Social distancing: learning from sloths

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.

To get the latest updates on the COVID-19 Situation:


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.

As many are aware, COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2, is a “new” type of coronavirus, the seventh one that we have come into contact with. The virus is a zoonotic disease or zoonoses, meaning that it passes from animals (vertebrate) to people.

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.


A pangolin being trafficked in Kuala Lumpur


According to the World Health Organization, “Over 30 new human pathogens have been detected in the last three decades, 75% of which have originated in animals.” Zoonoses have and continue to pose a huge threat. The SARS epidemic in 2002 originated from small mammals, MERS had its reservoir in dromedary camels, HIV from primates , and Ebola was likely transmitted from fruit bats, porcupines and primates.

In light of this pandemic, it has become clear that in addition to “social distancing” we all should be practicing “wildlife distancing.”

So what does wildlife distancing look like?

The appropriate distance between you and a wild animal is at least 2 meters (6 feet)


Fortunately, most wildlife (like pangolins and bats) pose no threat to human health when given the proper space in the wild. In fact, when left alone, they can actually help to reduce other pest populations. Bats are known for their ability to eat mosquitoes helping to reduce the population of the world’s deadliest animal to humans.

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.



However, wildlife distancing goes beyond simply avoiding wildlife products and preventing interactions between people and wild animals. Any actions that help to slow or prevent the encroachment on the world’s last wild spaces not only reduces our risk for another pandemic, but also protects biodiversity, one of our greatest allies in the face of many global threats.


Still from Jungles episode of the Emmy ® Award winning series, Our Planet:


Although protecting biodiversity may seem counter intuitive given the current zoonoses wreaking havoc on the world, diverse ecosystems are key to resiliency. Our ecosystems provide us with a variety of vital services, air and water purification, the prevention of soil erosion, carbon storage, and food security. Tropical rainforests, like the Amazon, even have the incredible ability of generating its own rainfall.

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.


Quinine bark and Madagascar Periwinkle flower


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.


We hope the same for you and your loved ones.

-Dr. Slocky

Author: Katra Laidlaw