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. 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 impact on a multitude of species: poaching, electrocutions, traffic collisions, animal cruelty and habitat loss to name a few.
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 the individuals carrying out the act to the authorities permitting it, but also an international problem – from the consumers who want the cheap fruit to the unaware tourists wanting a “sloth selfie” or a pet sloth. 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 green algae living in their hair, people occasionally perceive them as dirty and smelly creatures. Moreover, because they are historically named after one of the Seven Deadly Sins (the sin of being slothful or lazy), some people even go as far as referring to the sloth as “the devil’s 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 today may grow up to become future scientists, biologists or conservationists, and as such, the simple power of education should never be underestimated.
Our outreach workshops aim to connect children to nature, and to equip them with the knowledge and skills necessary to identify environmental challenges in their communities related to the conservation of sloths and the rainforest ecosystem. The programs currently take place in local primary schools throughout the Limon province of Costa Rica where children are taught about the biology of sloths, the importance of the ecosystem, the challenges that sloths are facing and how they can help. Each student then has the opportunity to bring what they have learnt to life by visiting a nearby wildlife rehabilitation center. Here they are able to witness 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. Meeting these animals builds an emotional connection in the children and gives them a reason to get involved in helping to protect wildlife in the future. We are aiming to further expand our education program in 2019 to include programs for older children and to target schools in other regions.