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The battle to save Brazil's sloths — and what travellers can do to help

We talk to World Animal Protection’s João Almeida about the capture and exhibition of the endangered mammals, and how he’s appealing to travellers to protect Brazil’s wildlife in the face of deforestation and damaging tourism practices.

Published 27 Jan 2021, 08:00 GMT, Updated 9 Feb 2021, 19:08 GMT
World Animal Protection estimates that thousands of sloths are snatched from the wild every year to service the tourism industry. 

World Animal Protection estimates that thousands of sloths are snatched from the wild every year to service the Brazilian tourism industry. 

Photograph by Getty Images

Long-limbed and round-bellied, with soft eyes and a smile stretching from ear to ear, the three-toed sloth is one of the A-list Amazon sightings. The problem is, spotting a sloth high up in the rainforest canopy, in an area 25 times the size of Great Britain, is not only tricky, but it takes time and patience — something many tourists have in short supply.

Instead, travellers head for the remote Amazonian communities around Manaus, Brazil’s main entry point into the rainforest, where they’re promised ‘hands-on’ wildlife encounters with caged creatures as varied as anacondas and anteaters, monkeys and manatees.

When it comes to sloths, as the world’s slowest and doziest mammal (they move at 0.15mph and like to sleep for up to 20 hours a day) they’re an easy target for capture. While the precise data is unknown, World Animal Protection estimates that thousands are snatched from the wild every year, and many visitors are unaware of the deadly impact captivity and exhibition has on the creature they’ve paid to cuddle.

João Almeida has been battling to raise awareness among travellers in an attempt to dismantle this industry. With World Animal Protection, he heads up a campaign called ‘Wildlife. Not Entertainers’, which seeks to educate both tourists and businesses about the plight of the country’s wild inhabitants. 

Read more: National Geographic's guide to ethical animal encounters

Many visitors are unaware of the deadly impact of captivity and human interaction on these endangered mammals. 

Photograph by World Animal Protection

My mission is to see that wildlife stays in the wild, where it belongs. The Amazon is a huge brand around the world, and an image has been created by the tourism industry that it’s also the place to get close to big animals. This just isn’t true. We do of course have some big animals, but it’s very hard to see them in the forest. So, to give the tourists what they want, the solution has been to put these animals in cages. The problem starts right at the top with the huge national and international businesses — so that’s where my job starts too, trying to establish relationships with corporate leaders and encouraging them to change their policies.

Sloths, anacondas, monkeys, anteaters — a lot of endemic and endangered species are taken from the wild to live their whole lives in cages. And it’s not just the animals that are being exploited, but the indigenous communities that live in the Amazon, too. They’re paid a small amount of money to take the animals and deliver them to tourists, and they have no alternative; the market is so powerful, they have to do what it tells them.

On the ground, it really is a bizarre experience to watch. I see big groups of tourists leaving Manaus harbour, maybe 100 per boat, and they’re all there to have a close encounter with wildlife. They arrive at the indigenous villages and wait in a long line to have their selfie and their hug with a sloth or monkey. [There’s been a 292% increase in selfies with wild animals on Instagram since 2014.] These animals have to do this all day, every day. It’s the worst possible life for them. A life sentence.  

Sloths are particularly popular because they always look like they’re smiling. This means there’s even more pressure from the industry to make sure they’re there, waiting for tourists. During our investigation work, we learnt from the indigenous people that sloths react especially badly to human interaction, and they often die only six months after being taken from the wild. In the jungle they can live for up to 20 years.

Read more: Sloths, manatee, other wildlife rescued from Amazon tourism trade in Peru

João Almeida of World Animal Protection heads up a campaign called ‘Wildlife. Not Entertainers’, which seeks to educate both tourists and businesses about the plight of the country’s wild inhabitants.

Photograph by Joao Almeida

It’s crucial to highlight that there are so many incredible experiences in Brazil, there’s really no need to hug a sloth. We have the largest tropical rainforest in the world, we have the savannah, we have Pantanal biome, which is the biggest wetland in the world and is a particularly good place for ethical tours to see big animals. Jaguars used to be in a dire situation there, but in recent years there’s been an explosion in numbers. You can see them everywhere, it’s amazing.

Although there’s a long way to go, I’m positive about the future. Since I started working for World Animal Protection, many more companies have committed to offering genuinely ethical tours. In the media, too, climate change and the protection of nature are starting to occupy a more prominent place, and this will have a positive knock-on effect for wildlife.
 

In terms of the Amazon, we need to discuss that politically. What the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, is doing [allowing widescale deforestation for agriculture, farming and development] harks back to 50 or 100 years ago, to when man destroyed everything without understanding how stupid that is. There are now record levels of deforestation and indigenous communities are being wiped out. I just hope that in 2022, a new government will come to power.

When booking a trip to Brazil to see wildlife, please don’t believe the narratives that many big corporations create  that the animals in cages are orphans, that they enjoy human interaction and that this is a good economic option for the people who live in the Amazon. You have the responsibility as a consumer to drive the demand for positive, ethical experiences, and there are so many out there. If in doubt, head over to World Animal Protection’s website where you’ll find a list.

To check World Animal Protection’s extensive list of ethical Brazilian tour companies, or to learn more about the Wildlife. Not Entertainers campaign, head over to the website.

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