Jakob Shockey has never stepped foot into a steaming mangrove forest in Central America, much less seen a three-toed pygmy sloth.

Jakob Shockey has never stepped foot into a steaming mangrove forest in Central America, much less seen a three-toed pygmy sloth.

But the Applegate Valley resident intends to be among the mangroves on the tiny island of Escudo de Veraguas off the east coast of Panama by late March to help prevent the rare sloths from slipping into extinction.

"Growing up in the Applegate, I heard these stories about dodo birds being wiped out and there was nothing you could do about it," said Shockey, 20, now a junior at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., where he is majoring in wildlife studies.

"This is something I can do, something that can make a difference," he said.

The home-taught student has $2,000 for the project but is hoping to raise another $2,000 before he leaves for Panama in March.

Unlike the dodo bird, the small sloths are still clinging to existence, albeit they are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The sloths are found only on the uninhabited island about 15 miles off the coast of Panama. The isle covers about 350 hectares, roughly 875 acres.

Discovered in 2001, the population of sloths is estimated at several hundred, Shockey said. "The single largest factor that got me interested is the fact they could be extinct within a year," he said.

The problem, he said, is largely the expanding tourism in the region.

"When tourists go down there, they want to eat seafood, so there is a huge need for seafood there now," he said.

As a result, fishermen are using the island as a seasonal home and launch pad, bringing with them dogs and cats that disrupt the sloth population, he said. The fishermen are also cutting trees on the island, reducing the habitat of the tree-dwelling sloth, he said.

"The other issue is the fishermen are getting such a high price for their seafood that they are eating the sloths rather than eating any of their catch," he added.

Shockey hopes to stay on the island for three months to study the sloths and their potential threats. His goal is to leave little evidence of having passed that way by practicing no-trace camping while on the isle.

The information he gathers will be part of a college study project and presented to Fundación Conservación, Naturaleza y Vida. The nongovernmental organization based in Panama City is working to save the sloth from extinction.

Shockey's project will be part of a tropical animal behavior and zoology class taught by Heather Heying, an assistant professor at Evergreen.

"Jakob has shown remarkable motivation and ability, both in terms of his intellectual talents and his organizational and logistical skills, in finding and pursuing this project," she said.

The class will spend two weeks focusing on lowland tropical ecosystems, then work on independent research projects for six weeks or more, she said, noting that Shockey's project is unique.

"His project is very novel and impressive," she said. "It emerged pretty much entirely of his own volition. He is remarkably mature, forthright and intellectually promising."

Scientists theorize that the sloth, officially dubbed Bradypus pygmaeus, was among unique creatures that remained on the island when it gradually became separated from the mainland some 10,000 years ago. Others included a fruit bat, frog and butterfly, Heying observed.

"The pygmy sloth is probably the most charismatic of the lot, however," she said.

Growing about a foot and a half long and weighing no more than 8 pounds, the sloths have three long, hook-clawed toes on each of their front feet. The solitary animals feed largely on the leaves of red mangroves, and often spend more than a day in the same tree before moving through the limbs to an adjacent tree, according to preliminary research done on the sloths.

However, if gaps are left in the forest because of tree felling, their habitat becomes too restrictive because the arboreal animals can no longer move to an adjacent tree to feed, scientists say.

Longtime Applegate Valley resident Chris Bratt, a neighbor of the Shockey family, isn't surprised by Shockey's far-flung interests.

"He is a very conscientious, very smart young man who has always been interested in wildlife," Bratt said.

Jakob Shockey, who has taken Spanish in college, said he discovered the plight of the three-toed pygmy sloth by accident. He had initially contacted the Panama City group about the Antillian manatee, which is also endangered.

"The director called me back and said he had a more pressing issue and told me about the sloth," Shockey said, adding he will be working with the group on studying the animal.

"Very little research has been done on this species," he said. "I'm excited about what I can do to help it survive."

For more information on the project, including on how to help fund it, contact Shockey at jakob.shockey@mac.com.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.