and awareness from an early age are the key to success.

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With this in mind, we recently embarked on our first environmental education program in a local school in Costa Rica and have now completed three separate workshops, all aimed at teaching children between the ages of 3-5 about the wonders of their local wildlife. We have covered not only sloths (of course) but also monkeys and snakes. Although the missions of SloCo target conservation of sloths in the wild, it is hugely important to us that the children who live in this environment – the children who will grow up to be responsible for future conservation efforts – know as much as possible about the wildlife that surrounds them every day. Many of the issues that are threatening sloth populations are having a similar effect on a multitude of species: poaching, electrocution, traffic collisions, animal cruelty and habitat loss to name a few.

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So why is education important? Most of the issues that sloth populations are facing are caused by humans. We are the reason that trees are being chopped down and replaced with towns, roads, fruit plantations and pastures. It’s a local problem – from individuals carrying out the act to authorities permitting it, but also an international problem – from the consumers who want the cheap fruit to the irresponsible tourists and importers / buyers of sloths for the pet trade.

Adding to that, sloths haven’t always had the best reputation in Central and South American countries. In 1749, French naturalist Georges Buffon was the first to describe the creature in his encyclopedia of life sciences, saying:

“Slowness, habitual pain, and stupidity are the results of this strange and bungled conformation. These sloths are the lowest form of existence. One more defect would have made their lives impossible.”

Given such a precedent, it is of little surprise that sloths are subject to such profound speculation and misinterpretation, ranging from the benign – that they sleep all day – to the creative anecdotes we regularly hear, such as: “Sloths are so stupid that they mistake their own arm for a tree branch”. Unfortunately, it can sometimes take a more sinister tone. Because sloths move so awkwardly on the ground and have moths and algae living in their hair, people occasionally perceive them as dirty and evil creatures. Some even go as far as “the devils animal”. Such a viewpoint is rooted in a lack of education, and it is incredibly important to change that. Why would anyone want to protect something that they think is grotesque? Or a perceived danger? As Baba Dioum once famously said:

“In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

The children that we teach may grow up to become future scientists, biologists, conservationists (to name a few), and as such, the simple power of education should never be underestimated.

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As part of our environmental education program we have taken school children to a nearby wildlife rehabilitation center – The Jaguar Rescue Center (JRC). The Jaguar Rescue Center was established in 2008 and is dedicated to helping animals in need. The JRC rehabilitates injured, sick and orphaned animals and releases those who are restored to good health back to their natural habitat (to find out more about this organization visit here). During our visit the children were able to see all of the animals that we had been talking about – up close and personal! They were also able to see first hand which animals are in trouble, learn why they ended up in rescue centers and see the ways that people are trying to help return them to the wild. Although this is our first school initiative, we will be continuing  and expanding this program throughout Costa Rica.

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n.b. huge thanks to the school and the teachers involved, as well as the amazing children we got to teach. Also thanks to Encar Garcia, Dexter Miller and Mat Bowman at The Jaguar Rescue Center.