Heroes Around the World 2: Tinka Plese and AIUNAU

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Tinka rehabilitating sloths at AIUNAU. (Photo Credit: Tinka Plese)

Internet fact: everybody loves sloths. They’re universally adored, with a conservation society, fanpages, infinite gifs, and the sloth-or-chocolate croissant meme. There’s even a wikiHow article on how to be a sloth lover. That’s a lot of sloth support, and I think these people are on to something. There’s something endearing about seeing their cute little faces, and so relaxing when watching them climb slowly through the trees. It’s like watching an animal at peace with the world.

Sloths still exist in the wild in Colombia, so we were excited at the chance to see them. But nature isn’t always cooperative and we hadn’t seen any on our hikes in the jungle. Though we still wanted to see sloths, I wasn’t keen on just going to the zoo–we could do that in the U.S. On a whim, I looked around for a wildlife sanctuary for sloths online. That’s how I found Tinka and AIUNAU, the nonprofit foundation she directs to help rehabilitate sloths, anteaters, and other wildlife. We reached out to Tinka about visiting AIUNAU and after a brief exchange of emails, one morning we traveled to rural Antioquia to visit her.

Men installing telephone lines near our bus stop in rural Antioquia. Increased development in rural areas is one of the many threats to sloths.

We met Tinka at a bus stop and she drove us to her home, which doubles as a site for AIUNAU’s rehabilitation facilities. She doesn’t normally do tours – as she puts it, her work is in helping the animals; she’s not here to run a tourist attraction. All the same, she was cheerful and more than happy to answer our questions. We had many, of course – what she does, how she founded AIUNAU, and what she sees in the future for the sloth species.

Tinka hadn’t intended to found AIUNAU when she arrived in Colombia 30 years ago. Originally from Croatia, she came to Colombia to study sloths as a doctoral student. The locals knew about her research, and soon people began bringing her injured sloths. At first Tinka cared for them informally, but after a decade she founded AIUNAU, a portmanteau of the local names for the two- and three-toed sloths. Through AIUNAU, Tinka and other members now not only rehabilitate Xenarthrans (the animal group comprising sloths, anteaters, and armadillos), but also advocate for policies that protect them.

A sloth peers out from its rehabilitation enclosure at AIUNAU.

Sloths face two major threats in Colombia, Tinka explained. The first comes from habitat loss, which increasingly brings sloths into contact with civilization. Sloths can be hit by cars when crossing roads, or electrocuted if they mistake a power line for a tree branch. And sometimes they’re just picked on by people – she’s received a few sloths injured by curious children who knocked them out of trees.  The second major threat springs, ironically, from the love that people have for sloths. Sloths are the most-trafficked animal in Colombia, with an estimated 60,000 sold as pets in 2013. Many of these sales are to tourists, who are told that sloths are easy to care for and will eat anything. To make matters worse, poachers will often target baby sloths, taking them from their mothers at a young age because their cuteness sells. Many sloths die this way, either abused at the hands of poachers or malnourished in a tourist’s house, far from their Colombian home.

A sloth rests on a branch in its rehabilitation enclosure. The enclosures, made of wood and plexiglass, measure several meters on each side and provide places for the animals to seek privacy.

Through AIUNAU, Tinka has successfully cared for over a thousand animals in the past 20 years, although not every story has a happy ending. Sloths often arrive at AIUNAU so weak or ill that they’re beyond recovery. Especially for young animals, she says, “often the best you can do is provide a peaceful place for them to die.” Many animals have also recovered under her care, though, and she then releases them into the wild. She emphasizes this strongly to us; in contrast with some other rehabilitation facilities, the animals are not kept as tourist attractions for revenue. Beyond rehabilitation, Tinka has also successfully advocated for better wildlife protection throughout Colombia. She tells us about writing letters to the Colombian Government’s Ministry of the Environment each year, highlighting places where sloth trafficking was prolific and demanding legal action. “I wrote to them for more than a decade, over and over, and finally they reached out to me and we addressed the issue,” she laughs, “finally.” She notes that because of government intervention, sloth trafficking has dropped, “but there’s still so much work to do.”

A tamandua in her rehabilitation enclosure at AIUNAU.

Tinka continues advocating for wildlife protection in spare moments between the daily rehabilitation of animals in her care. She monitors the poaching situation through local contacts and visitors who submit sightings of poachers selling sloths. She then works with law enforcement to shut poaching operations down. Beyond this, Tinka has also worked tirelessly to increase the number of animals being rehabilitated by sharing her knowledge on caring for them. She’s teamed up with engineers to create better tools for animal rehabilitation. “Take a look at this,” she beams, as she shows me a picture on her phone. “It’s a new rehabilitation enclosure we’ve invented that can be assembled and disassembled anywhere. It’s large enough to allow us to care for an animal on site and for an animal to recover in familiar surroundings, which should reduce their stress and lead to a faster recovery.” Amazingly, Tinka’s desire to help sloths has created new tools, ones that could be used to rehabilitate a wide range of animals and improve rehabilitation outcomes.

In bed early: a sloth sleeps in her blanket-covered basket at AIUNAU.

After more than two hours of talking to Tinka, we took a walk on the grounds to see the animals currently at AIUNAU. Tinka led us around the side of her house to four large enclosures. At the time, she was caring for three animals in these enclosures: two three-toed sloths and a tamandua (a species of anteater). As we approached the enclosures, Tinka spoke in a quiet whisper to avoid agitating the animals. “Because it’s overcast out, they may already be asleep.” We peered into the first enclosure and saw a small clawed hand hanging out from a blanket-covered basket. This sloth had turned in for the night. The sloth of the next enclosure hadn’t yet drifted off, but was clinging sleepily to the top of the branch in his enclosure. His head nodded slowly up and down, and watching him I felt a bout of somnolence creeping on.

A sloth prepares for sleep in his rehabilitation enclosure at AIUNAU.

The guest of the third enclosure, a tamandua, was far more active. On our approach, she rustled and climbed from the floor of her enclosure onto a shelf, and then gracefully reached over and pulled herself onto a branch. Within seconds she had reached the wall of the enclosure closest to us. “She’s excited because she senses us,” Tinka explained, “we shouldn’t stay too long.” After a few minutes of observation, we pulled ourselves away and walked with back to the house with Tinka. We chatted for a few more minutes, and then said our goodbyes. When I asked her what message she wants the world to know, Tinka says: “Don’t buy wild fauna, and don’t torture wild fauna. Let them be wild.”

A tamandua excitedly greets us from her enclosure.

As we walked back to the bus stop, we passed by fields and pastures that were once jungles inhabited by sloths and other Xenathrans. While sloths are not currently in danger of extinction, continued habitat loss and poaching pose serious threats. But these animals are lucky to have Tinka and AIUNA looking out for them. After all, many people love wild animals. But few have gone as far as Tinka in ensuring that they stay wild and free.


If you’re inspired by this story and want to help Tinka and AIUNAU continue their amazing work, consider making a donation here.

Homebound: all animals rehabilitated at AIUNAU are released into the wild.