Saving sloths and starting from scratch: An interview with Dr Becky Cliffe
Dr Becky Cliffe is a British zoologist and a leading expert on sloth biology and ecology. She is the founder and executive director of the Sloth Conservation Foundation (SloCo), a non-profit organisation dedicated to saving sloths in the wild.
In this interview, Becky talks about moving to Costa Rica, starting SloCo from scratch and the importance of ‘winging it’. She takes us through her inspiring journey from university student to founder of an internationally recognised non-profit, and speaks about the obstacles she has faced along the way.
Read on to find out what it really takes to build a career in conservation…
What inspired you to work in conservation, and with sloths in particular?
I loved animals and I loved biology, but I knew I didn’t want to be a vet. I wanted to do something a bit more tropical, so I followed my heart and decided to study Zoology at Manchester university.
It was through my degree that I was first introduced to the world of conservation. One of my supervisors set me up on a research placement at a sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica, and that’s how I became involved with sloths.
On my placement I discovered that sloths are a species that no one really knows much about. They’re really suffering because people can’t help sloths even if they want to – there’s a real lack of understanding of the ecology of the species.
Quite quickly I discovered that the research I was doing as a student was having a real impact on the conservation of the species, which was amazingly exciting for me when I was younger. I could see the results of my work, which inspired me further. I got swept up in the world of sloths, and the rest is history!
How did you manage to continue working with sloths in Costa Rica after your placement ended?
I spent 12 months here on that initial visit. Then I went home briefly to graduate from my degree, and straight after that I came back out here.
Coming back to Costa Rica was a big risk, because I didn’t have any sort of comfort blanket – I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have a source of income, I didn’t have any sort of insurance. It was really scary, but if you really want to do something, particularly in the field of conservation, you have to just go after it and make it happen.
To raise money, I decided to do some crowdfunding campaigns online – it was the start of the crowdfunding era. I did a big Indiegogo campaign and raised quite a bit of money; enough to fund a PhD in sloths. I had no idea it was going to be so successful!
How and why did you start SloCo?
I started SloCo because towards the end of my PhD, something in my gut told me I needed to make a non-profit.
I did at one point have the opportunity to go to Brazil to do a post-doctorate in sloths, but I wanted to help conserve the species and make a positive difference, rather than just doing research for the sake of knowledge.
So I decided to start SloCo instead, but I had no idea what I was doing – I actually googled how to found a charity! I felt so stupid, but I knew it was the next step for me and the right thing to do. It was a very instinctive decision, and it’s all fallen into place. We got our official charity status in 2017, and it’s exploded since then.
What does SloCo do to help sloths?
Sloths are very sensitive to changes in their environment, particularly in terms of deforestation, so we’re trying to find ways for sloths and humans to coexist. Our conservation programmes are all focused around helping people find ways to live peacefully alongside the local wildlife without having a negative impact.
We do a wide range of things to help sloths. For example, we offer reforestation programmes in disturbed areas, and we build ‘sloth crossing bridges’, which are artificial connections between trees to help sloths move safely through the forest. We also run educational programmes, particularly for international tourists – people don’t realise that taking ‘sloth selfies’ is really harmful for the health of the animal.
What does a typical day look like for you at work?
A lot of people think I spend my days running around the jungle, surrounded by butterflies and monkeys and sloths. But it’s not the case at all – I actually spend most of my days in the office.
As the director of a foundation a lot of what I do is actually based around humans and people. I spend a lot of time liaising with communities and managing staff, as well as organising financial budgets and fundraising.
I’m finding myself being an accountant, a marketing director, and many other things that I don’t have any training in. I’m learning as I go.
What is the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is seeing the impact of our projects.
There are these defining moments that happen sometimes. For example, when I see a sloth crossing on one of our wildlife bridges, or when I go and visit a school as part of our education outreach and I see the children’s faces light up.
In those moments you realise that this is all happening because I took all those risks several years ago, and it’s very rewarding. It’s amazing to know we’re actually making a difference – seeing the numbers at the end of each year and seeing that less sloths are being admitted to rescue centres is a really great feeling. It makes it all worthwhile.
What is the worst part of your job?
The worst part is having to do a lot of things that I have no training in.
It can be incredibly stressful being stuck at the desk trying to work out what I should do next or how we should go about doing something like a year-end fundraising campaign when I don’t have any professional experience in that area.
I think we all look at others and assume everyone’s got everything figured out, but we’re all just winging it really!
What are your career highlights so far?
A recent highlight was publishing a genetics paper that took me about six years of hard work to complete.
Publishing the paper was a big milestone for me because there were a lot of obstacles that we faced. I had a lot of people along the way who doubted me and a lot of people who tried to sabotage the project. You’ll be amazed at how political the world of conservation is!
There were times when I thought I would never publish anything. We worked so hard for free for so many years, but we finally published the paper six months ago, and it’s changed a lot about sloth conservation in Costa Rica.
What advice would you give to someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?
I would say just go for it. You’ve got to give everything you’ve got and chase after what you want, because it’s not just going to land in your lap.
You’re going to have to get outside your comfort zone, you’re going to have to do some volunteering, and you’re going to have to figure it out as you go. You’re going to have to wing it, but you can do it. Just a bit of grit, determination, and persistence, and it will happen.