Recently we visited Costa Rica’sLa Salle Museum of Natural History, located in the capital, San José. With over 65,000 specimens on exhibition, this is one of the most complete collections in Latin America.
One of our favorite exhibits was the Entomology area, where you can see over 8,000 amazing butterflies, including many Blue Morpho Butterfly (Morpho spp.) samples. The famous Blue Morpho Butterfly shares its habitat with three-fingered sloths, depending on Sangrillo trees (Pterocarpus officinalis) for survival.
The museum has a variety of sections, the main attraction being the paleontology exhibit featuring towering dinosaur skeletons replicas, which are a favorite for all ages. Surrounding the dino enclosure are walls of brilliant minerals and prehistoric fossilized invertebrates (corals, arthropods), and vertebrates (fish, reptiles, birds, mammals).
The sloth, the bad, and the ugly.
The Mammals Exhibit has 400 taxidermy specimens of both local wildlife and non-native creatures. Taxidermy is the preservation of an animal’s skin over an armature or stuffing.
Natural history museums all over the world exhibit taxidermic animals as education tools, a way to record aspects of species. The majority of specimens are likely to have been prepared decades ago.
But be prepared… these specimens are likely to look very different from any taxidermic animals you may have seen before…
The word “taxidermy” comes from the Greek words “taxis” and “derma”, which means “arrangement” and “skin”. But seems like the arrangement of the skin of these animals hasn’t worked out quite as expected…
Aging is not good if you’re a taxidermied sloth
Most of the specimens on display at the Natural History Museum of Costa Rica are very old – some having been prepared over four decades ago!
Taxidermy techniques have changed greatly over the years, and unfortunately, animal specimens who were subjected to the older ‘stuffing’ methods have not stood the test of time.
These old representations are not in their best shape at all. Nowadays, taxidermists implement ‘mounting’ methods, where the animal skins are removed and mounted on light wood or foam structures, and resulting in greater longevity for those pieces.
The Harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) is unfortunately considered extinct and in Costa Rica, only inhabiting isolated regions of Central and South America due to habitat loss.
One of the museums’ most impressive taxidermic animals is the Harpy Eagle preying on a two-fingered Sloth (Choloepus Hoffmanni). This is one of the largest eagles on the planet and relies on sloths for their diets.
Sadly, this Harpy Eagle will be the only chance most of us will have to see one. The sloth itself isn’t in our top ten worst taxidermic animals, in fact, the body of the sloth is highly accurate. It’s the undeniable side-eye that gets us.
This form of preserving specimens began in England in the 19th century. Tanning – turning an animal’s skin into preserved leather – was common back then. Through these methods, the preservation of cataloged species became possible and was a great tool for naturalists.
On his 1831 voyage on HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin made his famous observations of the beak shape of finches across the Galapagos Islands. He suggested that all had evolved from a common ancestor. Darwin preserved his Galapagos finches using the techniques John Edmonstone – a previously enslaved man from the Guyanas – taught him.
Preserving these specimens was crucial in support of his theory on the evolution of species through natural selection. You can see the specimens collected by Charles Darwin and Captain Fitz Roy at the Natural History Museumin London, England.
Visit and support your local Natural History Museum
While the pictures we show you in this article are not the gold standard of taxidermy, the truth is that Museo La Salle has a great variety of collections. If you’re visiting Costa Rica, you might consider spending a morning learning about the animals of this country. To be honest the entomology and mineral exhibits make the visit totally worth it!
Never miss the chance to go to your local Natural History Museum!
The good news is, there are ways to travel that can actually benefit local wildlife, including sloths! But how can you tell which businesses and hotels have actually made meaningful changes to help wildlife and which ones only appear to be “green”?
Introducing the Sloth Friendly Network
Thankfully, travelers coming to the South Caribbean of Costa Rica will no longer have to guess which businesses are friendly to wildlife, because we have been developing a program to address this exact issue!
The Sloth Friendly Network (SFN) is an accreditation program to help concerned travelers make informed choices by highlighting local businesses that have been doing their upmost to help wildlife in the area.
The central aim of the program is to endorse sloth friendly tourism and responsible business ownership by engaging travelers and visitors as partners in conservation.
The South Caribbean is known for its wild and beautiful beaches. It is not uncommon to be basking in the warm Caribbean Sea while you watch a sloth starting to stir after its afternoon nap, munching on beach almond trees.
Perhaps you hear a group of howler monkeys calling in the distance. These unique creatures sharing these wonderful and wild spaces with us, make the South Caribbean a truly enchanting place to be. A place whose biodiversity draws millions of tourists from all over the world each year.
However, would they be willing to pay slightly more to an organization that protects wildlife? While there are some surveys that have shown that people support environmentally friendly practices such as plastic reduction, water conservation, and carbon neutral commitments, there isn’t much research on people’s opinions on wildlife conservation.
In order to determine the importance of wildlife conservation to tourists, we created a survey with two simple questions:
1. When traveling, would you be more willing to book with a hotel/tour guide that supports conservation of local wildlife over other companies?
2. Would you be willing to spend more for a hotel/tour guide that supports conservation?
A third question on demographics was added to see if any meaningful patterns emerged: “What is your age range?”
This survey indicates that there is a strong preference to support organizations that help protect local wildlife. Additionally, the responses indicate that the majority of people are willing to pay more.
The results of this survey are meaningful for those in the tourism industry as it suggests that by supporting the conservation of local wildlife, they could have a competitive advantage over other companies in the area.
Reaching out to local businesses
Armed with this new knowledge, we were able to make the case to local businesses that tourists truly care about wildlife conservation and are even willing to pay more to reduce the impact of their travel.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to start from scratch because we have had the privilege of working with many local hotels and businesses through our Connected Gardens program.
These organizations have supported our sloth conservation efforts by reconnecting habitat on their properties through Sloth Crossings and reforesting and helping to educate their clients by sharing our educational materials.
We have had the honor of working with these wonderful individuals over the past couple of years and we are proud to officially recognize them as part of the Sloth Friendly Network. As our network grows and we continue to accredit local businesses and organizations in the area, we hope that this will be a useful resource for travelers who interested in wildlife-friendly tourism.
These photos are some of the highlights from our recent visits to drop off education materials (and the certificates of course!) to these Platinum members of the Sloth Friendly Network. Thank you so much for supporting sloth conservation and making it possible to coexist with wildlife in a mutually beneficial way!
Stay tuned as we add more businesses! And if you ever have the chance to visit the South Caribbean of Costa Rica be sure to check out these awesome places!
Are you thinking about booking a sloth encounter experience at a zoo or rescue center? Before you book, follow our simple guide below to make sure you don’t get tricked into supporting an organization that exploits the sloths in it’s care.
You may have already participated in our successful campaigns to end sloth yoga,sloth sleepover events and sloth swimming lessons – well now it gets worse. ‘Sips with sloths‘ and ‘after school slime with sloths‘.
This is the latest in a string of cruel and exploitative ‘encounter experiences’ being disguised as ‘enrichment’, ‘education’ or conservation. Barn Hill Preserve are unashamedly using sloths as props for their wine tasting and ‘slime making’ events. At these events paying guests are allowed to hold, pet and take selfie photographs with baby sloths.
There is a direct connection between the poaching of wild sloths (which is escalating at an alarming rate), and how people are being allowed to interact with sloths at ‘reputable’ organizations worldwide.
The majority of people don’t realize this link, and if they did, they certainly wouldn’t support it – and that is why we are writing this blog. We want to raise awareness and to help people make better informed and ethical decisions in the future.
We aren’t saying that ALL sloth encounters are bad – far from it. We simply want to highlight the main problems and give you an idea of what to look out for when booking one of these experiences.
The big problem
Most organizations hosting hands-on sloth encounters (including Barn Hill Preserve with their sloth wine tasting events) usually justify their events by saying the sloth was rescued, they are educating people or they give money to support sloth conservation. Oh – and that the sloth enjoys the attention. Let’s take a closer look at those claims for a second and get to the root of the problem.
“The sloth was rescued…”
Rescue a sloth. Educate guests. Give money to conservation – great! Give the sloth ethical sources of enrichment to keep it mentally stimulated (as most reputable zoos do) – fantastic! There is absolutely no need to go any further than that.
Don’t force the sloth into a swimming pool, move it into a yoga studio, allow people to hold, pet and take selfie photographs with it – and then have the audacity to call it ‘education’. You can still entertain and educate guests while raising funds without putting the sloth in these stressful situations.
While we care deeply about animal welfare and all of this is very unpleasant for the individual sloth (with scientific evidence proving that all sloths experience abnormal blood pressure reactions in response to human contact due to internalized stress) there is an even bigger concern. There are dangerous knock-on consequences for sloths in the wild.
The only way to stop this from happening to sloths in countries like Costa Rica is to kill the demand at the source. And that requires organizations like Barn Hill Preserve taking responsibility for the fact that they are setting a dangerous precedent for what is an acceptable interaction with a sloth.
Helping sloth conservation? They are doing the exact opposite. Organizations who host events like this tend to prioritize making money over protecting the welfare of the animal.
They can not claim ignorance to the sloth’s stress either – any experienced keeper working with a sloth will know that the animal is uncomfortable when being touched or handled by an unfamiliar person.
Who to believe?
We will leave you with this:
Every single day we are witnessing first-hand the devastating impact of the demand for hands-on wildlife encounters. Just last week a sloth was being held at a banana plantation and tourists were being charged $10 to hold it. The men holding the sloth had connections with local taxi drivers who were waiting at the Limon port as a cruise ship arrived.
Hundreds of people getting off the cruise ship were wanting to see a sloth, and the taxi drivers knew exactly where to take them. That sloth was never rescued. It is either still being held today, or has died from the trauma.
We have absolutely nothing to gain from this situation. We just don’t want to see any more sloths spending their final days being used as a photo prop.
Are any sloth encounter experiences OK?
Yes! Plenty of accredited zoos and aquariums have very ethical sloth encounter experiences available. Here are the top 5 things to look out for:
Do they allow hands-on contact with the sloth? If so, don’t do it. Sloths do not want to be touched or petted under any circumstance.
Is the sloth moved from it’s enclosure? Sloths are creatures of habit and do not like big changes in environment. For some species, being moved or taken on a walk outside may be enriching, but sloths get stressed out by this.
Is the interaction on the sloths terms? If you are holding food out and the sloth comes to take it from you, this is OK and the interaction is on the sloths terms. But if a keeper is having to physically move or disturb the sloth then this becomes stressful.
Does the organization donate to support sloth conservation efforts in the wild? Don’t be afraid to ask questions about this one. Many organizations claim to support conservation efforts but really aren’t doing anything at all. Find out which non-profit they support and check the website of the non-profit to see if the organization is listed as an official supporter.
How many encounter experiences does the sloth participate in each day? We wouldn’t recommend anything above 1 encounter per day. Many good organizations will even reschedule an encounter if the keeper doesn’t think the sloth is feeling up for it.
What can we do to stop the exploitation?
It is easy to feel powerless, but every single one of us has an important role to play. Educate as many people as you can about these issues, and make sure that you properly research any sloth encounter before participating in it. If we all shout loud enough, we can instigate change.
We stopped sloth yoga. We stopped sloth sleepovers. We stopped sloth swimming lessons. We can stop this too. If you know of an organization using sloths in this way, do not be afraid to reach out to them directly to express your concerns!
Would you like to have your photograph taken with a sloth? A sloth selfie for social media? When considering a sloth encounter, the most important thing to remember is the slogan of the year: social distancing! 💚 Sloths are big supporters of the self-isolation lifestyle. As a solitary prey species they enjoy lots of personal space and become stressed out if anyone gets too close.
A lot of countries are slowly starting to lift their travel restrictions and people are beginning to think about possible post-pandemic vacations! Costa Rica is fast-emerging as one of the best places to visit for a safe, ecotourism adventure: not only because of the commitment of the local people to protecting wildlife, but also because of the awe-inspiring biodiversity, raw nature and fantastic wildlife viewing opportunities that the country offers. With a world-renowned healthcare system, the authorities of Costa Rica are working hard to guarantee a safe experience for visitors when the borders re-open.
But let’s talk about sloths. If you visit Costa Rica you are almost guaranteed to see a sloth. In a National Park sloth viewing may be limited to staring at a small ball of fur at the top of a tall rainforest tree (a sloths preferred sleeping spot). However in urban areas sloths can easily be seen while crossing between trees on the ground, hanging from a power line or sleeping in an isolated tree at the side of the road.
At this point, you might be tempted to take a selfie photograph with the sloth for social media. It will make everyone back at home jealous. Maybe you will be tempted to reach out and touch the fur, just to see what it feels like. Or maybe someone else is already holding the sloth and they offer you the opportunity to have your photo taken with it. What should you do?
To help you navigate this difficult decision we have created the Ultimate Sloth Selfie Code that you should follow whenever taking a picture with a sloth. As long as you stick to the code, you can be sure that you are making an ethical and informed decision that is not causing any harm to the animal.
This is the biggest thing to avoid (and a huge red flag) when taking pictures with wild animals. Behind the tourist trap encounter experiences that promote wildlife petting, there is a dark side of poaching, illegal wildlife trafficking and animal exploitation. Most people simply do not know the dark truth behind the animal encounter that they are experiencing. If they did, they certainly wouldn’t support it. Please check out the link below if you want to learn more about the dark side of the wildlife selfie industry.
Always keep a minimum distance of 2 meters/6 feet from a sloth. Always give wild animals plenty of space as you can make them scared, stressed and they can react aggressively. Touching or petting the sloth is a big NO. Don’t get fooled by those cute faces and slow movements: they can react quickly when threatened and a sloth bite is no joke!
3. Don’t use the flash of your camera!
Nobody likes a flashing camera and sloths are no exception. When using the flash you could hurt their eyes! This rule applies to all animals, not only sloths.
4. Keep your selfie stick to yourself!
A sloth will view the selfie stick as an extension of your body – so please keep your distance even with all of your gadgets!
5. Don’t bait the sloth with food
There is nothing in your backpack that is good for a sloth. Sloths feed on leaves – and they are surrounded by leaves in the trees that they live in. Always remember that you should never offer food to wildlife. You could be contributing to a dangerous change in the natural behavior of animals, not to mention that our human food can be really harmful for the health of the animals.
6. Don’t shout or disturb the sloth with loud noises
Always avoid making loud noises to attract the attention of animals – you will be scaring them! We know how exciting it can be to see a sloth (I cried when I saw one for the first time), but try to keep your voice down to avoid causing unnecessary stress.
7. Be a sloth hero: stop sloth harassment!
Now that you understand the rules of ethical sloth watching, you can help by sharing this knowledge with others. Most of the time people are not aware that their actions can disturb an animal. So whenever you see somebody harassing a sloth, you can gently explain to them why this is not OK – you might even make a new friend!
In most countries direct contact with wild animals is prohibited by law, but this doesn’t mean that is doesn’t happen. Sometimes you will get offered an opportunity to take a picture or hold a wild animal on the side of the road for a few dollars. Please don’t ever do this as you will be encouraging the illegal wildlife trade. We don’t recommend that you confront these people as they can be dangerous, but you can always call the authorities or a local rescue center in the area.
Here at SloCo we work to protect sloths in the wild, but we know that sloths are a part of the whole ecosystem. As a result, one of the best ways to help sloths is by helping to conserve the rainforests that they live in and all of the other species that they coexist with. Whether it is a sloth, a monkey, or a raccoon, you should always keep your distance and say no to wildlife selfies.
Spread the word!
A lot of people (including our friends and family) may not be aware of how wildlife encounters can be harmful to the animals that we are so enamored with. You can play an important role by talking to them and helping us to spread this information. Knowledge is power – the more people who understand the wildlife selfie code, the less sloths will be exploited for profit in countries like Costa Rica. Together we can end animal exploitation as photo props!
It is an unnerving time. The world watches with baited breath as the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread and social distancing becomes the norm. Doubts about the stability of the future and concerns for our loved ones press on our mind making it difficult to think clearly.
As of March 18th, the first confirmed case of coronavirus was reported in Limon, an hour’s drive from where we are based in Puerto Viejo, Talamanca. We are entering a time that so many have already been experiencing, with lock-downs and uncertainty looming on the horizon.
Social distancing is difficult for a social species. Research has shown that strong social ties contribute to our overall health. The challenge in this time is to remain connected, while reducing the opportunities for the virus to pass from person to person.
SARS-CoV-2 was likely transmitted from wildlife to people at the Huanan wild animal market in Wuhan, China before making its way around the globe. According to a recent report published in Nature, although the exact animal source of SARS-CoV-2 remains uncertain, it highly resembles viruses found in bats and pangolins, meaning it likely mutated as a product of natural selection.
Wildlife distancing means preventing direct contact between wild animals and people. This can take the form of turning down wildlife selfies or carefully scrutinizing products before buying them. Wildlife distancing, in addition to social distancing, is necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the emergence of future epidemics.
Moreover, tropical rainforests have been the source of many life-saving medicines. For example, Quinine, discovered by the Quechua of Peru and Bolivia, was the first effective treatment against malaria. Vincristine and Vinblastine, come from the Madagascar Periwinkle, a flower native to the island, and are used to treat different types of cancer.
So if you are feeling helpless in this frightening time, consider how you can (from a safe distance) contribute to protecting the world’s biodiversity and promote wildlife distancing. The more we can spread awareness while minimizing the transmission of disease, and stay connected while remaining safe, the more likely we can minimize the impacts of this global pandemic and prevent future outbreaks.
Sloths are natural social distancers, preferring to remain isolated and camouflaged to reduce the chance of predation. Here at SloCo, we are taking a page from the sloth’s book, practicing distancing to keep us all safe.
In Costa Rica, the image of a “smiling” three-fingered sloth has become somewhat of a national symbol for the “Pura Vida” lifestyle of Ticos. You can find three-fingered sloths on t-shirts surfing, doing yoga, drinking beer, etc. The seemingly always relaxed, easy-going attitude of the sloth is what many people seek when visiting Costa Rica.
This love of sloths is a wonderful thing. However, loving sloths completely and respecting them for the wild animals they are requires a broadening of our affection for them. There are aspects of nature and wild animals that are incredibly stunning, and other realities that are appallingly brutal (i.e infanticide – a common reality that sloths and many other creatures face). Nature is full of symbiotic and competitive relationships.
Not only are these situations scientifically proven to be stressful for sloths, but they also normalize the idea that encounters like this are OK. The latest sloth yoga event to make headlines actually advertises the fact that paying guests can pet, feed and take a selfie with the sloth. This is despite there being plenty of information available online that details the dark side of these encounters. These events directly feed the “wildlife selfie” demand that is decimating wild sloth populations throughout South and Central America. It is the exploitation of a wild animal for profit and it needs to stop.
Just like there are parts of ourselves and others that we find difficult to accept, loving sloths unconditionally means accepting all parts of them.
And if you are a true sloth lover, it means keeping them out of yoga classes, out of the hands of tourists, and in the rainforest where they belong.
Animals all over the world are being exploited for hands-on wildlife encounters. We might think that a photo of us riding an elephant, swimming with a dolphin – or holding a sloth – will impress our friends and family. It will make everyone on our social media feed jealous. But at what cost? Some people do it for the experience rather than the wildlife selfie. We all want to know what it is like to feed a tiger cub or cuddle a monkey. We are tactile creatures and it is human nature to want to touch and pet animals.
Most people simply do not know the dark truth behind the animal encounter that they are experiencing. If they did, they certainly wouldn’t support it. That is why we are writing this blog. We want to raise awareness and to help people make better informed and ethical decisions in the future.
There are 2 very real and very big problems with ALL human-wildlife encounters (and by wildlife we mean any species of wild animal anywhere in the world – even if it lives in a captive setting like a zoo, sanctuary, a house or a rescue facility):
#1. The impact on the animal
We won’t go into this in too much detail as it differs widely by species and circumstance. A quick google search will reveal the extent of the abuse that each animal species suffers for a hands-on encounter or wildlife selfie. The people offering these encounter opportunities will tell you anything that you want to hear about why that animal is there and how it loves human contact. In the case of sloths, they always use a variation of the same theme:
“The sloth was rescued and is being cared for! Because it has been raised by / spent time with humans it likes human contact“
This global excuse is used by rescue facilities as well as individuals and indigenous communities (with Honduras and Peru being major hot spots). They can be very convincing with the story, so watch out. Regardless of whether the animal was rescued or taken from the wild purposefully, we can tell you with 100% certainty that any form of direct human contact is damaging to the health of ALL sloths.
It has been scientifically proven that the mere approach of a human causes sloths to experience abnormal blood pressure reactions. These animals will often tolerate handling without struggling but it is stressful for them. Don’t let their placid nature and naturally happy facial expressions fool you. Sloths internalize all stress. Any reputable organisation that has a sloth will make sure that all visitors keep an absolute minimum distance of 2 meters away from the sloth.
The Ugly Picture
Always remember that you are NOT the only person receiving this opportunity. The animal in question will be offered to tens, if not hundreds, of people every single day. Here is just one example. The images below are a small selection retrieved from Instagram and TripAdvisor posts (within the last 2 months) from a center in Honduras. You can see that it is the exact same sloth being used in every photo – she has a very distinctive facial hair pattern.
This sloth is being passed around from person to person every single day. Cruise ships full of tourists on vacation visit this center and every single person wants to hold the sloth and have a picture taken. If you want to help us end the abuse, please send an email to the people responsible and ask them to stop allowing this to happen to the sloths in their care. You can also contact Carnival Cruises and ask them to stop facilitating the abuse of wildlife by offering this excursion
You don’t need to be touching the animal to cause stress.
Perhaps the sloth is wild and you see it crossing the road or hanging on a low-down branch? You think you can sneak in next to it and get the perfect selfie. Maybe if you touch it with a stick, shake the tree or make a noise then it will look at the camera? Since you aren’t actually holding the sloth is it OK? No. This is also unpleasant for the animal and sloths have been known to have miscarriages from the stress of these encounters. All of the sloths in these images with their arms raised are showing extreme signs of stress. Raising an arm like this makes the sloth look bigger which is a last-resort tactic when under attack.
#2 Photos on social media ‘normalize’ human-wildlife contact
Seeing these images every day ‘normalizes’ the behaviour. If someone is offered the opportunity to hold a sloth or ride an elephant then they think “well I have seen other people doing it so it must be OK”. It isn’t OK. It is an abusive epidemic and the only solution is to raise awareness and boycott the organisations and people who permit it.
Changing the Future
When we first started working with sloths 11 years ago, nobody knew the damaging effect that human contact had on these animals. We certainly didn’t realize how photos showing people holding or touching sloths could contribute to the wildlife selfie crisis that we see today. We live and we learn. Now that you are reading this article you can be fully aware moving forwards and perhaps you can make the conscious decision to edit your social media history accordingly (as we have all tried to do here at SloCo). The fewer images that are publicly out there that encourage the handling of wildlife the better!
This message also applies to celebrities and social media influencers who have a huge role to play in determining what people believe to be ‘acceptable’. Sloths being brought onto TV shows for the host to hug simply should not be happening. There is also a startling new craze for ‘sloth yoga‘ and ‘sloth swimming lessons‘, with sloths being paraded around yoga studios and dumped in swimming pools in the United States. Clearly someone is benefiting from that arrangement and it certainly isn’t the sloth. As tempting as it might seem to attend an event like that, please don’t!
Are there any exceptions?
Zookeepers, rescue center workers, biologists, veterinarians, scientists and conservationists may have good reason to have contact with wild animals. However it is not a good idea to post images of this on social media. A photo that shows work being carried out – an animal being rescued / released or undergoing a medical procedure, for example – would be OK. However, if it is a photo where you are posing with or holding the animal without a clear purpose then this crosses the blurry line of becoming a wildlife selfie and could possibly portray the wrong message.
The Ultimate Sloth Selfie Code:
1. Give the sloth lots of space!
If the distance between you and the sloth is less than 2 meters (including your arm and/or selfie stick) – back away and give the sloth some extra space!
2. Take photos without the flash of your camera
Sloths have very sensitive eyes to light. A bright camera flash can be scary and dangerous!
3. Make slow movements and keep the volume down
Sudden movements and loud noises will startle the sloth. Not only is this stressful for the sloth, but it will ruin your photos as the sloths response will likely be to freeze and hide it’s face.
4. Please never pet, hold or touch a sloth.
If someone ever offers you this opportunity then you can help us to prevent it from happening in the future by reporting the person / organisation to us (firstname.lastname@example.org) and the local authorities.
5. Keep it off social media
If you do have a photo that shows you holding a sloth that is not obviously for professional purposes – delete it from social media and help us to kill the growing demand for sloth selfies.
Tourism, selfies, and animals: are you traveling responsibly?
The tourism industry is a huge business. By 2020 it is estimated that 1.5 billion people will be traveling the globe as tourists, but here we want to highlight a particular trend that is rapidly growing in popularity; ecotourism. As most of the human population now lives in urban environments, surrounded by concrete jungles, they have easily become disconnected from nature and the wildlife that it contains.
Ecotourism and green tourism are gaining popularity because they offer an opportunity for people to immerse themselves in the landscape, adventure, sports, and of course animals. It allows us to get back to nature.
Local communities are making the realization that jaguars are more profitable alive, and therefore ecotourism is starting to prevail above other economic activities that have a highly negative impact on the environment (such as logging, hunting or mining). It is a win for jaguars, a win for the environment, and of course a win for the local people.
The dark side of wildlife contact and sloth selfies
Of course, not everything is great when we mix tourism and animals, and many times visitors are not aware of the negative environmental impact that some tourist activities can produce. The international NGO World Animal Protection estimates that around 110 million people a year visit attractions that offer entertainment with wild animals.
This is a dangerous trend as over 550,000 wild animals are currently being held captive in order to supply the ever-increasing demand. In addition, photographs of people directly interacting with these wild animals often unintendedly endorse exploitation and mistreatment via social media.
The animals used have typically been snatched from their natural habitats, usually drugged, mutilated and are forced to survive in horrendous captive conditions.
(Note: Sloths do not sleep 20 hours!)
According to research completed by World Animal Protection (which counted the number of “selfies” showing people interacting with wild species that were published on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram), since 2014 the number of photos showing people with wild animals increased by 292% on Instagram alone, and sadly more than 40% are photos where the person embraces, holds or interacts inappropriately with the animal.
Going to an exotic destination this summer?
The situation in Latin America in particular is very alarming. It was found that 17 of the 20 countries that are part of the region offer tourist attractions with wildlife. Of the 249 wildlife attractions identified, 54% offered direct contact with wild animals, 34% used food to attract the animals and 11% gave the opportunity to swim with them.
40% of the selfies were taken by people from the Western Hemisphere including the United States, The UK, and Canada. The situation is aggravated when celebrities share to their millions of followers their own photos hugging animals because some fans tend to emulate the behavior of their influencers.
The curse of being cute, slow, and having a constant smile
The three-fingered sloth (Bradypus variegatus) is one of the most “liked” creatures in social media, occupying 3rd place in the most photographed species worldwide. It is therefore not surprising that these sloths are one of the most desired species for tourist who travel to Latin American countries.
Due to the sloths’ delicate nature and physiology, they are very vulnerable to human contact and usually don´t survive more than a few weeks in these dreadful conditions of captivity and management.
Unfortunately 70% of sloth photos on Instagram show people hugging, holding or using them as accessories.
Hugging selfies show animals as docile and friendly… And this makes people want them as pets.
The pictures of humans interacting with wildlife also encourage the idea that any species can be domesticated. Domestication is a very complex process, it took us more than 10.000 years to domesticate wolves into dogs! Certainly, you won´t domesticate a sloth or any wild species in a couple of years, even generations.
And finally, these activities encourage illegal wildlife trafficking, either for the purpose of ecotourism or to acquire them as pets. This is exacerbated in the case of the three-fingered sloth whose reaction to physical contact is to remain paralyzed, which makes it a convenient animal to pose with and take such photographs.
In addition, the sloth´s characteristic and perpetual “smile” is often mistakenly assumed to be an expression of joy or happiness, rather than a simple result of the animal´s facial musculature and coloration. As a result of all of this, it is wrongly believed that they are good animals to have as pets.
The regions that maintain the most “exotic pets” are the United States and the European Union. Sloths are the most trafficked animal from Colombia causing (along with other associated problems such as deforestation and loss of habitat) the decline of individuals in that country. You can read more about the pet trade issue in our previous Thinking about a pet sloth? blog entry.
Some sloths might not be so adorable…
Another related problem is the predisposition to invade the space of the animal in protected areas or national parks. Members of SloCo in the South Caribbean of Costa Rica have been witnesses over the past years to people bothering animals, offering them food, and even breaking the branches to lower the sloths from trees.
The two-fingered sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni) differs from the three-fingered sloth in that it is capable of a fast and aggressive reaction, with long, sharp teeth that can cause a serious injury. By not realizing this defensive behavior of the animal, many people are also exposed to risks such as injuries or infection. In the following video, you can see how hard it is (0:40 min) for professionals and rescuers to remove a sloth in an urban area.
The way we travel matters: Be a Responsible traveler
The campaign #IamResponsibleTraveller seeks to promote awareness about these issues. Never pay or participate in activities where you can hold or touch wildlife, avoid attending shows that exploit animals, and don’t purchase animal parts (“trinkets”) as souvenirs.
Being a responsible traveller is not only about being careful when you take a personal photograph without touching animals, it goes deeper than that.
Consider travel as a learning opportunity
First of all, think of traveling as an incredible experience to understand other cultures, idiosyncrasies, being empathetic and not judgemental, and to connect with what makes us humans: the same fears, loves, and hopes. And with the threat of Climate Change and a mass extinction event happening right now, we as humans need to be connected more than ever in our history.
As we have seen, bad tourism can produce a lot of suffering and harm – so how can we make a positive impact in the places we visit? It’s actually quite simple: learn some greeting words in the local language, be respectful with the culture, buy local and handcrafted products, share stories with members of the community, appreciate and care for the environment, the animals, and the people… And always, apply the wildlife selfie code.
Any small action can produce a big impact!
And when it comes to wildlife, visit shelters, rescue centers, and sanctuaries in order to support conservation initiatives to reintroduce animals back into the wild. You can even apply for volunteering (voluntourism?)! But always do your research about these places, make sure that the “rescue center” is not a facade or a tourist trap!
And of course, we highly recommend above all hiking and exploring the wild, and looking for the animals in their natural homes. After all, that´s the “real thing” and the best way to be in contact with nature.
But I still want to take a selfie with a sloth!
Ok, we understand, maybe a trip to the Amazon or the amazing rainforest of Costa Rica is a once in a lifetime opportunity and you really want to have a memento with your favorite animal. Just remember that you can still have a self-portrait without hurting the animal or being part of the awful industry that exploits them! Remember to always stick to the Selfie Code!
But what about my selfie stick?
Can I still use it to get my phone or camera to pose close to an animal? It won’t be ME next to the animal, just my device, so technically I’m not invading the personal space of the animal, right?… Well, you actually are.
When sloths open their arms like that, they are trying to look bigger, and they do this when they feel in danger, threatened of attacked. In other words, the sloth in the picture is showing a clear sign of stress. So even if you use an element like a selfie stick, you are still having direct contact with the animal. So keep it away too!
All of us together will make the difference to end animal cruelty
Incredible and ethical experiences of getting close to wildlife are possible. For example, you have the Pantanal in Brazil to see jaguars hunting caimans, or Costa Rica to see sea turtles nesting in Tortuguero, you can even birdwatch in the park of your city! All of these activities are regulated, so there is good tourism management in order to protect the environment and the resources. Make sure to always support sustainable tourist destinations, because YOU are the demand, so your choices are important.
But you still feel hopeless when you see the number of people participating in tourist attractions based on animal exploitation? We have some good news: a lot of people once aware of the abuse behind these attractions are willing to change. Most of them are animal lovers, and as soon as they know the damage that their actions can cause, they stop supporting these places.
In the South Caribbean of Costa Rica, SloCo is raising awareness of these issues by establishing permanent signage in high tourist areas to promote responsible “sloth tourism”, and to educate people on what they should do if they see a sloth being offered for holding or photo opportunities. You can read more about in The Pet Trade and Sloth Tourism blog entry.
The way we changed Instagram
Thanks to over 250,000 supporters of the Selfie Code Campaign by WAP, Instagram launched a “content advisory page”, to educate users about the issues these photos cause for wild animals. When users search for hashtags like #slothselfie, they will be presented with a warning message that tells them the “funny” selfies and photos they are searching for may be associated with encouraging harmful activities to animals.
The world is changing – fewer people support shows involving animals for entertainment and zoos are becoming scientific centers and sanctuaries. Tourism will change too: it is developing not to be a shallow activity, but to make people come together, to connect us with our humanity and with nature, that after all, is everything our civilization is standing on. So go on your vacations, enjoy your destination, and love the animals and the people!
Spread the word, share the message! Make your family and friends join this campaign in order to protect wildlife from being harmed as a tourist attraction! #TheHugIsNotLove #RealLoversDontHug #Summer #BornToBeWild #DislikeAnimalAbuse #Selfie #Love #Sloth
We are so excited to launch our latest campaign in 2019 – how to enjoy sloths without stressing them out, a guide to responsible sloth tourism! Most people don’t realise the consequences of their actions, and so by raising awareness with this campaign we hope to establish safe guidelines that will help both humans and sloths to co-exist peacefully! We LOVE these incredible new posters designed by our chief sloth illustrator Cecilia Pamich:
Sadly, hundreds of sloths every year fall victim to irresponsible tourism because people simply don’t realise the stress that they are causing. In Costa Rica sloths are regularly found low down or crawling across the ground between trees, and in excitement (or perhaps in an attempt to get the perfect selfie) people often crowd the animal, make a lot of noise and even reach out to touch the fur. This situation has been scientifically proven to cause a dangerous increase in the sloths heart rate and blood pressure, and can cause a female to lose or abandon her baby.
In high tourist areas sloths are also commonly exhibited by the side of the road, with unsuspecting passers-by being charged to take a photo with the animal. In reality, these sloths have been pulled from the trees, often the mother will be killed, and the baby used as a photo prop until it dies (or someone pays to rescue it). The sloth is then replaced in a vicious money-making cycle! We can stop this from happening by removing the demand through education and awareness!
Is Costa Rica really the best place in the world to see sloths?
If you want to see sloths in the wild, a quick google search will definitively point you in the direction of Costa Rica. With its abundance of wildlife (boasting 5% of the world’s biodiversity), assorted ecosystems (ranging from the cool montane cloud forests to the humid tropical lowland rainforests), and a relatively well-developed infrastructure, approximately two million tourists flock to this tiny Central American country every year.
And for good reason; you are almost guaranteed to see a sloth. But these animals are found in numerous countries throughout South and Central America – so what makes Costa Rica different? Why does this little country appear to have so many sloths? And why are they so easy to see? The truth is perhaps surprising.
Sloths are perfectly adapted for life high up in the canopy of ‘primary’ rainforests.
Primary rainforests are defined as those forests that are in pristine condition, having never been disturbed by humans. They typically have very tall trees (that can reach over 250 feet in height) forming an upper canopy, followed by several layers of understory canopy.
In this environment, the trees all connect and so the sloths can travel easily throughout their home-range without having to come down to the ground very often. Sloths have thrived in this continuous and undisturbed habitat for over 64 million years, and they are continuing to thrive in regions where this ecosystem remains.
A brown-throated sloth reaching to cross a gap between two trees. Photo: Suzi Eszterhas
Costa Rica does not have an unusually high sloth population.
In fact, experts predict that sloth numbers in Costa Rica are falling rapidly. While there is no official population count (for scientists to count an animal, it must first be seen – something which sloths are very good at avoiding), rescue centers across the country are receiving sloths at an alarmingly fast rate.
Sloths are incredibly slow to reproduce, having only one baby every 3 years and facing a natural mortality rate in infants of approximately 60%. Consequently, the sloths are being wiped out faster than they can reproduce.
The simple reason for this is that Costa Rica does not have enough healthy forest left – particularly primary rainforest – for the sloths to inhabit. In fact, as of 2005, only 3.5% of the country was covered by primary rainforest (compared to an average of 40-50% for other South and Central American countries). This is astonishing.
Since the 1960s Costa Rica’s primary forests have been wiped out for agriculture and cattle ranching (not helped by the United States offering Costa Rican farmers millions of dollars in loans to produce beef). In the 1990’s Costa Rica had one of the worst deforestation rates in the entire world, with only 26% of the country having any sort of tree cover left.
Realizing the detrimental effect that this was having on ecosystems and wildlife, the Costa Rican government implemented some impressively rigorous conservation strategies to protect the remaining forests.
As a result of these efforts, Costa Rica is now the only tropical country in the world that has managed to actually stop and reverse deforestation – the amount of forested land is increasing year by year, albeit very slowly. While this is certainly beneficial, the loss of the ancient primary forests can never be reversed, and it is the true primary forest that the sloths need in order to thrive.
But why, then, are sloths so easily seen in Costa Rica?
Sloths inhabiting their preferred habitat – primary rainforests – will be very difficult to spot. In this environment, sloths are perfectly camouflaged and become invisible hiding in the dense foliage at the top of gigantic trees. But in Costa Rica, the sloths don’t have this option.
They are being forced to exist in increasingly urbanized environments, and here they cannot hide! While Costa Rica may appear to be a green and eco-friendly country, on the whole, the secondary growth forest that covers much of the land is sparse and fragmented in comparison to the dense vegetation found in the primary rainforests.
If you look closely at the tree cover in many regions, you will notice that the trees rarely connect or overlap at the top. This is manageable for species such as monkeys that can traverse gaps by jumping, but it is detrimental to sloths that are forced to descend to the floor and crawl across the ground. As a result, while attempting to navigate these disturbed areas, the sloths are very easily seen while crossing on the ground or hanging from a power line or isolated tree at the side of the road.
Furthermore, as travel becomes more accessible and increasing numbers of tourists flock to Costa Rica because of its notorious sloth viewing, the infrastructure is being developed to meet the demand. For example, roads that were once pot-hole riddled dirt tracks have been transformed into 80 km/h highways, and the government is expanding the only major highway that links the Caribbean coast to the capital city (route 32) which creates a 50-meter gap between the trees on either side of the road.
When considering the speed at which development is occurring, it hardly seems surprising that sloths are being attacked by dogs, poached / harassed by humans, run over by cars, and electrocuted on the power lines in record numbers.
This equally explains why Costa Rica also has more wildlife rescue centers per square mile than any other country in Central or South American. All of the wildlife is struggling, but the sloths are facing a particularly vulnerable future.
Sadly, there is no way to replace the lost primary rainforest, and the knock-on consequences for wildlife are going to be seen for the foreseeable future. However, the negative impacts are certainly being minimized by the implementation of rigorous conservation policies by the government.
When faced with a booming population and tourism industry exerting pressure on the infrastructure, managing to maintain a reverse in the levels of deforestation is an impressive feat. However, there are also things that we can all do on an individual level to help. For example:
Practice sustainable tourism – if you do decide to visit Costa Rica, try to be a responsible tourist. This includes:
Respect the personal space of all wildlife. Leave at least a 3-meter gap between yourself and any animal you come across and definitely do not touch/harass the animal for a photo opportunity. Try to spread this message to anyone that you see getting too close to an animal.
Stay in eco-friendly accommodation. Try to find places that utilize renewable energy, protect the natural resources on the property and use sustainable materials.
Take care while driving. The new roads may make it easy to drive quickly, but be wary that an animal may be trying to cross the road just around the corner…
Buy Eco-friendly products – Always try to support local, organic farmers. If you are buying fruit, do not support the large, mono-culture companies that are responsible for so much of the deforestation and pollution in tropical countries. This includes Dole, Chiquita, and Del Monte.
Eat less meat – Cattle ranching is the leading cause of deforestation in Costa Rica and animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of all Amazon destruction. That includes clearing land for both cattle grazing and to make space for the vast crop plantations for livestock feed. Furthermore, livestock and their by-products are accountable for 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide – in comparison, the entire transport sector (including cars, airplanes, and boats) account for just 13%.
Support small non-profit conservation organizations that work on the ground – Be careful to who you donate money to. Many of the large organizations have such big overhead costs that virtually all donation money ends up in the pocket of the employees. Try to find smaller charities that are working on the ground to protect wildlife.