‘So enigmatic’: injured sloth inspires rescue center in Venezuela | Wildlife
IIt was almost a year to the day that Haydée and Juan Carlos Rodríguez first spotted an injured sloth lying on the side of the road while in the car. While trying to move from tree to tree in the Venezuelan town of San Antonio de Los Altos, near Caracas, the sloth climbed on a high-voltage power line and was electrocuted.
The animal had lost the claws of three of its legs to burns and a local wildlife expert told the Rodríguezes that it was not likely to survive and that they should let it die.
Today, the sloth is not only on the rise, but it also inspired the couple to create what they believe to be the first rescue and rehabilitation center dedicated to sloths in Venezuela. “Our goal is to give injured sloths a second chance to live in the wild,” says Haydée, 36, marketing specialist. “We hope that people will be more aware of what to do if they see [injured] lazy, and to contribute to the understanding in our country of this species so enigmatic and little studied.
The work of the Rodrígueze is vital given the state of rehabilitation and conservation of wildlife in Venezuela, which has been underfunded for years. Once a thriving petro-state, Venezuela has been in the throes of a relentless economic and political crisis since 2014, when it was hit by falling oil prices. Its GDP fell by two thirds within five years, and is expected to continue to contract as the country’s woes are exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hyperinflation is around 5,500%, according to the IMF, and more than 90% of Venezuelans are estimated to live below the poverty line. The humanitarian crisis has been made worse by the sanctions imposed by the United States, which ostensibly 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 a government priority,” says Jon Paul Rodríguez, professor of ecology at the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC) and co-founder of Provita, a conservation NGO from wildlife.
Imerú Alfonzo Hernández, an environmentalist who helped the Rodríguezes in their rescue work, has an even darker outlook on the conservation sector in Venezuela. “The destruction of the oil industry and the resulting unemployment have pushed the state to resort to environmental degradation. [in search of revenue], without measuring the consequences ”, explains Hernández, president of the National Association of Eco-Defenders, which encourages environmental protection activities in low-income communities. Due to a 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 humid 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 Hernandez.
On Zoom, the Rodriguez explain how that first rescue inspired them to make more of the country’s sloths. Chuwie – named after the Star Wars character Chewbacca – displaced the Rodrígueze with his will to live, despite the loss of a kidney and his leg injuries becoming septic.
“Unfortunately, he wouldn’t survive in the wild with just one clawed paw,” says Juan Carlos, 45, whose regular job is as a 3D rendering artist. Chuwie serenely nibbles at the leaf of a fig tree in the background, displaying the distinctive dark patch of fur that males grow on their backs in early adulthood. “But it is absolutely not a pet, and we refrain from touching it. Sloths are solitary animals.
Currently, the Rodríguezes support three other sloths, whom they affectionately call their tenants, including a baby who has lost its mother, has a voracious appetite and is about to be released back into the wild when he is strong enough. . The couple built generously sized climbing frames and camp beds for the recovering sloths, which are placed on their balconies overlooking the mountains. In the garden there is an area for the animals to practice climbing trees. “We try as much as possible to simulate the environment they live in, because that’s ultimately where we want to send them back. This is where they belong, ”says Juan Carlos.
At present, there is no comprehensive research on the sloth population in Venezuela. “I would estimate that there are hundreds of thousands,” says Jon Paul Rodríguez. “They are common on the edges between urban and forested areas… but they need continuous forest cover to move. If the forests disappear, they will die.
In the past five months, Juan Carlos and Haydée have rescued 41 sloths, and returned 36 in the lush greenery where they often find themselves. A few could not be saved – they suffered fatal injuries from electrocution, which the Rodriguez say is the most common cause of death they see. Dog bites and traffic accidents are two other reasons cited in the calls they receive.
“We [humans] have invaded their space. When they can’t move from tree to tree, they get confused and climb up power lines. This is how they meet their death, ”says Haydée. All these rescues are documented on a Instagram pages named after Chuwie. The couple are also diligently collecting data on the eating and lifestyle habits of sloths.
With no lazy environmentalists in Venezuela, the couple had to build a network of vets and experts from across South America ready to provide advice and support. Sam Trull, Director of laziness institute in Costa Rica, which rehabilitates sloths and reintroduces them to the wild, says she now views the couple as her friends and has found it rewarding to be part of their mission.
“The more lazy people I help, the better,” said Trull. “For now, with the exception of the maned sloth in Brazil and the pygmy sloth in Panama, [three-toed] lazy people are not thought to be in danger. But this is a false sense of security, as there is no information on their numbers, and there has not been much interest in studying them until recently. What I like to say, which sounds a little 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 health recovery. “For us,” said Haydée, “he’s the most beautiful sloth in the world.