It’s mid-March 2013 and I’m in a rickety van speeding recklessly along a dusty highway in rural Colombia. The reason for my breakneck behavior is somewhat ironic—I’m racing to save the world’s slowest mammal. Welcome to the surprisingly urgent world of sloth rescue.
I love sloths. I always have. They’re nature’s most misunderstood animal—forever damned as one of the seven deadly sins. But their eccentric biology is a miracle of evolution that’s helped the humble sloth outlive dinosaurs and woolly mammoths. Rather than being derided for a slow-mo lifestyle, I believe the sloth should be exalted as an energy-saving totem for the 21st century.
But humanity has thrown a curveball at these dozy folivores. Roads, power-lines and dogs are far from sloth-friendly. And then, most perversely, there’s the curse of cute—the reason behind today’s mercy mission.
Mankind’s nurturing nature is attracted to anything with big eyes and a wobbly head. With their sweet smiles and innate hug-ability, baby sloths are essentially cute crack and have become a slow-moving target for Colombia’s burgeoning illegal pet trade.
Enter sloth savior extraordinaire Tinka Plese, a 60-something former Croatian who has devoted almost 20 years to rescuing and rehabilitating Colombia’s sloths.
I first meet Tinka at her farm on the outskirts of Medellin. She runs the AIUNAU sloth foundation, where sloths that have been captured by illegal wildlife traffickers live and recuperate.
She greets me with a warm smile and a wide yawn. Her home has morphed into a sanctuary and she sleeps with the sloths. Literally. But it’s keeping her up all night.
Like some kind of bizarre fashion statement, Tinka is wearing her latest arrival. Clinging to her neck is Baloo—a tiny baby Bradypus, or three-fingered sloth. He was snatched from his mother at less than a month old and brought to Tinka by the local environmental police.
Weighing little more than 300 grams, he is utterly helpless. A baby sloth spends the first six months of its life clinging to its mother for food and warmth. Orphan babies like Baloo are comforted by the sound of a heartbeat and need feeding every few hours. So Tinka gets little rest with a fragile baby snoozing on her chest.
But sleepless nights aren’t enough to guarantee survival. Without the essential antibodies present in maternal milk, tiny orphans like Baloo have only a 25 percent chance of making it. Most die of respiratory illnesses that Tinka believes are triggered by stress. Being a surrogate sloth mom is a seriously stressful job.
Which is why it’s so alarming they are traded as pets. Today we’re chasing a tip that sloths are being trafficked to tourists along the main highway from the coast. And we find them just minutes away from a massive environmental agency sign about animal trafficking.
Tinka tells the van to slow down as three young boys emerge from the bushes by the side of the road carrying a menagerie of animals; macaws, baby howler monkeys and baby sloths. She snaps away on her camera, gathering evidence for the environmental police. Their so-called anti-trafficking policies aren’t really working.
Fortunately, the day finishes on a happier note, with Tinka releasing one of her rescued sloths at a local farm. It’s wonderful to watch the creature gracefully climb to the top of a tall Cecropia tree and slump into its first snooze as a wild sloth. With luck, Baloo and the roadside orphans will one day enjoy the same fate. And then perhaps Tinka herself might even get some sleep.