Do you have a sloth release program?
We get this question often at the Sloth Sanctuary. Many of the rescued sloths that are brought to us are adults that have been injured by dogs, power lines, cars, etc., a tragic result of human encroachment into the sloth’s habitat. These sloths are quarantined and accessed for injuries and illnesses by our full-time veterinary staff. We care for their injuries and medical needs and monitor their rehabilitation progress. If they haven’t lost a limb, are paralyzed, or were blinded from their injuries, we then determine, after rehabilitation, if they are strong and healthy enough to go back to the wild. They are then placed into a “transition enclosure” located inside the forest near the sanctuary compound, where once again the sloth can feel the rain and the wind, and hear and smell their natural forest home. This process can be anywhere from one month to three, depending on the individual. When we determine they are thriving in this protected environment they are returned to their home territory. We have reintroduced over 120 rehabilitated sloths that were over one year of age when they arrived injured to the sanctuary.
It is much more difficult to release hand-raised orphaned sloths. In the wild, a baby sloth lives with its mother for at least 12 months, during which time it clings to its mother, and learns all the essential skills required to survive in the wild from her. One of the most important lessons to learn is which leaves are safe to eat. As a species, a sloth can eat from some 100 different tree species, and most of the leaves that sloths eat are toxic, a tree’s strategy to avoid over-predation of the leaves. Each individual sloth has a “preference” of eight to 10 different trees, learning from, and “inheriting”, its mother’s preferences, thus minimizing a toxic load of leaves. Many other mammals learn safe food choices through trial and error – if they feel sick after eating a certain food they will avoid it in the future. The sloth’s digestion is very slow making it much more difficult for them to use the “trial and error method” of successful foraging. It can take up to 30 days for a single leaf to go through a sloth! If a sloth feeds from the same tree species for too long it risks overdosing on that particular toxin – and unfortunately they won’t realize it until it’s too late! We simply do not know enough about their natural diet to be able to teach this to the orphaned babies that are rescued and brought to the sanctuary. To complicate it further, in order to provide the baby sloths being hand-raised at the sanctuary with the best chance of survival, they are raised in a clean, sterile environment. However this makes releasing them even more difficult as they build up no natural defenses against invisible predators; the bacteria and microbes found in the rainforest. So much more research is required!
We initiated a release program a number of years back but sadly, it was not successful. Every cloud does have a silver lining, though, and in this case it made us realize just how very little is known, and how much there is still to learn, about these fascinating animals!
To date, no one has ever documented the successful release of a hand-reared sloth to the wild through radio collaring or tracking.
This is not just a sloth-problem – it is unfortunately the case for many mammal species, especially those in which the babies spend such a long period of time with their mother – there is a reason for this large maternal investment! Despite generous funding, the development of release programs for highly intelligent and social apes such as orangutans and chimpanzees still remains a huge challenge. Even these quick learners never become truly wild after being hand-reared! They are often maintained on protected islands where they can be closely monitored and receive provisional food. A similar problem is faced by conservationists working with pandas and slow lorises, as they have yet to successfully introduce a hand-reared animal to the wild.
At the Sloth Sanctuary we are striving to achieve a release program for our hand-reared orphaned sloths and in order to achieve this, we are currently completing research into the diet and habitat preference of wild sloths. We realize that it is an unsustainable strategy to release animals back into an environment that still has the same dangers that caused them to need our help in the first place. To combat this, much of our work is focusing on determining and minimizing these threats. Furthermore, we are also working to discover a way for the sloths hand-raised here at the sanctuary to build up enough natural defenses to allow them to survive in the wild.
Until then, we provide a safe home for all the orphaned babies that are brought in to us. We are also hoping to place many of these hand-reared sloths in zoos around the world that specialize in conservation through education, to act as sloth ambassadors and to help raise awareness of the problems they face.