Connected Gardens: habitat restoration
Sloths are perfectly adapted for life high up in the canopy of ‘primary’ rainforests. Primary rainforests are defined as those forests that are in pristine condition, having never been disturbed by humans. They typically have very tall trees (that can reach over 250 feet in height) forming an upper canopy, followed by several layers of understory canopy. In this environment, the trees all connect and so the sloths can travel easily throughout their home-range without having to come down to the ground very often. Sloths have thrived in this continuous and undisturbed habitat for over 64 million years, and they are continuing to thrive in regions where this ecosystem remains.
Costa Rica does not have enough healthy forest left – particularly primary rainforest – for the sloths to inhabit. In fact, as of 2005, only 3.5% of the country was covered by primary rainforest (compared to an average of 40-50% for other South and Central American countries). In the 1990’s Costa Rica had one of the worst deforestation rates in the entire world, with only 26% of the country having any sort of tree cover left. Realising the detrimental effect that this was having on ecosystems and wildlife, the Costa Rican government implemented some impressively rigorous conservation strategies to protect the remaining forests. As a result of these efforts, Costa Rica is now the only tropical country in the world that has managed to actually stop and reverse deforestation – the amount of forested land is increasing year by year, albeit very slowly. While this is certainly beneficial, the loss of the ancient primary forests can never be reversed, and it is the true primary forest that the sloths need in order to thrive.
While Costa Rica may appear to be a green and eco-friendly country on the whole, the secondary growth forest that covers much of the land is sparse and fragmented in comparison to the dense vegetation found in the primary rainforests. If you look closely at the tree cover in many regions, you will notice that the trees rarely connect or overlap at the top. This is manageable for species such as monkeys that can traverse gaps by jumping, but it is detrimental to sloths which are forced to descend to the floor and crawl across the ground where they are extremely vulnerable. Sadly, there is no way to replace the lost primary rainforest, and the knock-on consequences for wildlife are going to be seen for the foreseeable future.
WHAT WE ARE DOING:
The negative impacts on the sloth populations in Costa Rica are already evident, with an abnormally high number of baby sloths being born with genetic deformities in the Limon province. From our latest genetic research, we have been able to identify that these defects are primarily due to a combination of inbreeding from habitat fragmentation and pesticide exposure from agriculture.
In 2019 we launched the Connected Gardens Project to mitigate the impacts of urban development on the native wildlife in Costa Rica. The main objective of this project is to generate biological corridors for biodiversity by increasing habitat connectivity and availability within and between private properties and other fragments of adjoining forests. This is being achieved by reforesting altered lands with native and naturalized species of tree, and through the installation of natural and artificial wildlife bridges. In the SloCo forest nursery we are growing a variety of trees species that are favoured by sloths, including cecropia (guarumo), sangrillo, ficus, mountain almond and beach almond. The saplings are then planted in target areas and are marked with signage to promote the care and protection of the tree by the local community. We aim to have planted 5000+ trees in the South Caribbean region by the end of 2019!