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Lots of sleep and 30 days to eat a leaf... a sloth's life; They are among the world's least well understood creatures... the sloth. Robin Turner reports on a Welsh academic's bid to shine a light on their unusual world.

ASTUDENT at a Welsh University has raised nearly PS30,000 in a month to help reintroduce baby orphaned sloths into the wild.

Rebecca "Becky" Cliffe, 23, who is studying zoology at Swansea University, said she was stunne" by the sum she has amassed in 40 days.

Her crowd funding campaign Save Our Sloths, using the internet and social media, will use the money to purchase GPS tracking collars and other scientific equipment to unlock the secret lives of sloths for the first time.

Becky, who some are referring to as "the Virginia McKenna of Sloths" after the famous lion activist, is currently studying sloths for her PhD, under the supervision of Professor Rory Wilson of Swansea University, an animal behaviour expert who has pioneered the use of animal friendly tracking devices.

A lead scientific consultant for National Geographic's Great Migrations series, Professor Wilson's lightweight trackers using GPS technology have followed the daily lives of creatures such as leopards, sharks, albatrosses, elephant seals and armadillos.

Becky Cliffe has been working as at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica for some time and, using the money she raised, will now carry out an exhaustive study on the animals in Costa Rican jungles.

She said: "Very little is known about how sloths survive in the wild and because of this, the sanctuary here in Costa Rica has never been able to release hand-reared orphans.

"Now with these funds we have the chance to purchase the technology to understand how sloths survive and to reintroduce them back safely into their natural habitat."

She will follow a number of hand-reared and wild sloths.

She said: "Finally, this allows us to have a real chance to save our sloths and return them back into the wild where they belong."

"This project can now 100 per cent go ahead and really is going to make a huge difference over the next three years."

Rebecca said of her work: "Sloths are one of the least studied mammals in the world.

"Their survival strategy is camouflage, and as a result we know very little about how they live in the wild.

"Even the most basic information such as their natural diet and habitat preference still remain a mystery. This lack of knowledge makes the development of conservation strategies difficult.

"Over time, we have learned how to treat injured adult sloths, and to date we have successfully reintroduced over 120 animals back into the wild.

"It is much more difficult to release hand-raised sloths. In the wild, a baby sloth lives with its mother for at least 12 months, during which time it learns all the essential skills required to survive in the wild. "One of the most important lessons to learn is which leaves are safe to eat.

"Many other mammals learn what is safe to eat through trial and error - if they feel sick after eating a certain food; they will avoid it in the future.

"A sloths digestion is very slow making this much more difficult. It can take them up to 30 days to digest a single leaf. "If a sloth feeds from the same tree species for too long it risks overdosing on that particular toxin - and unfortunately they won't realise it until it's too late.

"We simply do not know enough about their diet to teach this to the orphaned babies that arrive here.

"Due to the high number of injured and orphaned sloths, it is essential that we find a way to safely return these animals back into the wild."

As part of Becky Cliffe's project, sloths will be fitted with a "backpack".

She said: "This consists of a harness with a VHF radio transmitter, GPS locator and a Daily Diary data logger. This technology shows us what wild sloths do and where."

AMERICAN SLOTH FACTFILE | They are tree dwelling residents of the jungles of Central and South America, and are known for being slow-moving, hence their name "sloths".

| Sloths are classified as folivores (leaf eaters) as the bulk of their diet consists of buds, tender shoots, and leaves, | There used to be "mega sloths". Some extinct ground sloths reached the size of elephants and disappeared about the same time man appeared on the planet.

| Sloths may not be as "slothful" as first thought, the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany found wild sloths only slept just over nine hours a day. | A sloth was once misidentified as an alien, known as the "E.T. of Panama City" when teenagers snapped photos of a dead creature.

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Swansea University researcher Becky Cliffe who is raising money to protect orphaned and injured sloths in Costa Rica
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jul 3, 2013
Words:774
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