Evergreen Magazine

Ku deku Narobe

Greeners work to protect a rare sloth

This past summer, Evergreen students Jakob Shockey of Applegate, Ore., Samuel Kaviar of Louisville, Ky., and Peter Sundberg of Bellingham worked to help save a critically endangered sloth species first discovered in 2001 and numbering only in the hundreds.

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The students' project took them to Kusapin, Panama, home to the native Ngöbe people and the nearest village to Escudo de Veraguas, a tiny 900-acre island 18 miles off the east coast of the country—the only place on Earth where the pygmy three-toed sloth exists.

three toed slothWeighing less than eight pounds, this slow-moving species is completely dependent on red mangrove trees. It lives in the trees and eats their leaves. Local fishermen who fish from Escudo's reefs to supply the region's booming tourism trade have been felling the trees for cooking fires, thus jeopardizing the sloths.

Photo: Samuel Kaviar

The Evergreen trio's end goals: to ensure that the endangered sloths continue to move slowly about the Earth and to involve the local community in the solutions needed to keep the species from going extinct.

"We are aiming to create a candid dialogue between the scientific, conservation and indigenous communities," says Shockey. "A conversation, it turns out, that does not often take place."

During their time in Panama, the students informed the people of Kusapin about the sloth's uniqueness and plight, raising Ngöbe concern for the animals and help with research. They gave presentations in the village's classrooms and conducted the first population survey of the species. Today, the local people say, "Ku deku narobe," which means, "the sloths of Isla Escudo de Veraguas are special."

Now, the students are seeking to publish their findings and share them with the Ngöbe to assist in local protection efforts. Their work was conducted under academic contracts with Heather Heying, an Evergreen faculty member with expertise in biology and anthropology.