The Origin of the National Symbol
Team Sloth contacted Jorge Carballo, the man responsible for the idea to declare sloths the national symbol for Costa Rica. Jorge grew surrounded by lush tropical forests and is passionate about nature.
Costa Rica is a paradise in so many respects. The fact that you can find wildlife in your backyard– toucans, monkeys, or sloths feeding or passing through—makes this country a special place. This is exactly how Jorge’s childhood was: a constant contact with nature and animals.
This love for nature eventually grew into the initiative that made sloths the latest national symbol of Costa Rica.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jorge, tell us about yourself:
I was born in Limón, but I lived in Guápiles until I was 19 years old. Then I went to study Communication in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2010. I returned to Costa Rica about 3 – 4 months ago, and now I work for a tech company as a UX Researcher.
Where does your love for nature and sloths come from?
I think it is a product of the environment in which I grew up. From the proximity to the forests that I had for all of my childhood, the contents of my school, and the idiosyncrasy of a country that is entirely loaded with environmentalism. Coexistence with nature is part of the imagination of the Costa Rican. Perhaps this seed does not grow with the same strength in everyone, but the seed is there.
With sloths, this bond is sustained by their characteristics: they are non-aggressive, they are very pretty, they seem to be smiling, and they spend many hours sleeping. They are very noble animals. And their slowness makes them very funny. It is very difficult not to have sympathy for them. Sloths were always there “in the mountains”, and since I was in contact with those spaces, it was not uncommon for me to see them.
How did the idea of the sloth as a national symbol come about?
The idea was born from a tweet I read. This person said that the sloth had to be a national symbol, like a joke. Then I shared the tweet with a couple of people. That sparked a conversation, questions, and some research. Little by little the idea became more and more concrete, more solid.
I mentioned this idea to Congresswoman Yorleny León, whom I have known for more than 10 years, and she told me that I could count on her to support it. After a lot of work, the project finally became serious and it ended up national law. It’s amazing, I still can not believe it.
I was surrounded by people who worked with me, who added their effort and desire to make this happen. I definitely wouldn’t have done it alone.
How was the process to write the project?
It was definitely a challenge, but a very cute one. While I had some research and writing experience from my work, I had never done anything legal – legislative. Luckily I was surrounded by people who were able to go where my knowledge could not, and they offered me their full collaboration as if this project were also theirs; as if it belonged to everyone.
It was a project that involved a lot of learning and surprises about the animal. It was also really good learning how much sloths are loved in the world. It is not every day that we have the opportunity to work with something so beautiful and interesting. Maybe that is what made it easier to sit down on the weekends to work on the project: look up information, write, structure, revise, rewrite, look for more information, revise, and so on several times.
I also had Yorleny’s team and that gave me some peace of mind. I was not alone, I did not work alone. I had many advantages, many factors that worked in my favor, but I think what really made the difference was the seriousness with which the project was ultimately taken. That was the key. Going from a wish to a specific job that is now a national law. And that is truly a luxury. I am very happy to have participated in this.
Why is it important to declare the sloth a national symbol?
Beyond the fact that it is a very beautiful animal, the decision was more strategic than whimsical. The context in which the project was presented was very favorable for its success. Today the sloth enjoys a level of acceptance and good publicity that no other animal in the country has.
That happens both inside and outside the country. The animal is associated with Costa Rica in the imagination of the people, although it also exists in other countries. The memes, the movies, the merchandise, the t-shirts that tourists wear, the comic strips in the newspapers, in short, sloths are everywhere.
So we had to do something. Costa Rica had to take advantage of this opportunity. That’s how this idea began to be conceived: the project had to bring together a number of positive factors to happen simultaneously, to achieve very good things. Good things not only for sloths but also for other animals and the space they inhabit, such as national tourism and environmental education of children in schools, scientists, and the world.
Because we are not only protecting the sloth, we are also creating a precedent to be replicated in other places. This is an experience open to be improved, a seed that can continue to grow.
How do you imagine that this declaration will benefit the conservation of sloths (and wildlife in general)?
I envision two large groups of benefits. The first, more abstract, would be the privileged place that sloths reaffirm in the imagination of the people. Now children are going to learn more about them in schools, older people will see them with more respect. They will never go unnoticed again. I do not remember that any other animal has received so much positive press in the country.
There are still people who do not know sloths exist. There are people who do not know that they exist in Costa Rica. There are people who do not know that what they thought was a leaf or a nest in the tree behind their house is a sloth, but now sloths are being recognized. Today with their faces they tell us “here we are” and now everyone knows it. And that’s good.
The second group would be the most concrete benefits. I am referring to those involving state institutions such as the Ministry of Environment (MINAE), MOPT, ICE and their specific actions such as protecting or expanding habitat areas, placing safe passages for wildlife on highways, and improving public electrical wiring to avoid electrocutions, just to mention a few. In summary, I hope for better living conditions for the sloth and consequently for many other animals.
What is your favorite species of sloth?
That is a difficult question. I have my favorites. Nationally, the three-fingered sloth (Bradypus variegatus) is my favorite. I really like their faces, the shape of their noses, and the black lines in their eyes. Also, I like the hair. Internationally, I love the pygmy sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus) in Panama. They are like a three-fingered mini version. They are endemic to an island and they are small, almost like a character from a legend. Unfortunately, they are endangered. Maybe the next project could be about the pygmy sloth.
Read more: The pygmy sloth
What is your favorite fact about sloths?
I am struck by how modest they are when it comes to defecating. I say modest but there may be a more primary reason, more biological and less “cultural” or social, but it is very funny that they take the trouble to go down, make their hole, and after doing their thing, cover it. It is a risky activity because they can die from being exposed to predators that can reach them.
It is almost nonsense. But I think that regardless of how funny this data may be, I also like it because there is still no solid idea why they do it. That mystery seems powerful to me because it reminds us that despite all the advances we have made and all the research there are still things to discover, things to do.
Read more: Why do sloths poop on the ground?