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Sloths: The Guiana Shield’s Most Adorable Ambassadors

 

Since the day I first laid eyes on a sloth, I have been obsessed. How could I not be? They’re adorable, gentle, slow-moving creatures with irresistible smiles. When I learned that as part of our recent filming trip to Suriname we would be visiting a sloth sanctuary, I was beyond overjoyed.

The purpose of our trip — which was made possible through the Visual Storytelling Alliance, a partnership between CI and Sony — was to film CI’s work in the Guiana Shield. The Guiana Shield is a tropical wilderness spanning six countries — including Suriname — which contains about 25% of the world’s remaining intact forest and produces as much as 10–15% of the world’s fresh water.

Sloths — being, in my opinion, the cutest of all forest dwellers — make great ambassadors for the forests of the Guiana Shield. Like all of us, they depend on the forest to survive and thrive. They spend virtually all their time in the treetops — eating, sleeping and even giving birth in the trees. The more time I spent with them, the more I learned firsthand why it is so important we conserve areas like the Guiana Shield.

Monique Pool, founder of the Green Heritage Fund Suriname, has been rescuing sloths for the past few years. A close partner and friend of CI, Monique invited us to visit her sloth sanctuary, which in fact is her home. When we arrived at her house, we quickly became “slothified” — a term Monique came up with to describe her situation. It means “overwhelmed by sloth.”

There were about 20 baby three-toed sloths hanging in the trees in her backyard, about a dozen more adults and babies hanging in her living room, and several others dispersed around her home and yard. She had a constant flow of volunteers in her living room, feeding the babies goat milk out of eye droppers.

As my team and I oohed and aahed over the adorable babies, we watched a stressed Monique running around trying to make sure all the animals were happy and well fed. We filmed her daily quest for the sloths’ favorite food — cecropia leaves — which included a stop at an abandoned building, her parents’ backyard and even a nearby cemetery.

Monique is used to having one or two sloths at a time, but in the past few months, she’s housed and fed more than 200 animals — mostly sloths, but also anteaters and porcupines. It all started back in October 2012, when Monique got a call that a 6.8-hectare (16.8-acre) plot of land near the capital city of Paramaribo was being cleared and several sloths had been found as the trees were being cut down.

Rather than leaving the sloths to die, the people clearing the land called Monique in an attempt to relocate them to a safe place. She and her team rushed to the scene to find it was a sloth haven. There were both three-toed and two toed sloths, but the majority were Bradypus tridactylus, a species of three-toed sloth which only occurs in the Guiana Shield. This is how Monique became “slothified.”

Since sloths don’t survive well in captivity, Monique tries to release the adults back into the wild as quickly as possible. However, the babies and their surrogate mothers need a couple of months to gain the strength to head back to their forest home.

Luckily, our visit coincided perfectly with a release of several of the adults. A group of dedicated volunteers showed up at her house and immediately started loading about 20 sloths and one porcupine into four vehicles. We caravanned to a reserve about one hour away from Paramaribo.

The energy of the whole release was infectious. I had to jump in and be a part of it. Luckily, armed with my camera, I was able to help out by documenting the animals as they were released.

As the sloths emerged from their cages one by one, I photographed the animals as they made their way onto their beloved trees. I would have never guessed sloths could move so fast!

It was such a special moment. Watching them grab onto the trees and scurry up into their canopy homes was truly touching. It really helped me connect with nature in a way I had never experienced before. Truth be told, it was one of the best days of my life.

Spending the day with these adorable animals taught me a bit about my own life. As Monique says, “You can learn a lot about managing stress, just by watching them.” They are peaceful, sweet, slow-moving creatures that need nothing more than the comfort of the forests they live in.

Over the next few days, my team and I traveled around Suriname and neighboring Guyana, learning more about the forests of the Guiana Shield. My experience with the sloths really stayed with me. In a country where forests cover nearly 95% of the land, sloths are pretty lucky in Suriname. Much of this forest is protected, largely thanks to the work of CI.

Stories like these remind us of the importance of protecting the forests — not only for the benefit of these irresistibly cute animals, but also for us humans. The forests might be homes to the sloths, but they also provide us with many of the things we need to survive and thrive: clean air, fresh water, a stable climate and countless other benefits, both mental and physical. Together, with the sloths as our inspiration, we can help conserve what is important to us all.

Rebecca Field is the video production manager on CI’s visual storytelling team.