Did Someone Say Sloth?

By Katrina Machtsloth holding her baby

Panama 2002 - the sloth odyssey! Had anyone suggested before we set off on our tropical adventure we would see 10 sloths over the next 10 days, I would have told them they were dreaming. But 10 sloths it was; six in one day.

On a morning hike the second day on BCI, one of my fellow travelers, Lauren, asked our guide, Greg Willis, about the likelihood of seeing any of the illusive creatures. His response, "There's always a chance, but very slim." After all, sloths live high up in the canopy, come out of the trees only to defecate, and are extremely well camouflaged.

Mere hours later the group had our first sloth experience, when Bonifacio, a retired Panamanian friend of Jackie's, returned from a successful sloth hunt. He started searching right after lunch and, when foiled locating one on BCI, he boarded a small power boat to scan the surrounding islands. We watched his efforts through binoculars, as we wiled away the sultry afternoon at the long tables in the dining hall. We had a moment of trepidation when it appeared he was going to return empty handed. But not to fear. Shortly before 3:00 p.m. he returned to BCI, only to go right back out again, with another person. We correctly assumed he had found something, but needed help retrieving it. We didn't have long to wait until Bonifacio returned with an adorable, soaking wet three toed sloth, who had fallen in the lake during capture. Thus began the multitude of photographs and "oohs and aahs." Even the BCI resident researchers came running with their cameras.

Upon his return, Bonifacio deposited the little guy at the base of the grassy slope in front of the lab building. The sloth then climbed to the top of the incline and attempted to climb up the side of the building. He was conspicuously out of his element. Lauren found a dead branch, which Greg put him on, and that made the animal much happier. Of course, even more photographs were taken. That's when I had the totally unforgettable experience of petting him. His tangled fur was shaggy and coarse, filled with tiny moths and green algae. And he was SO DOCILE! As I was stroking his back I realized he had released his weight into the cup of my hand. For a brief moment in time, I was cradling a sloth! Exhilarating! Once all the thrills and excitement abated Greg gingerly returned the sloth to the tree where he was originally found. The next day while wandering on her own, Lauren spotted a two-toed sloth high up in the trees near the visitor's center. And so the count began.

However, it wasn't until we were at our final destination, the Canopy Tower, the numbers grew by the hour. The second morning there one of our tribe noticed a three-toed sloth in the lower branches of a cecropia tree just a stone's throw away from the tower. Yet another unbelievable photo op; more rolls of film quickly spent. It would have been a perfectly worthwhile day if that had been all we saw for the rest of the day. Instead it was just the beginning. We came across a two-toed on our morning hike, another three-toed later in the afternoon, and three more individuals during the night drive. By the time we spied the third one towards the end of the drive, what was only a few days earlier an exciting enigma of the forest had become so commonplace, the guide didn't even stop for us to examine or photograph him. Who would have thought it?! This Panama trek had truly become the journey of the sloth.