Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC) believes that community involvement and buy-in are among the most important components to ensuring the success of long-term conservation efforts. Recent events near one of our field sites in Panama showed us that by involving the local communities in their own conservation efforts, we have helped spread a much wider conservation movement, one that stretches beyond sea turtles to other endangered species… like sloths!
But what exactly do sea turtles have to do with sloths?
Since 2003, STC has worked to protect sea turtles at different critical nesting sites in the Bocas del Toro Province of Panama. Most of the local communities historically depended on these turtles as a staple of food or income. STC has worked to educate and involve local communities in monitoring, research and tourism ventures, investing in sustainable livelihoods.
While the beaches of Bocas del Toro are important nesting sites for endangered leatherback and hawksbills, the mangroves of a nearby island are home to the incredibly rare pygmy three-toed sloth. This species of sloth is found nowhere else in the world and there are only 79 documented sloths remaining. This species is classified by the IUCN as Critically Endangered.
On September 9, STC’s field staff in Bocas del Toro were contacted to help settle a situation at the local airport. Local community members were trying to prevent eight of these incredibly rare sloths from being removed from the wild and shipped to private zoos in the U.S. and Panama City. Six were to be taken to the Dallas World Aquarium (DWA) and two to a zoo in Panama City.
DWA claimed that bringing the sloths to the zoo was part of an ongoing conservation project. They were going to attempt captive breeding and then reintroduce the sloths bred in captivity back into the wild. While this might sound like a great idea, removing 10% of the remaining wild population could actually have serious repercussions on the already small gene pool and previous attempts of reintroducing sloths into the wild have not yielded much success.
The community was furious at this attempt to remove a local natural resource and demanded the sloths be returned to their natural habitat. This passionate reaction from the community showed a significant shift in local attitudes about wildlife conservation. Not long ago the local communities might have seen the sloth as commonplace or a source of food. Now the community was taking action to protect the endangered species.
The protest put pressure on authorities to detain the flight that was meant to take the sloths to Panama City. The community demanded that if DWA wanted to perform research on the sloths, that they do so in situ “as the turtle people do.” STC’s work in the region was highlighted as an appropriate example for onsite conservation and research with little intervention while involving the community.
A DWA representative finally announced they would not export the sloths. On September 10, STC field staff loaded the sloths on their boat along with a group of local citizens and representatives of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The group helped the sloths climb back into the branches of the mangroves they call home.
This sloth incident was an indicator of the growing environmental ethic spreading through Bocas del Toro, highlighting the power of communities to protect and advocate for the appropriate use of their natural resources. It was a vibrant reminder of the importance of involving communities in conservation efforts. STC is pleased to see that the impact of its conservation efforts has moved beyond sea turtles, providing community-based conservation models that can be replicated in the region to protect other endangered species.
If you’d like to watch more videos of STC staff releasing these sloths back into the wild, head to our YouTube page! For a more detailed story on the sloth saga, stay tuned for the next issue of STC’s newsletter, The Velador, which will be sent out later this fall.