The Sloth Lady From Matapalo
On a recent early morning jaunt along the tranquil gladed jungle path which runs from Matapalo to Playa Linda and beyond, I was distracted by noise and movement a few meters away. I stopped. My dog Chispa stopped. The noise and movement stopped, only briefly, then continued-CRUNCH, CRACKLE, pause, CRUNCH CRACKLE.
My heart beat fast, and I grabbed Chispa. I am a wildlife nut; some people call me Jungle Jim. Fully expecting to meet up with a jungle cat, anteater, or pack of howler monkeys, I inched forward and peered around the bushes into a grove of almond trees. CRUNCH, CRACKLE….I followed the sound to a mature tree just off the beach. Unable to contain herself for one moment more, Chispa leaped from my arms and beelined for the sound. CRACKLE…Chaos erupted and Chispa bolted from the underbrush with a couple of yips, and cowered behind me as a figure emerged from the shadows wielding a long slim pole.
“Pura vida!” said the middle aged woman in a sunhat. “Hope I didn’t scare your dog!” It took a minute to recover my composure, but then introductions were made and we began a lengthy chat. Beth, aka The Sloth Lady of Matapalo, is one of those people who have committed to protecting and preserving the wildlife in our little corner of Paradise.
“So what exactly are you doing down here?” I asked, gesturing toward her erstwhile weapon.
“I come down 3 times a week to pick the leaves from the beach almond trees-it’s their favorite food!” she replied, and demonstrated a swift leaf removal technique..I raised my eyebrows. “Whose?...”
“The sloths of course! I forgot to mention that!” she laughed. “Sometimes I think that’s all I think about!”
She went on to explain that she is a volunteer for the KIDS SAVING THE RAINFOREST organization just outside of Quepos. Their vision is to rescue and rehabilitate wildlife from the rainforest who have become ill or badly injured , so that their survival is in jeopardy. Their primary goal with these animals is to rehabilitate them to the point where they can be released into their natural habitat. They rescue over a hundred animals per year.
So now Beth explained that sloths are among the most vulnerable of wildlife, due to their slow moving, docile nature. While their camouflage protects them from predatory hawks and jungle cats, they are often electrocuted on power lines while passing through the forest, and even being hit by vehicles is not uncommon.
Human encroachment and habitat destruction are their worst enemies, according to Beth. The upshot is that sloths can be injured or become ill, and consequently become unable to care for their young. For this reason, Beth said, there are many orphaned sloth babies rescued each year. Fortunately, many of them are returned to the wild in excellent condition, due to the caring volunteers of Kids Saving the Rainforest.
Beth continued a detailed and fascinating story of how the sloths have a very limited diet, and very peculiar habits.
“Beach almond leaves are their most favorite!” she stated. “The young tender leaves are like candy…..but you know we have to bring mature leaves as well, so it is completely natural.”
She noted that the 3 toed sloth’s diet consists solely of leaves and shoots from the beach almond and Guarumo trees. The 2 toed sloth, however, will also eat some insects, and the occasional small game! Regardless of the type of sloth or what they eat, the digestion process is exceedingly slow – the digestive process can take up to a month to complete!
I thought I knew a lot about jungle life, but I learned a lot from Beth, not least how important it is for us as humans to care for the creatures of the forest, and to help preserve and protect their habitat. As we walked slowly through the forest, she pointed out many likely sloth hangouts, high in the treetops.”Look for anything that looks like treebark with arms.”, she joked. Sure enough, we spotted two three toed sloths hanging and snoozing in their protected perches.
“I come out and do this because I care what happens to our planet. There is no excuse for us as humans to act irresponsibly to the very Nature on our planet,” said Beth. Everyone can be, and should be involved in conservation in their communities. We can all volunteer to keep our wildlife areas clear of trash, dangerous chemicals, and excess traffic. Those of us with extra time can volunteer with the many rescue organizations in their area, plant trees, and spread the word in their schools and workplaces. We are all in this together, and we must work together!” she declared.
Beth suggested that I might want to take a tour of the Kids Saving the Rainforest preserve, and I jumped at the chance. I contacted Jennifer Rice, who with her daughter, Janine, and husband, Chip, created the non-profit preserve in 1999 in a remote area outside of Quepos. They arranged a visit with their assistant Karen, and biologist Mac, that included a tour of their Sanctuary, as well as the wildlife rescue center.
We were greeted at the Sanctuary by an enormous, and marvelously acrobatic scarlet macaw, who goes by the name of Bouche. A glutton for attention, he followed us around the entire property! According to Karen, the Sanctuary houses a variety of animals from rainforests around the world. These animals may not be returned to the wild, due to their injuries or other conditions which would make it impossible for them to survive in their natural habitat. That being said, they are cared for around the clock by a team of professionals and volunteers in surroundings closely resembling their natural homes.
Karen told us that the Rescue Center focuses on rescue, rehabilitation, and release of injured or otherwise incapacitated jungle animals, including monkeys, sloths, jaguarundi, kinkajous, and many more.
“The species most attended to are the mono Titi, or squirrel monkeys, capuchin monkeys, and..wait for it! Sloths! Both 2 toed and 3 toed are well represented here, with very good prospects for release in most cases!”
Karen paused, and said, “You know, the sloths are my favorite! I would spend all day with them if I could!”
What is it about sloths that make so loveable, so irresistible? If you have seen one, I think you know. That permanent beatific smile brings a smile to every face, young and old. The way they just hang there is so cool, and when they move, it is with an effortless power that is the envy of any accomplished gymnast.
“You want to know some fun facts?” asked Karen.
“Well, first of all, all sloths have three toes on their hind legs. It is only the toes on their forelegs that differentiate them. Sloths are related to the anteater and the armadillo! Until about 10,000 years ago, there were giant ground sloths roaming the Earth, some of which were as large as elephants!
There are two types of sloth endemic to Costa Rica: the brown throated 3 toed sloth, and Hoffman’s 2 toed sloth. While they are not critically endangered, the continued human encroachment and destruction of habitat results in a less healthy population. The rarest, and most endangered sloth is the 3 toed pygmy sloth, which exists only on one small island off the coast of Panama.
Sloths move so slowly that a symbiotic green algae grows on their fur! It is useful as camouflage, and also as a source of nutrients.
3 toed Sloths are very unusual among mammals because they have eight or nine cervical vertebrae. This allows them to turn their head a full 270 degrees. All other mammals have seven vertebrae, except, oddly enough, the manatee, which only has six.
Sloths are astonishingly strong and agile, but their movements are so slow that they may appear helpless. They are excellent swimmers, too, and can move three times faster in the water as on land. In addition, they can slow their metabolism and heart rate to such a point that they can hold their breath underwater for up to forty minutes!
Sloths live their entire lives in the treetops, descending only to poop, or to move to another tree.
Baby sloths cling to their mothers for weeks after they are born. They learn what to eat by licking their mothers’ lips!”
OK, I am stunned and amazed by how much I have learned about this fascinating creature who lives right here in our local jungle. You can bet I will be searching the treetops on my daily excursions with Chispa, and I will always be on the lookout for my friend Beth, the Sloth Lady of Matapalo. I am so grateful to her and all the folks at Kids Saving the Rainforest for helping me to understand appreciate the importance of maintaining and improving our natural environment! Special thanks also to Wikipedia, for helping with fun facts!
See you next time in the further adventures of Jungle Jim! Oh, and if you’re out there exploring the jungle yourself, and hear CRACKLE, CRUNCH, CRACKLE, you may come face to face with another dedicated wildlife rescue volunteer, or even Beth,The Sloth lady of Matapalo!
Jungle Jim Henahan