It's four o'clock on a Sunday morning, and I'm stood beside a check-in desk at Heathrow airport discussing sloth body odour with a pair of American tourists. This curious conversation comes thanks to the flimsy piece of paper I have tucked under my right arm sporting, in bold, black ink, the mission statement I’ll be carrying with me for the next three months. In a few hours, we'll both be going our separate ways - while they return to regular life in Washington, I’ll be boarding a plane to Panama to embark on my biggest and most exciting adventure yet…
It's been three days since I arrived here in Gamboa. This historic canal-side town - home to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute - must be one of the only places in the world where scientists outnumber regular, working citizens; you can rarely drive anywhere without spotting at least one towering mist net or elaborate tracking device. My home for the next three months is a pastel yellow, weatherboard three-story that’s nestled in the heart of the Soberania National Park, a 55,000 acre patch of ancient forest that holds host to a wealth of incredible life, from giant, alien-looking moths to sci-fi frogs and technicolour toucans. But there's one animal I'm particularly excited about encountering, and it’s quite possibly the most otherworldly of them all. It is, of course, the sloth.
For those of you that don’t know (or haven’t already guessed), I’m unashamedly obsessedwith sloths. It’s hard not to be brainwashed by their sweet, smiling faces and wonderfully weird ways, especially when you’ve got a job that’s as bizarre as mine. Last October, I landed the role as manager of Lucy Cooke’s Sloth Appreciation Society, and since then I’ve grown incredibly passionate about championing these kooky creatures. That’s why, this summer, I’ve teamed up with the Pan-American Conservation Association (APPC) to document what it really takes to rescue, rehabilitate and release wild sloths, and to even give it a go myself.
Upon leaving Tocumen International Airport that Sunday evening, I was greeted by a band of ominous-looking clouds that served as a handy reminder of what I could expect from the weather over the course of the next ninety days. It’s the wet season, and my driver was quick to warn me of the intense nature of the rains here: sudden, heavy downpours are guaranteed almost every day from now, right the way up until the end of December.
I ought to count myself lucky that heavy rain is all I’ll have to contend with while I’m here: the creatures I’ve come to avenge have it farworse. One of the biggest modern-day drivers of sloth death and injury across Central and South America is habitat destruction and fragmentation. Humankind’s relentless decimation of the forest is leaving these animals, along with many others, incredibly vulnerable to everything from road traffic strikes and power line electrocutions, to genetic deformities and even human cruelty.
In many cases, this is where the APPC steps in. Fronting the entire operation is biologist and conservationist Néstor Correa and his wife, Yiscel Yanguez. The pair have dedicated their entire lives to rescuing and rehabilitating Panamanian wildlife, and over the course of their organisation’s fourteen year history, they’ve been responsible for returning more than 3,500 individual animals back into the wild.
That having been said, it’s perhaps not surprising to hear that the APPC’s HQ is positively bursting with peculiar patients. Almost every inch of the place (which also happens to double up as Néstor and Yiscel’s home) is designed with the animals in mind; even the back garden is occupied, acting as a vital safe haven for a tapir named Valencia. She’s one of fewer than 5,000 Baird’s tapirs left on the planet, and Néstor tells me that she cannot be released thanks to how vulnerable she’d be to local poachers.
Out of all the types of animal the APPC receives - and the list is extensive - sloths account for around 30% of all rescue cases. There are currently seventeen sloths here, seven of which are fewer than six months old and in need of round-the-clock care. Baby Branston was the first to greet me when I arrived - he and his best buddy Pickle were both found orphaned in nearby areas of fragmented forest earlier this year.
You can find out more about the APPC’s work at www.appcpanama.org.
Follow the Sloth Appreciation Society on Instagram (@slothappreciationsociety) [www.instagram.com/slothappreciationsociety] and Like us on Facebook (@slothvilleofficial) [www.facebook.com/slothvilleofficial].