Anecdote: Releasing a sloth in the national park

“Chicos!” one bang on the door makes me check my cellphone for the time: it’s 8am. I wake my partner up and get ready to leave. We spent the night at vet Federico’s house, close to where we were going to release the sloth the next day. Our appointment was an hour earlier, but you quickly learn in Venezuela that time isn’t measured in hours, rather in moments of the day.

the team

the team

So at 9am we meet the rest of the group at the entrance of the park. Manuel and Edgar, the two national park guards of InParques, Federico, our vet, his wife, a community member and two guests, who we wanted to show how we work. It’s the usual size of the group. Most liberation groups have one or two representatives of the organizations involved in the rescue, plus members of the community living closest to the entrance of the park we’re using in that particular rescue.

Our animal is a female sloth found on an avenue close to an area known for them. Very recently, sloths on that avenue have been ‘falling from the trees’ as one of the park guards put it. Allthough using the expression jokingly, it’s not far from the truth. This is the 3rd sloth that came to us in a month. The first one, Teresa, from Miranda. The second one, a male that we could immediately release because of being in good health, and now this female, Gamma.

Gamma was found in a park in Valencia, below a yagrumo tree. She was carrying a baby in her fur. A walker found her, and put her back into the tree. When the same person comes back to check up on Gamma half an hour later, the sloth is again on the floor but her baby is gone and she is obviously distressed. This time, the lady calls the rescuers.

Luckely Gamma appears to be in good health, even if very shaken and stressed. The rescuers assume her baby has been stolen by poachers. Gamma is sent to a caretaker, where she could recover before being released. After three weeks, the vet declares ready to go and the group is mobilised.

The specialists decide to release Gamma in a humid rainforest environment. The male was released a couple of kilometres before that, in dry forest, on the same path. One sloth has a territory of about 6km², so a release spot can’t be reused too often too fast. The path to Gamma’s release spot, according to the park guards and vet Federico, was forty minutes starting from the entrance of the park.

Before going in the team gently lowers Gamma into what they hope to be her final contact with mankind: a small hiking backpack. The backpack is for our way of work the most logic way of carrying sloths: it gives support, safety for both animal and carrier and lets air in through the top. The person behind the hiker carrying the sloth can keep his or her eye open for possible issues.

During the hike Gamma indeed pops her head out a couple of times, reaching towards the trees around the small path up the mountain. However it’s not time yet: we’re going towards the spot which would give her the best chance of survival: a small forest with a couple of her favourite trees, the yagrumo, deep into the national park.

About an hour and half later we reach the mountain pass marking the end of the dry forest. When we go down again, the rainforest, with its exotic flowers, strange sounding birds and clear water river is all around us. In the valley below we spot the yagrumo forest, the end of our trip for Gamma and hopefully the beginning of her new life.

Only the people vital to the rescue go with to the tree where we’re releasing Gamma: only one of our guests, one park guard, the photographer and the vet. The release is a stressful moment for the animal. Too many people will just make her panic, in a moment where she’ll need all her senses to make way through an unfamiliar environment. Just like the male we released down the mountain, Gamma doesn’t need much encouragement. As soon as the bag slightly opens, her head pops out, followed by a large claw. The vet help her further up yagrumo, but little effort is needed on his part. She quickly disappears between the foliage. However stressful it is for the animal, it’s a magical moments for the people present.

As we go out of the valley we see her again, making her way through the top of the trees. Ideally we’d have funding to keep on checking up on her. But as it is, no follow-up can be made to see if she truly survives. We can only hope that the rehabilitation period has given her enough time to recuperate.

On top of the mountain pass we take the coffee we had to refuse earlier at the ranch of Senor Julian. Julian passed away a few years ago. He had his ranch, a couple of huts made out of wood and adobe surrounded by some garden patches, inside the national park on that mountain pass. When he passed away his family moved in and started using the place as a weekend hangout spot. The ‘hows’, ‘whys’, and ‘buts’ of private property inside the national park are too numerous for the scope of this blog. Suffice to say they were there and they welcomed us into their home. Manuel, the park guard, introduces everyone and their projects in the best of lights. When we go back down to the mountain, returning to civilisation, we part from them with a strong handshake. Making ties with the communities, sharing knowledge, know-how and awareness can only give the animals a further chances of survival.

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