I had booked a trip to Panama, for what would be my first visit to Central America. Panama is blessed with being one of the most bio-diverse countries on the planet. For me, seeing her iconic sloth was near the top of my wildlife wish list. From what I had read, seeing a sloth would be straight forward. I half expected to see one hanging in the first tree outside the airport door, but it wasn’t quite that easy. I had been traveling around Panama for over a week without so much as a rumour of a sloth, when I arrived on the steamy emerald island of Bastimentos.
A few days passed with no progress, although I did meet someone who had seen a sloth near the beach house where we were staying. I took a stroll along the beach to the nearby eco-lodge, to arrange a boat trip for the following morning. Arriving at the lodge, I peered up into the branches of a fruiting tree, where I could make out a small wire-haired bundle. It couldn’t be, could it? There was no movement, no face, and no toes on show, but this was clearly the bottom end of a Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth.
I had imagined a bigger animal than the small shaggy ball that was huddled in the branches above. I hung around waiting for a photo opportunity but this sloth was very much asleep. A sloth can sleep for 14 hours a day, so waiting it out was not an option.
The following morning our footsteps sent thumb-nail hermit crabs scurrying for cover as we crunched towards the boat dock. We clambered into a narrow dugout canoe and chugged through mangrove avenue, where root claws lay the course to the Salt Creek indigenous community. After discussions with community members we chose to take an easy trail, as we would be hiking with my 4-year-old son. An ingenious coconut shell path kept our feet from sinking in mud as it carried us into the stifling rainforest. We hadn’t been walking for long when we spotted a sloth. Once again it presented me with a wire-haired backside as it slept. I was starting to think that this would be the extent of my sloth photography opportunities. We walked on through rainforest that was bursting with wildlife. Excited, exhausted and with a couple of SD cards filled with photographs, we returned along the same path that had taken us into the jungle. There we found our sloth from earlier in the day, but now it was awake and searching for a leafy lunch.
The sloth had crawled down to some low branches where it hung not far from my head. I had been photographing poison dart frogs and had left the macro lens on my camera. A panicked fumble ensued, which resulted in my lens-less camera body falling to the sodden ground. I grabbed up the muddy black box, rubbed it down with my shirt, fitted a lens and in no time, I was firing shots.
When I’m taking wildlife photographs I try to find a balance of getting the shots that I want but also being there in the moment, enjoying the experience. I always take some time to see the animal with my eyes rather than through lens glass. I was enchanted by the life that sparkled from two chestnut eyes. The world’s slowest mammal was not as slow as I was expecting, as it dragged itself through the branches with its long, out of proportion arms. I was astonished by the claws! The three toes (that are actually fingers) put Edward Scissor hands to shame!
The three-toed sloth grows up to 58 cm (23 inches) and can weigh up to 3.9 kg (8.75 pounds). It spends almost its entire life in the treetops, coming down just once a week to defecate. Amazingly the shaggy coat of the sloth has become home to a species of moth that lives only on sloths. When the sloth comes down to answer nature’s call the Sloth Moth hops off, lays eggs on the poo and hops back on again for the slow ascent into the canopy.
The male Three-toed sloth develops a colourful center parting, called a speculum, on his back when he reaches sexual maturity. This patch of butter, brown and black fur gives each male sloth a unique identifying mark, that would not look out of place on one of the big cat family. It surely has a role to play in courtship, but it seems a little out of place on such a well camouflaged animal.
The sloth treated us to an extraordinary close-up encounter. After a while, having decided that there were no more good leaves below, it turned and steadily made its way back up the tree, presenting me with that usual sloth view; a fuzzy butt.
Later that afternoon, back at the beach, I was in the ‘lounge room’ above the eco-lodge restaurant. From the vantage point of this open sided, thatched platform, I spotted the sloth from the previous day, but this time she was very much awake and searching for dinner. She skillfully navigated the thin canopy branches with a dexterity not normally associated with the word sloth. While I was firing shots, I noticed an unusual disturbance in the fur on her belly. I zoomed in tight and then zoomed the photo that I had taken. Sure enough, clinging tightly to her belly fur was a tiny teddy bear baby sloth.
The final sloth of the trip was hanging around in a roadside tree, on the outskirts of Panama City. We pulled over and I jumped out of the car for one last look. The pretty male sloth was on the move, showing the three toes on the hind legs that are common to all sloths, as well as the three fingers on the front leg that distinguish the species. There have been moves to rename sloths based on fingers rather than the existing toe based classification. I felt like I could have stayed with him all day, but I knew he would soon return to being that sleeping ball of wire wool.
The end of the holiday had arrived and my desire to see a sloth had been satisfied beyond my hopes. My young son had also been delighted by the inspiring experience of getting close to these unique animals. By the time I left Panama I had seen, and photographed several Three-toed sloths and even a couple of their less common Two-toed cousins. We will hear more about them in a future article.
Happily, the three-toed sloth is listed as having a conservation status of Least Concern. If we can maintain healthy rainforests through sustainable logging practices, and establish land protected from development, then we can enjoy the slow and steady company of these beautiful animals for decades to come.
Further Reading – If you have an interest in sloths then I can’t recommend Sloths – Life In The Slow Lane highly enough. The book is written by Rebecca Cliffe and includes wonderful photography by the talented Suzi Esterhaz. Best of all, a significant amount of the proceeds from book sales goes straight back to the Sloth Conservation Foundation.
Join the conversation below. Have you encountered a sloth? Where did you see them?
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