You wouldn't expect this, seeing as Suriname is a country the size of the state of Georgia, and the vast majority of people think is in Africa/Asia but it's actually in South America, but Suriname is where conservation is making headlines. From more than 90% of its forests being under strict management protection, 100% coastal carbon storage (aka mangroves) being intact, having the most freshwater per capita of any nation in the world, all the way to one amazingly dedicated wildlife rehabilitationist nominated as a CNN Hero, Suriname has a lot to offer the world in terms of sustainable living and sustainable development.
Are you interested yet by this elusive nation that has escaped notice all these years, simply because it's too cool to care what the rest of the world thinks? If not, then I have one word for you: sloths.
Let me start with Monique Pool. Some call her the sloth lady, most call her Monique Pool. She's a linguist, trained in Holland, native to Suriname, who, since a great deforestation effort in 2012, has taken up the hobby of rescuing and rehabilitating sloths (and other mammals like anteaters) for the wild. Her home is in the charming city of Paramaribo, where the food is a hodgepodge of college-night-cravings (Indian, Chinese, Thai, KFC, Pizza Hut, one McDonald's restaurant, sushi, and Javanese), and everyone drives on the left side of the rode even though it was a Dutch colony. On a regular basis, she gets a phone call from a local citizen, usually detailing the presence of a sloth in an urban area, and she drives to go save it. She bring it back to her house, makes sure it's healthy, and then releases it back into the wild usually within two or three days. Living at her residence are three two-toed sloths (one who, due to an unfortunately close resemblance to the fictional character Chewbacca has been named Chewy), five three-toed sloths, two anteaters, and one giant anteater. Every afternoon, I'd bus over to Fajalobistraat to feed the animals , who were either draped over chairs, on window sills, in office drawers, hanging off the walls, or putzing around outside in larger cages. These animals, having been rescued when they were much younger, were either too sick or too used to human care to be released. Monique is working on fundraising enough money to build an actual rehabilitation center, where she hopes to re-wild these animals and release them into the jungle.
Efforts are being made globally to rehabilitate animals into the wild. The pandas in China are one of the most famous rehabilitative efforts, but despite their adorable fluffiness they aren't exactly defined as a keystone species to the Chinese environment. Rehabilitative science has been relevant but will become even more so in the light of controversies such as Sea World, where people everywhere are calling for the release of captive orcas. Sloths might seem parallel to the panda, in terms of their value in adorableness being much higher than their ecosystem service value, but this might not be the case. A burgeoning theory believes that the sloths eat the leaves from jungle mistletoe that threaten to strangle and or kill the trees in the jungle. Making sure animals continually provide ecosystem services for their native environments will be crucial to helping ecosystems combat the negative impacts of climate change.
Which brings me to my other job.
Fishing is important, shrimp trawling is important, and the newest industry in the ocean is off-shore oil drilling. Which is not great, considering next door at Guyana, seismic surveys are the leading suspect in a drastic increase in whale strandings on the Guyana coast. One scientist named Marijke was enlisted by Monique Pool and performed the first consequential marine survey in Suriname's EEZ. She found 28 species of marine mammals, including sperm whales, humpback whales, beaked whales, false killer whales, dolphins, plus five species of sea turtles, including the Loggerhead, Leatherback, and critically endangered Olive Ridley. Unfortunately for my fellow intern Soraya, a recent graduate from the University of Suriname, and me, the region has a lacking-data theme. 14 of the 28 species Marijke found are described as "data deficient" on the IUCN Redlist, including the iconic Guyana Dolphin that populates the estuarine system of the Suriname River. The fishing fleet, under the Ministry of Fishing, has less then 10% of their boats under any sort of digital monitoring system, and only 1.5 employed bycatch observers. The Ministry of Fishing, the Nature Division, and all other ministries involved in the EEZ were asking outside sources, like Conservation International and Monique Pool, for help in marine spatial planning since they could not find or analyze the data themselves.Compared to the United States, the lack of ministerial organization and data availability might seem shocking, but it’s the relative norm for a large portion of the marine world. Marine research and surveying is costly, and so it is primarily performed by oil surveyors or other industrial powers looking for natural resources in the oceans- and these reports might not always be as accurate or thorough when countries, such as Suriname, lack the laws that require industrial powers to use environmental conscientiousness when harvesting natural resources.
Soraya and I, with all the naiveté of two young, aspiring conservationists compiled a presentation for our boss, CI-Suriname president John Goodschaelek, that was a mish-mashed compilation of all the scraps of data we could find that had anything to do with marine systems. Our first run-through did not go too well. As aspiring biologists, we had no marketing abilities. It took another week or two of work to make our presentation the Budweiser-puppy commercial equivalent of MPA presentations.
What we thought was enough of a selling point for us (there’s 28 species of marine mammals off of Suriname’s EEZ!?) wasn’t in the perspective of a government looking for ways to diversify their revenue and expand their economy. Continuing the previous line of thought, by researching the whale watching industry and projected income for countries with certain species of whales and great whales, is a selling point. Being able to economically quantify species, habitats, and ecosystem services provided by both species and habitats is crucial in enticing non-1st world countries to invest in environmentally sustainable practices, especially when international industrial powers come into play.
This summer was an experience in conservation from a much more human perspective then what I've previously experienced- instead of researching animals and adjusting human behavior, I was either dealing with the result of human behavior on an environment or trying to convince humans to change behavior for an environment. Convincing people that sloths aren't just cute as pets, but vital for the environment, is as tough a sell as convincing a country of an MPA when the oil industry is on its footsteps. In the end, this summer was an experience in selling conservation as the best economical decision, and the best moral one as well.
(If you're interested in learning more about Monique's story, watch the CNN hero bit posted below. If you're so inspired you become interested in purchasing sloth apparel, click on the link posted below that.
**Below is a snapchat taken live at the scene of CNN filming Monique walking around the jungle
In the mornings I worked for Conservation International, and did research for a potential marine protected area. As I mentioned before, this country has nearly pristine mangrove ecosystems; this is not because everyone there knows how important they are in maintaining the health of the coast (although several do). It's because people in Suriname don't particularly care about their ocean. The jungle is far more exciting, and it's where all their freshwater comes from. The ocean, in the meantime, is extremely muddy thanks to the sediment pushed up and along the coast from the Amazon River Basin, the coastline erodes in an incredibly dynamic fashion so that its own sediment crumbles off the coast and is replaced by aforementioned Amazonian sediment, the mangroves keep the coastline from having a wide array of beaches, and there aren't any exciting underwater ecosystems (that anyone is aware of at least).
If you're interested in reading more about ecosystem based services, read this piece I wrote about instigating mangrove growth in mud banks while working at CIS, which was published on their website!
Whitney Hansen is a junior in Currier House concentrating in Integrative Biology. She is president of the Harvard College Conservation Society, and enjoys singing in all-female a’capella groups, eating inordinate amounts of sourdough bread from her hometown of San Francisco, and dogs. Her favorite smoothie is banana and white nectarine.