Sunday, January 16

‘So enigmatic’: injured sloth inspires rescue center in Venezuela | Wildlife

IIt is almost a year from the day that Haydée and Juan Carlos Rodríguez first saw an injured sloth lying on the side of the road while on a road. In an attempt to cross from one tree to another in the Venezuelan town of San Antonio de Los Altos, near Caracas, the sloth had climbed onto a high-voltage power line and was electrocuted.

The animal had lost the claws on three of its legs due to burns, and a local wildlife expert told the Rodriguezes that it was unlikely to survive and that they should let it die.

Today, the sloth is not only thriving, but has proven to be the inspiration for the couple to create what they believe to be Venezuela’s first dedicated sloth rescue and rehabilitation center. “Our goal is to give injured sloths a second chance at a life in the wild,” says Haydée, 36, a marketing specialist. “We hope that people are more aware of what to do if they see [injured] sloths, and contribute to the knowledge in our country of this enigmatic and little-studied species ”.

The Rodriguez work is vital considering the state of wildlife rehabilitation and conservation in Venezuela, which has not received sufficient funding for years. Once a prosperous petro-state, Venezuela has been mired in a relentless economic and political crisis since 2014, when it was hit by falling oil prices. Its GDP has fallen by two thirds in five years, and is expected to continue to contract as the country’s problems are exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hyperinflation is around 5,500%, according to the IMF, and it is estimated that more than 90% of Venezuelans live below the poverty line. The humanitarian crisis has been compounded by sanctions imposed by the United States, which appear to target specific politicians, but have been condemned as having a devastating impact on the civilian population. In light of these issues, wildlife conservation has taken a back seat. “Controlling poaching and deforestation is not high on the government’s agenda,” says Jon Paul Rodríguez, professor of ecology at the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC) and co-founder of Provita, a wildlife conservation NGO.

The Rodríguez family have built playgrounds to simulate the natural environment of sloths
The Rodriguezes have built climbing structures to simulate the natural environment of sloths. Photograph: Courtesy of Haydée and Juan Carlos Rodríguez

Imerú Alfonzo Hernández, an environmentalist who has assisted the Rodríguezes in their rescue work, has an even more dire vision of the conservation sector in Venezuela. “The destruction of the oil industry and the resulting unemployment has caused the state to resort to environmental degradation [in search of revenue], without measuring the consequences, ”says Hernández, who is president of the National Association of Eco-defenders, which promotes activities for the protection of the environment in low-income communities. Due to the gasoline shortage, he adds, more trees have been cut down for firewood.

Although Venezuela is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, its rich ecosystems have been eroded by gold mining and other industrial activities, Hernández says. According to Global Forest Watch, 533,000 hectares of primary moist forest were destroyed between 2002 and 2020, an area more than three times the size of London. “The environmental protection programs of universities, foundations and associations like ours have been practically eliminated, donations are almost nil and research is paralyzed [by lack of funding]”Says Hernández.

On Zoom, the Rodriguezes explain how that first rescue inspired them to do more for the country’s sloths. Chuwie, named for the Star Wars character Chewbacca, moved the Rodriguezes with his will to live, despite losing a kidney and leg wounds that turned septic.

“Sadly, it wouldn’t survive in the wild with just one claw,” says Juan Carlos, 45, whose regular job is as a 3D rendering artist. Chuwie serenely chews a fig leaf in the background, showing the distinctive dark patch of fur that males grow on their backs in young adulthood. “But it is not a pet at all and we refrain from touching it. Sloths are solitary animals. ”

Currently, the Rodriguezes have three other sloths in their care, who they affectionately refer to as their tenants, including a baby who lost his mother, has a voracious appetite, and is on his way to being released into the wild when he’s strong enough. . The couple have built climbing structures and generously sized cots to retrieve sloths, which are placed on their balcony overlooking the mountains. In the garden, there is space for animals to practice climbing trees. “We try as much as possible to simulate the environment in which they live, because ultimately that is where we want to return them. It’s where they belong, ”says Juan Carlos.

The Rodriguezes hope to return those sloths healthy enough to nature
The Rodríguezes hope to return to the wild those sloths that are healthy enough. Photograph: Courtesy of Haydée and Juan Carlos Rodríguez

Currently, there is no comprehensive research on the sloth population in Venezuela. “I estimate there are hundreds of thousands of them,” says Jon Paul Rodríguez. “They are common on the edges between urban and forested areas… but they need a continuous tree cover to get around. If the forests disappear, they will die. “

In the last five months, Juan Carlos and Haydée have rescued 41 sloths and returned 36 of them to the lush vegetation where they are often found. Some could not be saved: they had suffered fatal injuries from electrocution, which according to the Rodríguezes is the most common cause of death they see. Dog bites and car accidents are two other reasons cited in the calls they receive.

“U.S [humans] they have invaded your space. When they can’t move from tree to tree, they get confused and get on power lines. This is how they meet death, ”says Haydée. All of these rescues are documented in a Instagram page named after Chuwie. The couple also diligently collect data on the sloths’ dietary and lifestyle habits.

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With no lazy conservationists to turn to within Venezuela, the couple have had to build a network of veterinarians and experts from across South America willing to provide advice and support. Sam Trull, Director of the sloth institute in Costa Rica, which rehabilitates sloths and reintroduces them into the wild, says that he now regards the couple as his friends and that he has found it rewarding to be part of his mission.

“The more lazy you help, the better,” says Trull. “For now, except for the maned sloth in Brazil and the pygmy sloth in Panama, [three-toed] Sloths are not believed to be in danger of extinction. But that’s a false sense of security, because there is no information on their numbers and there hasn’t been much interest in studying them until recently. What I like to say, which sounds a bit cheesy, is that just because sloths aren’t in danger doesn’t mean they’re not in danger. “

In Venezuela, Haydée and Juan Carlos are determined to continue their work, inspired by Chuwie’s remarkable restoration of health. “For us,” says Haydée, “he’s the most beautiful sloth in the world.”

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