Hiding deep within the remote jungles of South America, there is an elusive and commonly overlooked species of sloth clinging onto survival. The pale-throated sloths are perhaps the most striking of all the sloth species, with a large bright yellow face, white throat and mottled fur, and yet they also receive the least attention. While the maned sloths and pygmy sloths are famous for their critically endangered conservation status, and the brown-throated sloths are the most commonly seen species, the pale-throated sloths have slipped under the radar for decades. They have also bypassed the attention of the scientific community, with not a single scientist currently researching any aspect of their ecology or behaviour. With this in mind, SloCo Founder and Executive Director Dr Rebecca Cliffe and award-winning wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas embarked on a mission to locate and photograph the pale-throated sloths in order to shine a spotlight on the plight of this mysterious species.
The first big challenge when planning this adventure was deciding where to go to find the sloths. This species can only be found on the east coast of South America, ranging from Venezuela through Guyana, Suriname, French Guyana and into Northern Brazil. These regions receive very little tourism, and so finding an area where the sloths can be found reliably in the wild in relatively high densities (and not just at the tops of the tallest rainforest trees where photographs become impossible) was certainly challenging. After doing a lot of research, everyone that we spoke to unanimously directed us to the same place; Sloth Island in Guyana. This appropriately named island is located in the vast Essequibo river (the 3rd largest river in South America) and was named by early Guyanan settlers who discovered that it was home to a particularly impressive abundance of sloths. The island is now privately owned by a fascinating man called Raphael who has constructed an idyllic Eco-lodge and vowed to protect the pristine rainforest that covers the interior of the island.
Before our arrival at the lodge we were told that we would be met by a Guyanan man from the ‘Macushi’ tribe called Claude, who is the caretaker of the island and apparently a master sloth-spotter. Claude did not disappoint. Within 30 seconds of landing on the island he had already pointed out our first sloth; a young male sleeping in a tree right outside the front door of the lodge. It was a good sign of things to come. The male sloth remained in the garden of the lodge for a full week, regularly coming down to within a few meters of the ground in the afternoons to seek out shade from the scorching sun – a perfect position for photographs! Because much of the island floods at high tide, much of our sloth searching in the dense forest was restricted to a wooden canopy walkway, raised about 6 feet off the ground. This didn’t hamper our sloth spotting opportunities however, as Claude proceeded to point out 13 different sloths over the course of 5 days, including two females carrying tiny babies. One of these females blessed us with her presence every single day, hanging out peacefully right above the walkway and descending to just above head height to feed on vines in the afternoons. This unfortunately always coincided with the aforementioned male sloth (who also descended from the canopy in the afternoons) and triggered a lot of chaotic sprinting back and forwards through the jungle carrying heavy camera equipment! We thought that our biggest challenge would be finding the sloths, but it actually turned out to be choosing which sloth to prioritise and getting the camera set up in the right place to catch the rapidly unfolding action (really quite ridiculous considering we were working with the worlds slowest mammal)! In one instance we were following a female sloth with a baby and didn’t realise that there was a second male sloth hanging out in the exact same tree until she quite literally climbed right up to him. Sloth Island really did live up to its name.
Exactly why there are so many sloths on the island compared to the mainland remains a bit of a mystery, although it is likely that the island represents a sort of safe haven due to a lack of land predators (although the breath-taking harpy eagle – one of the largest species of eagle in the world and the sloths main predator – can regularly be seen scouring the skies around the island)! Though the island is famous for its sloths, we were regularly surrounded by all sorts of wildlife – from waking up to the sounds of howler monkeys and dodging piranhas in the river to watching spider monkeys leap through the canopy and ending the day with thousands of Amazonian parrots filling the sky. Guyana represents one of the few remaining areas of the world where nature dominates over human disturbance. With a human population of only 750,000 (virtually all of which live on a narrow strip of land by the ocean) and very little tourism, this means that over 80% of the country is still covered in undisturbed rainforest. Guyana really is an undiscovered and unparalleled paradise for nature lovers. To top it all off, a historic agreement made between Norway and Guyana represents a perfect example of how developed and developing countries can work in partnership to save the worlds tropical forests. Norway pledged to provide financial support of $250 million in exchange for Guyana halting deforestation over a 5-year period.
While tourists flock in their thousands to countries like Costa Rica (which has a primary forest cover of only 3.5%) to see sloths and other tropical wildlife, the truly wild countries like Guyana remain well off the beaten track. If you are planning a vacation and want to see sloths in the wild, or just want to embrace your wild side and experience the jungle exactly how nature intended it, there is no better place than Sloth Island in Guyana!