- Monique Pool and the Green Heritage Fund Suriname (GHFS) have rescued and rehabilitated more than 600 sloths. The Xenarthra Shelter and Rehabilitation Center is a sanctuary for sloths and other Xenarthra species.
- Sloths in Suriname face threats from deforestation — including in and around the capital, Paramaribo — as well as urban expansion and development and attacks from people’s pets.
- Pool and the GHFS also raise awareness about dolphins and marine life, collaborating with veterinarians and scientists to study these species and preserve their habitats.
- The GHFS promotes sustainable development of natural resources and biodiversity in Suriname, providing information and education to create a better understanding of the country’s wildlife and ecosystems; Pool says she believes protecting and preserving sloths, dolphins and their habitats contributes to the overall health of the planet.
In Suriname, a South American country where sloths find their homes, deforestation poses a great challenge. These slow-moving creatures, unlike birds, cannot fly away, nor can they run quickly to escape the destruction. Even in Paramaribo, the capital city of Suriname, significant deforestation has occurred in recent decades. Global Forest Watch reports that Paramaribo lost 81 hectares (200 acres) of humid primary forest, accounting for 6.8% of its total tree cover loss, from 2002-22. During roughly the same period, the city’s total tree cover decreased by more than 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres), a 23% drop since the start of the century. The coastal resort areas of Blauwgrond and Weg naar Zee suffered the most, accounting for 74% of the overall loss.
Monique Pool, an interpreter, established the Green Heritage Fund Suriname (GHFS) in 2005 to rescue, rehabilitate and relocate Suriname’s Xenarthra species (a major clade of placental mammals including sloths as well as anteaters and armadillos) due to deforestation and urban expansion. But deforestation isn’t the only issue that leads to trouble. Pool says the group rescues two or three animals a week. “Especially in the past years, we have had animals increasingly being in trouble because of the infrastructure. They often are attacked by animals that people keep as pets,” Pool says.
Two species of sloths live in Suriname — the three-toed pale-throated sloth (Bradypus tridactylus) and the Linnaeus’s two-toed sloth (Choloepus didactylus) — and they are not considered endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, these species face threats in the coastal zone of Suriname, primarily due to habitat loss, poaching, the wildlife and bushmeat trades and the phenomenon of selfie tourism. Although killing or capturing sloths for any purpose is against national legislation, unfortunately, the pressure is increasing due to institutional, social and economic decline. Both urban and rural populations are exploiting natural resources in an unsustainable manner. As a result, wild animals, including sloths, are being eliminated from local forests, and suitable habitat is decreasing.
It’s difficult to say how many sloths live in Paramaribo, but according to a paper published in 2016, there were an estimated 20.1 three-toed sloths per hectare of a forested plot in northwest Paramaribo that was being cleared for pasture. According to Pool, sloths are not only found in areas of Paramaribo where there is a forest fragment, but even in locations where there are no forest fragments. She notes a location called Kwattaweg, where “you can easily see sloths along the road. … Especially in the late afternoon, you can see the animals sitting high up in the trees catching the last rays of the sun.”
Pool’s passion for wildlife started in childhood, and she initially aspired to become a biologist. However, she ended up studying languages while maintaining her interest in the environment. Her journey with sloths began when she fostered an orphaned sloth and realized their popularity worldwide. “People were posting a lot of pictures, and I thought I could sell those pictures and make money. But then I realized it wasn’t fair because the animal didn’t give me permission to sell its photo. So, I decided to create a foundation and said that if we use sloth images, we will also use the money earned to help them. And that’s how the foundation started,” she explains to Mongabay.
Pool, known as the “Sloth Lady of Suriname,” is involved in environmental activism, studying dolphins and providing education on nature conservation, sustainable development and climate change. Her goal is to secure a green, clean and healthy future for Suriname.
Mongabay talked to Pool in June. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Mongabay: How did you become interested in the protection of sloths in Suriname?
Monique Pool: So, it’s a coincidence. I have always had dogs as pets. I had a dog that was very afraid of fireworks. During a wedding celebration where fireworks were set off, my dog got scared and ran away. Despite searching for her for two weeks, I couldn’t find her. In my efforts to locate her, I reached out to an animal protection organization. Although my dog wasn’t there, they informed me about the challenges they faced, including an unexpected rescue of a baby sloth. I offered to care for the baby sloth. As I visited Dr. [Leontine Issa-] Bansse [a veterinarian] for regular check-ups, I encountered other sloths and various wild animals brought in for help. Recognizing the need for assistance beyond domestic pets, I took on the responsibility of handling these cases. My growing involvement in the welfare of these animals led me to investigate the underlying issues. There was a high demand for sloths as pets, but they are wild animals, and I don’t like animals in cages. So, we started to investigate what was happening. For nearly two decades, I have worked alongside Dr. Bansse and other veterinarians, specializing in the unique care required by sloths.
Mongabay: Since 2005, you have rescued more than 600 sloths. What kind of care and rehabilitation process do you provide for these sloths before releasing them back into the forest?
Monique Pool: Sometimes animals get into trouble, such as ending up in yards with dogs or getting trapped in unusual places like attics or behind security grilles. In most cases, these animals are not injured and can be relocated to safer areas with fewer people and no deforestation. However, animals that are injured or orphaned require a longer stay. For example, a two-toed sloth that was hit by a car stayed at the shelter for about six weeks. Its slightly damaged jaw healed with the help of a specially prepared sloth smoothie. Once it was able to eat on its own and showed signs of recovery, the cage was opened and the sloth eventually left, never to be seen again.
Mongabay: Can you tell us more about the Green Heritage Fund Suriname and its mission to promote sustainable development of natural resources and biodiversity in Suriname?
Monique Pool: Our mission is essentially to provide information and data to society so that together we can make better decisions regarding the use of natural resources. Without access to such information, it’s impossible to handle natural resources properly. We aim to contribute by raising awareness and providing education.
Mongabay: In 2013 you were featured in a Conservation International video where you talked about being able to set up a sloth park in the forest. What has become of the idea for a sloth park?
Monique Pool: That dream has become a reality. In 2018, the Xenarthra Shelter and Rehabilitation Center, a professional sanctuary specifically designed for these animals, was officially opened in the Saramacca district.
Mongabay: Can you share any stories or compelling moments you have had with sloths? What’s it like to be with them? To find them? To release them?
Monique Pool: Witnessing the animals enter the forest is a beautiful moment. You see that they are happy. Despite the common perception of sloths as slow creatures, they can move very quickly when they sense freedom. Their rapid climbing sometimes makes it challenging to capture a good photo. Overall, the experience is a feeling of happiness rather than sadness.
Mongabay: How do sloths make you feel?
Monique Pool: I can spend hours just watching what they do. People often think they only sleep, but that’s not true. They are quite busy, for example, grooming their fur or eating. They are much more active than people think. And they are just as curious about us as we are about them. That is truly remarkable. They have beautiful coats and are simply stunning to observe. So, I find sloths and anteaters to be very special animals.
Mongabay: Apart from sloths, you also raise awareness about dolphins and the preservation of marine life. Could you tell us about your initiatives in this area and why it is important to protect marine ecosystems in Suriname?
Monique Pool: The journey with dolphins began when we happened to see them, and my scientific friends encouraged me to document our observations starting in 2007. Recognizing the importance of protecting dolphin habitats, our focus expanded to include the entire ecosystem and the connectedness to the Atlantic Ocean. In the past two decades, I have witnessed the decline of nature and the increasing pollution of the ocean, particularly due to plastic waste. To combat this issue, we raise awareness about plastic pollution. Although I initially started alone, the invaluable support of volunteers has been instrumental in our efforts.
Mongabay: You started raising awareness about dolphins in 2007. Have there been significant differences or changes in the Atlantic Ocean between 2007 and 2023?
Monique Pool: Since our humble beginnings in 2007, we have made significant progress in understanding marine life in our ocean. Through our work, we have discovered and documented a diversity of animals residing in the ocean. Our mapping and documentation efforts have resulted in numerous publications that contribute to our knowledge about the ocean. In 2021, we successfully conducted two ocean expeditions, and there are plans for another expedition this year. Our goal is to collaborate with neighboring countries on a project involving two more ocean expeditions. This collaborative effort will help verify our field findings, expand our knowledge and implement more effective measures for the protection of these remarkable animals.
Mongabay: Can you share any stories or compelling moments you had with dolphins? What’s it like to be with them? To find them?
Monique Pool: Usually, on Sundays, we go on dolphin tours. I am always happy to see them, and it seems like they are happy to see us, too, because they often come and interact with us. We can identify individual dolphins by their fins, and we can see that some of these dolphins have been living in the area for a long time. It’s quite remarkable that I have known certain dolphins since 2007. I recognize them by their fins.
Mongabay: As the founder of the Green Heritage Fund Suriname, what are some of the notable achievements or projects that you are particularly proud of?
Monique Pool: I am proud of many things, one of which is the establishment of a professional wildlife rescue center. We have provided training to veterinarians, enhancing their capacity to perform tasks such as autopsies on dolphins. The data we have collected and compiled into accessible online documents have contributed to our country’s knowledge and understanding of local animal species. Through our ocean expeditions, we have brought the beauty of the ocean closer to the people of Suriname, fostering a sense of pride and appreciation.
Mongabay: Why should readers half-way around the world care about sloths and dolphins and their habitat? How do they contribute to our ecosystems?
Monique Pool: Because everything is interconnected. So, if someone in the Netherlands decides to heat their house excessively and use a lot of gasoline and fossil fuels to keep their house warm, ultimately, it will have an effect here in Suriname through climate change. They may be sitting comfortably in their living room in the Netherlands, but we may experience a gust of wind here in Suriname that breaks a tree or even destroys a hectare of forest. Some sloths that may have been in that tree, minding their own business, could die as a result. Therefore, if one thinks that their actions have no impact on others when they are far away, they are still unaware.
I do not like to answer the question of how animals contribute to our ecosystems because every living being has the right to exist; otherwise, they wouldn’t be here. They are part of creation, and we must respect that. We must provide space for animals to exhibit their natural behaviors. Studies demonstrate that the loss of these animals would result in the disappearance of important ecosystem services, making life more challenging for humans on Earth.
Mongabay: What has been the worst experience in animal conservation for you during your many years of work in Suriname? What has been a positive experience for you?
Monique Pool: As a vegetarian, I don’t have a problem with people eating meat, but I question the necessity of consuming wild animals. We have limited knowledge about these animals, leading me to think about two things: if we should keep animals in cages, and the necessity of hunting. In a world where we have access to supermarkets and can easily buy chicken, I wonder why some still choose to hunt, especially when they say wild meat tastes like chicken. When people from the interior go hunting, it’s different because they don’t have a supermarket. It would be wonderful if those who possess hunting rifles used their knowledge to capture the beauty of animals through photography or filmmaking.
What I find positive is that now I see more and more people stopping immediately when they see a sloth being sold or when a sloth needs to cross the road. They stop, they record videos and they share them on Facebook. This shows that people are aware that these animals have no other option and that we need to help them. I am glad to see that we are slowly but surely starting to realize this, and that people genuinely care for animals and want to help them.
Mongabay: You have received several recognitions for your work, such as being named a CNN Hero in 2015 and receiving the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2022. How have these accolades impacted your work and the visibility of your cause?
Monique Pool: I have received four awards, starting with the first one in 2015. In 2017, I was honored with the Vedanta Award. The following year, I received the highest distinction from the Surinamese government, and in 2022, I was awarded the French Médaille Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. These awards lend credibility to our work, facilitating the growth of our organization. It is truly wonderful to receive recognition for our efforts, and I take great pride in these achievements.
Mongabay: What are some of the ongoing or upcoming projects or campaigns that you are currently involved in, and what do you hope to achieve with them?
Monique Pool: We now have the four programs: the sloth program, the dolphin program, initiatives focused on education and research and green community development. We undertake various projects within these programs. Even if we don’t have a specific project now, our activities continue. We work on them consistently, whether we have a specific project at hand or not. We are currently working on a major project focused on marine pollution. There is another project that we are almost done with, which involved protecting the mangroves in the districts Nickerie and Coronie in collaboration with the local communities. Soon, we will commence a similar project in the district of Saramacca.
Mongabay: How can individuals and communities in Suriname and around the world support your organization and contribute to the conservation efforts?
Monique Pool: One option is to volunteer with us. We regularly have volunteers, and we also welcome interns. Secondly, we are also always grateful for donations. Everything is welcome, as it helps our foundation carry out its ongoing activities.
Mongabay: As a species, we humans are facing a lot right now, as are wildlife species like those you are trying to save. How do you maintain hope?
Monique Pool: Rescuing animals from dire situations is what keeps me going. I am fortunate to work with a young and talented team, with an average age of under 30, all of whom are passionate Surinamese individuals. Their intelligence and dedication inspire me greatly. They possess a deep love for Suriname and its natural environment. This gives me hope for the future.
Mongabay: What message would you like to convey to the readers of Mongabay.com and others who are interested in environmental conservation and protecting Suriname’s natural resources?
Monique Pool: Perhaps one of the most important messages is that Suriname is a very special country. It is a place where there is still so much potential to do good things. I would like to encourage the readers of Mongabay to consider visiting here and see how beautiful it is. Their presence and attention to Suriname can help us preserve and protect more.
Mongabay: What didn’t I ask you that you would like to talk about?
Monique Pool: I think what is important is to emphasize that Suriname is so unique that you can see sloths and dolphins in just one day without having to make a lot of effort. And we’re not talking about dolphins in an aquarium or sloths in cages, but in their natural environment.
Banner image: Monique Pool with one of her most loved creatures. Image courtesy of Green Heritage Fund Suriname.
Pool, M., Boateng, R., Ako-Adounvo, A., Allen-McFarlane, R., Elizondo, D., Paturault, H., … Middendorf, G. (2016). Sloths in the city: Unexpectedly high density of pale-throated three-toed sloths (Bradypus tridactylus) found in an urban forest patch in Paramaribo, Suriname. Edentata: The newsletter of the IUCN/SSC Anteater, Sloth and Armadillo Specialist Group, (17). doi:10.2305/iucn.ch.2016.edentata-17-1.5.en
De Boer, M. N., Pool, M. S., & Simons, D. (2022, December). Marine Megafauna off Suriname – an integrated approach for knowledge and conservation using research and other data sources. Paper presented at MMA Workshop South West Atlantic Ocean, Brazil.