Costa Rica collaboration returns sloths to wild

Posted at 9:01 AM, Sep 11, 2015

One infamously slow-moving resident of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens is lending a hand (in her case two toes) to help others of her species survive in the rainforests of Costa Rica.

Over Labor Day weekend, the zoo kicked off its Moe the sloth T-shirt fundraiser. A portion of the sales will benefit the Sloth Institute of Costa Rica. That’s in addition to donations from proceeds of the zoo’s “Moe”mentous Sloth Encounter, which allows visitors to get up close and personal with the two-toed creatures. The money helps pay for Moe’s care, and it boosts the institute and zoo’s collaborative effort to research, rescue, rehabilitate and release sloths back into their native environment.

In addition to preservation efforts for Costa Rican sloths (the brown-throated three-toed sloth and Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth), the sloth institute will return two orphaned, hand-reared youths (named Ellen and Kermie) back into the wild.

“This is the first time that we’re aware of sloths’ being hand-reared and reintroduced,” said Sarah Dapper, head keeper of the zoo’s interpretive collection. “Usually when you have animals that are hand-reared, they end up in education programs or in sanctuaries, so this is a really big thing.”

Amanda Chambers, team leader for the interpretive collection, explained that sloth institute cofounder Sam Trull created a kind of sloth “boot camp” to teach the hand-reared sloths necessary survival skills. She said at first the pair will be in a larger outdoor enclosure where they’ll be protected while they learn to forage for their own food and water under the rainforest’s canopy. She said that, as they become more confident, they’ll be allowed to come and go from the enclosure until they feel self-assured enough to live on their own. The two will be tracked using VHF collars supplied by Cincinnati Zoo, again from proceeds earned through the “Moe”mentous Encounter.

“The plan is monitor the two hand-reared sloths that are being released, plus two wild sloths, to help compare the data and see if this kind of reintroduction can be successful,” she said.

Follow the journey

See pictures from Chambers and Dapper’s travels on Facebook.

Both Chambers and Dapper returned Sept. 7 from a 10-day trip to Costa Rica to assist with the release. As part of the zoo-institute collaboration, Chambers and Dapper will help the institute establish a program to educate both the public and volunteers on how to protect and care for sloths. Dapper said they formed a bond with Trull, the institute co-founder, when she visited Moe at the Cincinnati Zoo while in town for a conference. Trull helped establish the Costa Rican institute in 2014 after receiving two orphaned sloths through Kids Saving the Rainforest program.

“Because the sloth institute is new, this is where we get to help them at the ground level,” Dapper said. “They don’t have an education program yet, and they want our help. Cincinnati is an education facility; our zoo is so strong in education. They want to learn: How do we educate the public? How do we get this message out? That’s something we’re known for here.”

In the wild, sloths have few natural predators remaining other than man, Dapper explained. She said while slow moving, sloths easily protect themselves in the tree canopy growing algae to camouflage their fur. She said they only come down from the trees every seven to 10 days to use the restroom then beat a hasty retreat back to safety.

“The main threat in Costa Rica in this particular region is human encroachment,” Dapper said. “Because Costa Rica is a developing country, the electrical wires are not insulated, so animals grab a wire to get across a road and end up getting electrocuted, in which case they fall and they’re injured and then Sam gets called out to get them.”

In addition to electrical hazards, the sloth institute rehabilitates sloths injured by cars and domestic dogs.

Chambers said that, as people continue to encroach on the sloths’ natural habitat, the animals will face increased challenges. While they’re not considered an endangered species, she said it’s important to intervene before the damage is done.

“Our zoo feels it’s important to get involved before something becomes critically endangered and focus on how we can ward that off,” she said. “So that’s another reason it’s important to be involved with this program. “

Both Chambers and Dapper came to the zoo 15 years ago. They met while working together at the children’s zoo and co-founded the interpretive collection, a program which promotes education and engagement with animals through outreach programs and animal encounters both on and off grounds. Dapper explained it’s especially important for people to get close enough to animals to care about their well-being.

“Studies have proven, if there’s a physical connection between a person and an animal, then they're more likely to become more invested in that animal, saving them and their region,” she said. “So that’s why we’re here, to create intimate experiences for guests.”

Now 16 years old, Moe will most likely live into her 30s, Chambers said. As one of the zoo’s ambassadors, Moe resides in the Education Center, where visitors can usually view her through the day. Because of her tremendous popularity, Moe is featured at 9:10 a.m. Sundays through Thursdays for “Sloth Chat,” during which visitors hear all about her as she slowly climbs to her favorite perch. Chambers said they hope to build on Moe’s fame to help increase awareness of her two- and three-toed counterparts in the wild.

“Moe’s really well known — people will travel from hundreds of miles away to come and see her specifically,” Chambers said. “Some people say, ‘We’re coming to see the sloth that you have because we love sloths.’ People love them. Sloths are really hot right now.”

Moe, a two-toed sloth (named as a play on slo-mo), is helping save others of her kind in the rainforests of Costa Rica. (Christine Charlson for WCPO)

Sloths: A quick primer

  • There are six surviving species of sloths, all native to Central or South America.
  • Four, of the genus Bradypus, are three-toed. Of them, only the brown-throated sloth, which has the widest habitat of the four, and the critically endangered pygmy sloth, live in Central America. The pygmy species now exists only on an island off the east coast of Panama.
  • Two, of the genus Choloepus, are two-toed. Linnaeus’s sloth lives north of the Amazon River in South America, while Hoffmann’s sloth — Moe’s species — lives farther north into Central America.
  • All six species spend much of their lives in trees, including mating and giving birth. They sleep between 15 and 20 hours a day and don’t move much even when they’re awake.

Sources: National Geographic, Wikipedia