In 2011, Evergreen State College students Jakob Shockey, Samuel Kaviar and Peter Sundberg found themselves in Panama, counting pygmy three-toed sloths. This particular species of sloth was discovered in 2001, and is critically endangered. Indeed, when Shockey, Kaviar and Sundberg finished their counting the results were startling: only 79 of the sloths remained - in the world.
The experience became the subject of a recent piece in Scientific American. It also bonded the Evergreen students together in an effort to help save the pygmy three-toed sloth, which live in mangrove trees of Isla Escudo de Veraguas. It's become a passion.
This week as part of our every Monday feature "The Horse's Mouth," much like Kaviar, Shockey and Sundberg have spent time explaining the importance of the pygmy three-toed sloth to the natives of Isla Escudo, they take a moment to explain the animal and their experience to The Daily Weekly.
Seattle Weekly: According to the Scientific American article, originally, Jakob, you traveled to Panama to study the manatee population. Can you explain the decision to shift your focus to the pygmy three-toed sloth, and what led you to it?
sloth, and what led you to it?
Jakob Shockey: I initially contacted Lenin Riquelme from a Panamanian NGO called "Conservación, Naturaleza, y Vida" on his work regarding the local manatee. He was wrapping up that research, but he'd recently heard reports of the imminent risk to Isla Escudo's pygmy sloths and mangrove habitat. Escudo lays within the territory of the indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé region, and he asked if I'd be interested in going to the island to assess the conditions of the pygmy sloth population and talk with the local community.
When I first contacted Lenin, my coauthors and I were working together on a study of Harbor Seal behavior. Our group research dynamic was excellent, and we decided to tackle this project together. In Panama, Lenin Riquelme helped us negotiate the permitting process and obtain permission from the indigenous authority. However, we lost contact with him early on, and we relied on our rusty Spanish, student loans, and passion for the project to continue the work.
Sam Kaviar: I was initially going to study a fishing bat, the Greater Bulldog bat. As Jakob mentioned we were working on a Harbor Seal study and we were camping by the banks of the Dosewallips on the Olympic Peninsula huddling around a fire, and when he told me the story about his initial contact with the Panamanian NGO. I could immediately see the importance and the interest in the research, and it started to take over my consciousness.
Can you talk about your reaction to finding out only 79 pygmy sloths remained? That had to be fairly distressing. Have you always thought you could turn things around, or have there been moments when the problem felt too dire?
Kaviar: We were on Escudo for about 3 weeks observing the sloths and asking questions before we decided to start the census. Our work went in that direction because we were worried about just how few sloths we were able to find. So I had a hunch there wasn't a lot, but when we completed the survey I was shocked. I kept thinking "Is that all?" and scanning the trees looking for more sloths. I've definitely had moments when the situation seems hopeless. By some conservation standards 200 is a magic number below which population viability is hopeless. It actually begs some really interesting evolutionary questions such as how is speciation even possible with such a small population and what was the historical size of the Pygmy Sloth population and the mangrove thickets? But I'm not actually hopeless, the California Condors came back from a population of just 22, and these sloths have been through a lot, they are pretty amazing.
When you started to talking to locals about the sloths and the danger they were in, what was the initial reaction like? Has it been easy to win people over, or does it take some convincing? Were locals accepting and appreciative of your efforts, or was there any backlash?
Kaviar: Initially folks didn't know what to think of us, they don't see outsiders all that often in that area, and we had to slowly earn the trust of the community. Many of the people there don't speak Spanish and speak their indigenous language, Ngäbere, and I was hanging out with this sweet grandma learning simple phrases in their language and we got to talking about the sloths and she was the one who taught me to say "Ku Deku Narobe," that is "the sloths of Escudo de Veraguas are special/unique." The local community doesn't spend a lot of time on Escudo, most people never go there and so they didn't know the sloths were endemic. Escudo is thought of as this special place in Ngobe culture so I think it made sense to people that is has endemic species. People seemed to really take pride in learning that there were these animal species found on their land that were unique and found nowhere else in the world. I never experienced any backlash about the sloths. We did workshops in the schools and distributed coloring books that our friend Miranda Ciotti made that featured the endemic species of Escudo. After a while I would hear people talking about the sloths around town, and children would randomly go into sloth impressions around us - hanging on things, moving real slow, and making sloth calls. And giggling - lots of giggling.
Where does your research and your work go from here? What's the next step?
Kaviar: I think in many ways that is an open question. We still have quite a few unanswered questions about the Pygmy Sloths that we'd like to answer. It's also important to see what the population trend is for these little guys. We were asked what our suggestions are for protecting the Pygmy Sloths, and we sent a letter expressing our views to the Ngöbe-Buglé congress. We'd like to follow up with them. One thing that is critical is protecting the mangroves on the island. We're even open to running a captive breeding program if it looks necessary. I think we all had a vision of some kind of presence within the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca that asks scientific questions, can conservation work, and can be an educational resource. There's limited access to education in the Comarca, and it seemed that there's a lot of interest in science and field biology, and the folks there are really knowledgeable about their land. All of this requires money, though. Money we don't have.
EXTRA CREDIT: What's the cutest thing you've ever seen a pygmy sloth do?
Shockey: The baby pygmy sloths, hands down, were the cutest to watch. While their mothers moved in the slow, deliberate manner that sloths are famous for; the baby sloths were fast, even hyper. I remember watching one climb from its mother's back to stomach to back again in circles while she slept.
Kaviar: I have to second Jakob on the baby pygmy sloths; they're amazing. Also sometimes when we'd find the sloths in the middle of these epiphytes all huddled up just hanging out. I remember finding one mom with a baby like that.