Sloths and Palm Oil: how can you help?

The world is waking up to the palm oil crisis that has driven orangutans to the brink of extinction, but is boycotting palm oil really the answer? Unfortunately no, but that doesn’t mean that we are powerless.

Last week the UK supermarket chain Iceland shone the international spotlight on palm oil after its controversial Christmas TV advert was banned from British television. The advert, which depicts an orangutan hiding in a child’s bedroom after loggers destroyed his rainforest home, has now been watched over 30 million times online making it one of the most successful Christmas adverts ever created. Similar to the anti-plastic movement that is sweeping across the world, this advert has stimulated an uproar against the palm oil industry. While it has been overwhelmingly successful at raising awareness of a very important issue, fears are growing as increasing numbers of people are demanding a boycott on palm oil. This is dangerous.

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Palm oil is used in approximately 50% of everything that we buy, ranging from food and shoes to cosmetics and cleaning products. It is everywhere and the demand is huge. Consequently, palm oil plantations are responsible for the majority of Malaysian and Indonesian deforestation, with a football pitch-sized area of forest being cleared every 25 seconds in Indonesia alone! However this is not just an issue affecting Asia. Palm oil plantations are also springing up in place of the sloths rainforest habitat in South and Central America, further adding to the ecosystem destruction occurring due to crops such as soy, bananas and animal agriculture.

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Boycotting palm oil, however, doesn’t mean that manufactures will simply remove oil from their products all together. It simply means that they will be forced to replace it with a different kind of vegetable oil. Unfortunately, palm oil is already the worlds most productive oil crop. All alternative oils such as soybean and rapeseed require up to 10 times more land to produce the same amount of product – increasing demand on these crops would be even worse. In addition, boycotting palm oil will drive the price down, consequently increasing the demand for use in biofuel and livestock feed, particularly in countries such as China and India.

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So what can we do?
Thankfully the answer applies to all aspects of consumerism, and will have benefits for species and habitats globally (including sloths!): sustainable shopping. Think carefully about the products that you buy because as the consumer, you have the power. Only choose products from manufacturers and retailers who use ingredients from sustainable, certified, legal and deforestation-free sources. They exist, you just have to know which ones to look for! We know this sounds like a lot of hard work – who has time to read every label and search online for every product that you want to buy? But the good news is you don’t have to! There is a wonderful (and free!) bar-code scanning app called Giki that will do all of the hard work for you. Just scan the product that you want to buy and it will tell you all of the information you could ever want to know about that product. Whether it’s local pollution, global climate change, conservation, animal welfare or health, it will give you everything that you need to make an informed decision! Thankfully, using this app will also help you to avoid fruit and produce that is contributing to the sloth deformity epidemic in Costa Rica by way of rampant pesticide usage and forest fragmentation. It’s a win for everybody!

NEWLY PUBLISHED: sloths hanging out for a drink!

Our latest work has just been published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment: https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/fee.1955

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A long‐held presumption in ecology is that sloths get all the water they need from the foliage they consume, and few documented observations exist of either of the two sloth genera drinking in the wild. We photographed a male brown‐throated sloth (Bradypus variegatus) lapping water from the surface of a river in Costa Rica. This sighting prompts many additional questions. For example, how widespread is drinking behavior and how frequently does it occur? Methods used to assess water retention in wild sloths suggest that this behavior seldom occurs, so drinking is likely a method of maintaining osmotic balance when faced with extreme ambient temperatures, low precipitation, or increased consumption of mature (ie drier) leaves. If fresh water access is indeed important, there are further implications relating to the captive husbandry of sloths in zoos and rescue centers (where they often face drier climes, typically don’t have access to water, and have a very low survival rate), and for conservation, especially after habitat fragmentation, where changes in land use can restrict water access (eg irrigation diverting stable water sources, roads that are difficult for strictly arboreal animals to cross). Moving forward, the predicted trend toward a hotter, drier climate for Central and South American rainforests may negatively impact the sloths’ potentially delicate water balance, particularly in view of their limited energy budget and inability to travel long distances. If all sloths need a drink from time to time to stay healthy, it’s important to make sure they can get one.

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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.