At the bar in the Marriott after we introduced ourselves and began nibbling plantones and guacamole, our guide Ben asked the six of us what wildlife we hoped to photograph in Costa Rica. Marion’s answer surprised us. In a country of Resplendent Quetzals, White-Faced Capuchin Monkeys, Scarlet Macaws, Blue Morph butterflies and yellow-beaked Toucans, she said “Sloths.”
An arboreal animal curled up, sleeping all day in the canopy of the rainforest. Looking like an oversized hairball. Hanging upside down, lethargically, like a dull shirt clothes-pinned on a branch.
Why, why was Marion interested in sloths?
Until our visit to Costa Rica two months ago we didn’t know about the worldwide fan club for sloths.
In their honour, International Sloth Day, October 20, was established ten years ago. Sloths are so popular that a few years later, Costa Rica, with one of the largest populations of tree sloths in the world, adorned its paper currency with a picture of one.
BBC specials elevated the status of sloths to primetime celebs. Sloths star in children’s books. Their cute, smiling faces appear on backpacks and pyjamas. Cuddly plush toys replicate mini versions of their furry bodies. The world can’t get enough of sloths.
If there’s any animal that visitors want to see in Costa Rica, it’s the sloth. The sloths in Costa Rica have become the symbol of the country due to its oh-so-adorable face, snuggly body and very pura vida lifestyle.
Ben guaranteed we’d see a sloth in the wild. Bold on his part, I’ve since discovered.
The odds of sighting a sloth are 10% with a guide, 0% without a guide.
The proverbial cliché “As hard to find as a needle in a haystack” could be retired and replaced with “As hard to find as a sloth in a jungle.”
On our seventh day, a local guide in Corcovada National Park spotted a sloth while we were waiting for a boat to return us to the lodge. I don’t know who was more slow in getting to our boat, me or Marion. “Just one more photo…”
Six days went by before we saw another sloth.
Now I know why, and how lucky we were to see more than one.
While there is no official population count of sloths in Costa Rica, experts say its numbers are falling. An animal must be seen to be counted and you already know the odds of that. It doesn’t help that sloths are incredibly slow to reproduce, having only one baby every three years. A baby that faces a natural mortality rate of about 60%. The only guaranteed place to see sloths in Costa Rica is at wildlife rescue centres. Sanctuaries dedicated to sloths are more prevalent per square mile in Costa Rica than in any other country in Central or South America.
Why? Sloths thrive in primary forests where they can curl up in languid torpor, lazily munch their favourite cecropia leaves and languish in the canopy hidden from the hungry eyes of Harpy Eagles and wildcats. Unexpectedly, we began to notice something about Costa Rica; most of its forest is secondary growth.
Deforestation (cattle ranching accounting for more than 90%) had reduced Costa Rica to tree cover on only one-quarter of the country by the 1990s. Even worse for sloths, only 3.5% of that remaining forest was primary growth, a fixed amount, for eternity.
Realizing the disastrous effect on its country’s ecosystems and wildlife, the government implemented rigorous forest conservation measures. To its credit, Costa Rica is now the only tropical country in the world where forested land is increasing. But it’s a slow process, sloth-pace.
Costa Rica also passed laws in 2012 banning the trading of wild animals, both wild-caught and captive-bred, prohibiting the hunting of wild animals for sport and making it illegal to import wild animals for the pet trade. Costa Rica’s wildlife regulations have been described as “among the most enlightened, progressive and benevolent on earth.”
And yet…I wrote
Well—the best news (so far, it’s ~ 6 pm) is a sloth is right outside the Congo!
Sitting on the balcony of our cabin, the Congo, catching up on my diary, I sensed a presence in the trees on my left. A sloth! Breaking the odds, we were seeing a sloth without a guide—and in a secondary forest. Magellan mounted the tripod and we clicked away until darkness intervened.
Late for dinner, we could hardly wait to tell Steve, the hands-on owner of Leaves and Lizards. He too had been surprised to see a sloth at his resort a few days earlier.
In May 2007, a year after he and Debbie bought the 26-acre property, they reforested it with 3,500 indigenous trees and plants. “Fourteen years ago our property was a cattle ranch,” he said. If asked, you would guess the vegetation has been here for decades.
The cabins are Steve’s original design with views of the iconic Arenal Volcano from large windows and elongated balconies, the better for sloth viewing. His jungle-themed artwork climbs the walls of cabins and common areas. “Would you mind telling the rest of the guests about your sloth at breakfast,” Steve suggested, knowing the groups of families would be keen to see it.
Sloths feed at dawn and dusk. How disappointing the next morning when after a closer look we realized our sunrise photos were not of our herbivorous sloth but sadly, nothing but a clump of dark leaves.
Once you’ve seen a sloth, you want to see another and another… Six more days went by. And then we saw our third sloth, in the same tree but on separate guided tours in the primary cloud forest at Monteverde.
The night tour made us realize how much kids love sloths. Attentive to our guide Dieterand and quick with inquisitive questions, a girl about nine years old and her younger brother were infatuated. “How slow are they?” (They move less than a mile in four hours.) “Why?” (The tough leaves they eat take a long time to digest and don’t provide much energy.) “Why do they sleep so long?” (There’s not much energy in leaves so they sleep up to eighteen hours a day.)
But he really caught the utmost attention of the kids when he told us how sloths “risk their lives to go to the bathroom.”
About once a week they descend to the forest floor, excavate a small hole with their hind claws, defecate in it and then cover it with leaves. Moths from the sloth’s fur take advantage of this trip to lay their eggs in the sloth’s feces where they hatch and feed.
“They only poop once a week?” said the girl, reiterating Dieterand’s comment. “What day?”
“Is today poop day?” asked her brother.
Within our group, we decided it was and named this creature “The Tuesday Poop-Day Sloth.”
Sloths have evolved to do less rather than eat more.
Reading this quote, I thought how quickly Magellan and I had grown, like Marion and so many others, to appreciate sloths. We’ve even adopted their laissez-faire way of life while hanging around home during this pandemic. Sort of. We’re doing less, but unlike sloths, we’re eating more. As I write this, we’ve lunched on a ham/red pepper/potato frittata, nibbled chocolate-chip cookies mid-afternoon and are about to drink our first glass of wine while watching Rachel Maddow’s COVID-19 update. How slowly will we revolve to normal?
Fendt, Lindsay, and AFP. “This gross discovery may make you rethink your obsession with sloths.” Tico Times, January 23, 2014. The Tico Times is Costa Rica’s national English newspaper and a good resource.
Leaves and Lizards. “Nature Nirvana!”says Christopher P. Baker in the Moon Guide to Costa Rica. He is so right. Watch for a Postcard from Costa Rica devoted entirely to what Steve and Debbie Legg have so ably created.
Mayo, Sarah. “The Complete Guide to Sloths in Costa Rica.” Costa Rica Experts, September 22, 2017.
Sammi. “Where to see sloths in Costa Rica: Tips for Spotting Perezosos.” Mytanfeet.com, April 5, 2020. One of our favourite blogs from Costa Rica.
“Sloth Facts | Costa Rica Wildlife Guide.” Natural Habitat.