April 22, 2019
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Science & Technology

A haven of peace and care for Panama's sloths

By Maria M. Mur

Panama City, Apr 2 (efe-epa).- Mandy the sloth was electrocuted by power line as a baby and lost a limb and part of a jaw. Its mother did not survive, but the little one was rescued. Two years later, it lives with Naos, a sloth unable to move its hind limbs due to a genetic deficiency.

"Sloths tend to be very solitary animals, but these two are an exception. The came here when they were babies, grew up together and won't willingly be separated," the biologist Nestor Correa, director of the only rescue and rehab center for sloths in Panama, told EFE.

Located on the banks of Gatun Lake outside the Panamanian capital, the sloth sanctuary functions as a kind of hospital, where the wards have trunks and branches instead of beds, and where a dozen experts care for these sleepy natives of the tropical forests of Central and South America.

"Once they leave their natural habitat, they are totally lost and become defenseless because they're so slow, even slower than turtles," said Correa, who heads the Pan-American Conservation Association (APPC), the NGO that runs the sanctuary.

Their sluggishness - they can hardly get up to 0.25 kph (0.16 mph) and take almost five minutes to cross a two-lane road - exposes them to endless dangers like being run over by cars or bitten by dogs.

Most sloths that come to the shelter have been rescued by forest rangers or anonymous citizens who found them creeping around lost in urban areas. These are generally returned to the forest after 48 hours.

Others, like Mandy and Naos, require special care all their lives and would be unable to survive if set free.

"We had to amputate Mandy's right hind leg because it had a big infection. This was an abnormal case because very few sloths can survive amputations," the biologist said.

One that also looks like it will never leave the sanctuary is the adult sloth that was recently taken in, which has not yet been given a name, and at the moment is in the special area reserved for baby sloths due to the delicate state of its health.

Some kids from the Panamanian interior used it as a ball to play soccer with and damaged its spinal column, so its future does not look promising: "It's doing its part, but its recovery will be very difficult," one of the caretakers said.

Sloths, never more than 1 meter (3 feet) long, are the essence of laziness. They sleep about 18 hours a day and can spend hours hanging upside down from a tree branch. Few people realize, however, that they are excellent swimmers.

They are also considered the "gardeners of the tropical forests" because they clean the treetops and play an important role is spreading the seeds.

There are six species of sloths in the world, divided into two large families: two-toed sloths and three-toed sloths. The only one currently in danger of extinction is the pygmy three-toed sloth, found only on the paradisiacal island in the Panamanian Caribbean called Escudo de Veraguas.

"We humans are their biggest threat. Urban development is killing the sloths. We're cutting down more trees all the time," the biologist said, while watching how a volunteer fed a three-month-old sloth with a baby bottle full of diluted goat's milk.

The sanctuary, opened to the public in 2017, has become one of the big tourist attractions of Panama, one of the countries with the greatest biodiversity in the world - 30 percent of its territory of 75,000 sq. km (29,000 sq. miles) is under some type of conservation regulations - though the government allots hardly any public funds to the rescue and rehab of wildlife, environmentalists say.

"Some years ago when people would see a sloth they'd beat it to death because they believed these mammals carried diseases. Thank God citizens have become aware it isn't true, but unfortunately governments haven't," Correa said.

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