The Urban Sloth Project: Meet BAGUETTE—the master of camouflage!

The Urban Sloth Project: Meet BAGUETTE—the master of camouflage!

Baguette was the third three-fingered sloth collared for the Urban Sloth Project and was a rather spontaneous addition to the project. She was found while Suzi Eszterhas (World-renowned photographer and SloCo trustee) was visiting Puerto Viejo to document the plight of urban sloths.

 

 

Baguette was in a bad spot: atop a fence, desperately trying to reach the lowest nearby tree branch, while below her were two aggressive dogs barking.

 

 

Unfortunately, the branch Baguette was reaching for was little more than a twig, which would certainly not support her 5 kg (11 lbs) weight, and would have broken and dropped her right into the barking dogs. Dr. Cliffe and Suzi judged that the risk of mortality was very high for Baguette.

 Taking action

So Dr. Cliffe climbed on Cecilia’s (our Director of Development, also present) shoulders to reach Baguette, who was less than grateful for the intervention. In fact, Dr. Cliffe said that Baguette was one of the angriest three-fingered sloths she has ever had to handle, and she knows what she is talking about!

 

 

We have some of the adventure captured in pictures by Suzi, but what this one doesn’t show is how high the fence was! At about 2 meters (6 feet), the team would usually have gone back for a ladder in order to more safely handle a wild sloth, but there was no time.

(Instead, we have helpfully illustrated the situation in this fabulously rendered, hand-drawn, one-of-a-kind piece of art! Really, it makes you feel like you were there.)

Luckily for everyone concerned, Cecilia keeps herself in shape swimming, and her shoulders are quite strong!

 

Once Baguette was rescued, measured, health checked, and fitted with a backpack she was released into the area she was trying to reach. Since she was found on the same road as Croissant (known locally as “The Bakery Road”), Team Sloth kept with the naming convention and dubbed her Baguette.

 

 

And there began the journey of one of the most difficult sloths we have tracked to date.

The Heck Swamp

Baguette proceeded to move into an area of forest the Tracking Team promptly dubbed Heck Swamp (yes, that’s a euphemism). It was easy to understand why no one had decided to build on this land –it’s a swamp, and due to the deforestation around it, the frequency of major flooding is quite high.

 

 

While this was a mostly unpleasant area for our Tracking Team, it was a near perfect area for any sloth. The tall Sangrillo trees made for an excellent interconnected canopy, and the lot did not border any major roads, which is good news for animals that don’t want to confront traffic. However, it meant that Baguette was invisible the vast majority of the time, and has an overall visibility rate of only 26%.

A sloth hard to see…

The Tracking Team knew the chance of finding her was quite small on any given day, and the chance of her then being in a catchable spot was even smaller, so SloCo pulled out all the stops and poured resources into finding her.

The better part of April was spent with Amelia, the most experienced tracker (except of course for Dr. Cliffe), the rest of the Tracking Team, and the Connected Gardens Team knee-deep in the swamp, staring up at the trees for hours at a time.

 

Laying on the ground for hours, watching the canopy, does look like idleness, but it’s actually a good way to spot sloths without hurting your neck.

 

Our best chance of finding Baguette was to get as many eyes on the trees as possible.

(And boy did the tracking team feel vindicated when our best sloth spotters—Francisco, Deyber, and Ames—also could not spot her! Ha! If they can’t do it, no one can.)

…and catch

Days passed with no sign of Baguette, other than the incessant beeping of the receiver telling us she was right above our heads.  However, the New Expanded Tracking Team did spot many other creatures; there is such an abundance of life living in this lot surrounded by homes, Airbnbs, and hotels.

Birds, butterflies, squirrels, insects, lizards, and even a Tyra call Heck Swamp home! Team Sloth was so impressed by this diversity of wildlife that we looked into getting Heck Swamp officially protected, and to our delight found that it is already listed as a protected wetland!

 

Amelia and Dayber at Heck Swamp

 

And so Team Sloth spent days and days in 50 cm (20 inches)—sometimes… depending on where you stood it could be ankle-deep one step and knee-deep the next—of swampy water, staring up into the canopy, desperately trying to spot a backpack on the back of one of the dozen sloths occupying this small plot of beautiful rainforest.

And then, finally, it happened

Team Sloth found Baguette, and for an absolute wonder, she was low down and catchable! Not only that, but while we had been desperately looking for her for all these months, she found herself a mate, got pregnant, and gave birth to an adorable little baby!

 

 

We didn’t name the baby, as Baguette was no longer part of the Urban Sloth Project, but we were so happy to see her thriving in her verdant and protected territory. Baguette didn’t even have to come down out of her tree for the de-backpacking, Deyber was able to quickly climb up and remove the backpack with no added stress for her or for Baguette Jr. (Ok, maybe we did name the baby. We couldn’t help it!)

 

The backpack then and now

 

Another surprise for us during Operation Guerrilla Baguette was finding a tayra sleeping away in a hollow in one of Baguette’s trees… in a stolen sarong! We caught a glimpse of the tayra up in the tree, and surmised that the sarong came from the laundry of the hotel directly behind the tree.

 

A Tayra with a blanket

 

Courage: Tracking Diaries #9

Courage: Tracking Diaries #9

I stare at the spider hanging in front of my face. It is huge, blue and black and yellow, hanging from a golden web longer than my bicycle and better constructed than my house.

It stares back at me.

The problem with getting into a staring contest with a spider is that it has four times as many eyes and none of them need to blink.

We have to get the circumference of this tree. Our newest Urban Sloth, Luiza, has made it her home for the last two days and we need data about her habitat. I am armed with a length of measuring tape and the surefire knowledge that my boss is watching and will very definitely not be amused if I chicken out now; if she has to wade through the mess of spider webs there will be swear words, the use of machetes, and possibly even sarcasm.

To be clear, I don’t have a particular problem with spiders. When I was a small child my mother tried in vain to keep me away from them, and finally had to settle for educating me about which ones were venomous (success! The arachnid in question is a golden orb spider, non-venomous) and then hoping I made good choices…I now live in a termite-ridden shack at the edge of the world and track sloths for a living, so the jury is still out on that one.

I am not so sanguine about all creepy-crawlies. Ants, for example, give me the screaming horrors. One of my top five worst jungle memories is when the army ants came for me while I was housesitting for some friends. I would have run off into the sea if I could have, but I wouldn’t abandon the pets to a fate clearly worse than death, and so instead spent the next five hours desperately defending a small circle in the middle of the floor with a broom–which was not my weapon of choice, but needs must, as they say, when you can’t get ahold of a flamethrower.

(The dog and cat—jungle veterans both—slept through the entire episode, which gives you a bit of an idea who was the one overreacting.) 

The nice thing about spiders is that, unlike ants, they don’t come in swarms. Usually. The spider in front of me hasn’t heard that she’s supposed to be a solo creature, and a dozen other webs ring Luiza’s tree, making a gauzy golden curtain of the buttressed roots. The silk of the Nephila genus is one of the strongest known natural materials, with potential applications ranging from ethically harvested silk to tissue engineering, but right now it’s mostly serving as a sloth-tracker repellent. I’m fine with one spider, but a dozen of them, each one bigger than my hand, are a bit much even for me.

“How’s it going over there?” Amelia calls from the safety of the other side of the tree, where she is anchoring one end of the measuring tape.

“Uhh,” I call back. “Almost got it.” 

I have an idea.

I pick up a stick, wrap the measuring tape around the end of it, and try to carefully pass it through the webs. It’s a bit like one of those games you’d play as a kid that is supposed to teach you fine motor skills or something, though at my age I think I’m supposed to have learned that already. Needless to say, I get the tape stuck on one of the webs, try to pull it free, disturb the webs (which sets off a chain reaction of vibrations to every connected web), and oh shoot oh shoot oh shoot the spiders are all moving! I take a hasty step back—right into a nest of ants.

If my step away from the spiders is hasty, my launch away from the ants’ nest is a strong candidate for warp speed. I stifle a shriek as my legs take it upon themselves to propel me forward without any input from my brain, which, if it had been consulted, would have said: “Watch out you dummies, there’s a giant mess of spiderwebs right in front of you!”

The spiders were probably as scared as I was because they all ran away, and I came out the other side covered in a fine film of golden web strands, and—most importantly—still clutching the measuring tape.

“Wow!” says Amelia, as she pulls the tape tight around the tree trunk. “You just went right through those webs. Weren’t you scared of all the spiders?”

“A little,” I admit. But sometimes the only way through fear is forward…

…and away from the ants.

 

***No spiders were harmed during the making of this Tracking Diaries. All webs were regenerated in less than 24 hours and ready to trap future sloth trackers.***

 

-Ames Reeder

A Little Taste of Heaven: Tracking Diaries #8

A Little Taste of Heaven: Tracking Diaries #8

I’m standing amongst the wreckage of felled trees and bulldozed undergrowth, my boots crunching on dead vegetation, but I’m not looking down.

I’m looking up. I’ve heard from Sarah that Luna has a new baby, just days old, and I haven’t seen her yet.

I haven’t seen much of sloths lately, it feels like. Between my other duties over the holidays and a couple of Covid scares I’ve become a little too intimately familiar with the view from my desk, the exact number of dead pixels on my computer screen, and the utter indolence of my cats, who literally do nothing other than sleep and demand food.

It feels a bit disorienting to be out in the field again. The last time I was this deep in Luna’s territory, it had more trees and less gravel, before some jerk came and tried to pave the place over. I watched from the other side of my phone screen as SloCo came to the rescue and notified the appropriate authorities of that transgression, and cheered through my coughing fits as my the community saved the remaining trees from the heavy equipment and sweated through a blistering hot day to put up fence posts to keep the tourists’ cars from finishing what the bulldozers had started.

 

 

It was in the dead branches of some of her former trees that Sarah found Luna and her new baby, trying to crawl to a safe haven through the twisted roots and twigs and spiders. Sarah reported that Luna arrived in her new tree safely, and it is now my job to figure out what the heck tree that actually was.

 

 

Our tracking equipment is being even weirder than usual. According to our radio receiver, Luna has in fact boarded a raft and is bound for—a quick check of Google maps—Aruba. It’s possible that the jungle has rusted some secret but essential piece of electronics deep inside the receiver, or that I’ve forgotten how to track sloths, or maybe that the antenna is possessed by demons.

(Note so self, Google “how to do an exorcism” when I get home. Don’t tell my boss.)

I’m still fiddling with the equipment when I have one of those perfect sloth tracking moments: I just happen to look up at a movement out of the corner of my eye and catch a slow-moving silhouette on the side of the guarumo tree. Quick as a cat, I whip out my binoculars, and then fist punches the air as I spot a three-fingered female with an itty bitty little replica of herself clinging to her fur. Another minute confirms the radio collar on her neck—this is definitely Luna!

 

 

The receiver is still insisting that Luna is somewhere out on the Caribbean waves, so I turn it off and instead pull out my phone, snap a few pictures, and then settle in for a good look at her.

Baby sloths are cute on a level that maybe ought not to be legal. They almost don’t look real; they’re just arms and eyes and fuzzy cuddles incarnate, like the living manifestation of a hug.

By now a crowd has gathered around me to marvel at the sloths. Luna has settled onto the branch she was after and gone to sleep. Watching them, I have to smile. Luna’s territory will take a long time to regrow, but here in front of me is proof that new life, and new growth, is always possible. We have named the baby Celeste, which means “heavenly”. It is also the Spanish word for the color of a clear sky in the daytime.

If you want a little taste of heaven, sometimes all you have to do is look up.

-Ames Reeder

Tracking Diaries #6: Dear Santa

Tracking Diaries #6: Dear Santa

 

“Dear Santa,

This year I have been extremely very mostly good, and for Christmas, I would really like for a sloth to go poop.”

I am typing my Christmas list into my phone as a way to pass the time while I sloth-sit. Sloth sitting is like sloth tracking, except we have already found the sloths and we don’t need any data on them, so I’m just watching them to see if they do anything interesting. It’s way less exciting than it sounds.

Today I have been pulled off my usual tracking duties to assist a film crew that has come to try and get some footage of a sloth going to the bathroom, which happens very briefly, once a week, and is highly unlikely to happen on my shift. But, I don’t make the rules, I just watch sloths.

“I know sloth poop is a pretty unusual request, Santa, and you probably don’t have much of it at the North Pole. That’s why I am thinking you could use your magic powers to see if these sloths right here need to go to the toilet, perhaps on camera. This would gain me a bunch of kudos from my co-workers.”

There are five sloths in the area I am watching. Two of them are two-fingered, which we don’t need footage of, one of them is a three-fingered mama with a baby, which we don’t need footage of, and two more are a couple of three-fingered males in a low tree right across from me. This would be perfect if they decided to do something besides sleep. I pull out the old pair of binoculars I have borrowed from a friend. They have gone blurry, and in them, the sloths look like small brown fuzzy spots that could be anything from sloths to bunches of wet leaves.

I continue typing on my phone.

“If sloth feces is outside of your jurisdiction, I understand. I would also be very happy with a new pair of binoculars.”

I have just looked up on the internet how expensive good binoculars are, and I figure a supernatural elf is probably the only way I’m going to see a pair in the next decade.

“I realize I probably haven’t been quite saint-like enough this year for the binoculars, but perhaps you could overlook that incident with my landlord. She was being quite unreasonable, and it’s not like I made the hole in my roof myself. Also, I did try to warn everybody about the tiles BEFORE the neighbor’s cat came crashing through the ceiling. At least it wasn’t an opossum this time.”

I glance back up at the sloths, who have not moved. To keep myself amused, I have given the two I am interested in names: the one on the left is–very appropriately–named “Lefty”. The one on the right is—very appropriately—named “Pancho Villa”. At least, I think it’s amusing… my coworkers were not nearly as impressed, but then, they apparently aren’t into legendary heroes or the outlaw songs written about them.

“Also, Santa, on the subject of me being good, I think we need to factor in the mitigating circumstances of extraordinary temptation. I haven’t used the company car to run over ANY illegal loggers lately, or the jerk-wads cutting down trees in Luna’s territory. I figure this should be good for at least a new hat, or another t-shirt. (Men’s medium, with a SloCo logo, and made of all-natural, sustainable materials, please. In case you’re taking notes.)”

The sky is threatening rain, and the sloths are threatening to sleep forever. I do a few jumping jacks to keep myself awake, and then pace around and look for any other sloths that might have snuck up on me while I was waiting. There’s something dark in the tree by Pancho and Lefty, but I figure it’s just a howler monkey.

“Finally, Santa, I would like to add to my Christmas list a few things for the sloths. I don’t think they write you many letters, but they have been very good all year. They are really hard to shop for, being ultra-minimalists and all, but I have noticed that they do like trees, so maybe you could swing something and plant a few for them.”

The threatened rain begins to pour in earnest. It’s time to go. I put my phone away and look back up at the sloths, which (surprise) continue to sleep—but for my efforts, I see the dark shape in the tree with them uncoiling! It’s not a howler monkey, but a tayra (Eira barbara): a large, black, omnivorous tree-weasel, and rare to see around here. I start jumping up and down in excitement, and the tayra, just as curious about me, also begins jumping around, leaping from branch to branch like it forgot that gravity is a non-negotiable law.

Just at that moment, my co-workers come around the corner in the truck, splashing mud everywhere. “Ames! Jump in! It’s time to get back to HQ.”

I look back up but the tayra is gone, and the sloths have slept through the whole thing. Soaking wet, I hop in the car, and pull out my phone again as we speed off.

“On second thought, Santa, all I want for Christmas this year is trees. Lots of them. Enough for the sloths and the tayra and everyone else. I probably haven’t been THAT good, but don’t worry about it, because SloCo has a reforestation program, and I’ve got a pair of hands. We will plant the trees ourselves.

Until next year—

Ames.”