Tortuguero: Wildlife bridges, castration clinics, and more!
Last year Team Sloth were thrilled to receive an invite to visit the Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica. Tortuguero is renowned as one of the most important turtle nesting sites in the whole world, and in particular, its white sand beaches are a haven for endangered green sea turtles.
We were excited to be connecting and forming new collaborations with a range of different local conservation organizations in the area, and this trip was an opportunity to learn more about the problems in the region and to come up with mutually beneficial solutions to help both the people and the wildlife.
Sadly, it quickly became apparent that the global pandemic had hit the village of Tortuguero hard. Historically, the residents of Tortuguero used to sustain themselves by harvesting the turtles for food, trading the turtle eggs, and creating items to sell from the shells.
Thankfully in recent years, the economic benefit of the turtles has slowly shifted away from exploitation and towards ecotourism, but this industry took a hard hit in 2020 and many local families found themselves in difficult positions.
A unique town
These issues are exacerbated by the fact that Tortuguero is a small, isolated town with no road access and absolutely no veterinary resources. The nearest vet clinic or wildlife rescue facility is over 2 hours away and can only be reached by a combination of boat and bus!
The dog population of the town now outweighs the human population 2:1, with 3000 dogs living alongside 1600 humans, and a lack of castration opportunities means that this problem is getting rapidly worse.
The large dog population is troublesome for a variety of reasons. A large outbreak of canine distemper this year threatened not only people’s pets but also raccoons, foxes, and even jaguars – a rare species that is already extremely vulnerable.
Unfortunately, dogs are now contributing to the rapid extinction of over 180 different wildlife species. In Tortuguero, they are attacking sloths as they move on the ground between trees, and they are also killing the sea turtles as they emerge onto the beach to lay their eggs. As an endangered species that is so closely intertwined with the livelihoods of the local community, Team Sloth felt impassioned to help restore the balance.
Organizing castration campaigns and beach clean-ups
After returning from our initial visit to Tortuguero last year, we began to hatch a plan that would benefit the community, the wildlife, and the dogs.
Working alongside Asociación Voluntarios de Costa Rica (ASVO), Sistema Nacional de Áreas de Conservación (SINAC), Ministerio de Ambiente (MINAE), the Sea Turtle Conservancy, and Comité Ambiental Tortuguero, we organized and funded a major castration and health clinic for the dogs of Tortuguero.
But why stop there? Because we often like to bite off more than we can chew, we also decided to build some Sloth Crossing canopy bridges, do some education outreach with the local children and also host a beach clean-up event at the same time!
Saving turtles and sloths by helping dogs
After a 4 hour, beautiful boat ride down the canals from Moin to Tortuguero, Team Sloth arrived late at night ready to begin the castration clinic the following morning. We brought a team of fantastic volunteers along, and together with veterinarian Maricela, Mina Escot, and the ASVO volunteers, we were able to castrate 42 dogs in one day!
Some people had even traveled to the clinic by boat and we had to carry their (still slightly sleepy) dogs back to their boat to head home! In the meantime, the rest of Team Sloth had ventured out into the local area with ASVO to start installing Sloth Crossing wildlife bridges!
Bridging more gaps
Over the course of the next few days, the bridge-building team had quite an adventure! They were able to install 6 new Sloth Crossing bridges, used over 200 meters of rope in trees that were over 40 meters high, and managed to reconnect some important areas of the national park that had become isolated due to fallen trees. However, in true SloCo style, they also managed to encounter quite a few disasters along the way!
There were ant nests in people’s shoes, broken slingshots, missing equipment, torrential rain, and some accidental injuries, but perhaps the most precarious moment happened while finishing off the very last bridge of the trip.
Tamara is a fully trained climber and is Team Sloth’s chief bridge builder. She was dangling at the top of a 30-meter tall tree trying to secure the rope to a branch when she noticed a troop of wild spider monkeys bounding through the canopy towards her. These magnificent and rare primates are spectacular to watch in the wild, and at first, she was excited to be having such a close encounter with them.
Unfortunately, she quickly realized that they weren’t quite as happy to see her as they started to get a bit too close for comfort. They were no doubt confused by the strange human dangling in one of their favorite trees, and they weren’t afraid to let her know about it. They surrounded her in the tree and began to scream at her while showing their teeth.
Her instinctive response was to scream right back at them to show that she wasn’t afraid, and so for an uncomfortable amount of time, Tamara and the monkeys were yelling at each other and having a stand-off in the tree.
At the same time, she somehow managed to finish securing the rope and got her equipment ready to make a quick descent from the canopy using the safety ropes. Once her feet were back on solid ground she breathed a big sigh of relief – you can never say it’s boring working for Team Sloth!
Due to the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we, unfortunately, weren’t able to host our usual Sloth School events in the local schools. Our education team didn’t give up, however, and they decided to go door to door instead! They delivered education packs to over 50 families in Tortuguero and are busy making plans to host a major outreach event as soon as the government declares it safe to do so.
Together we go further
Lastly, we want to thank YOU for everything that you have done to support our work to protect sloths. We would not be able to run projects like this without you!
Thank you also to SINAC/MINAE at Tortuguero National Park, Mina, James and the ASVO volunteers, our vet Maricela and her team, CAT and STC at Tortuguero – none of this could have been done without you!
We are now aiming to return to Tortuguero in September when we hope to build more wildlife bridges, castrate more dogs, and further help the community of Tortuguero!
Director of Education & Outreach
Oh My Dog Project Manager