INSTA-GLORY
BBC Wildlife|November 2021
The sloth has had an image makeover. Once reviled as useless and lazy, it’s now the most beloved animal of Instagram. So, why the change?
DOUG LOYNES
Costa Rican naturalist Percy Piedra points to the bough of a cecropia tree drooping over a murky brown river that twists and winds through Tortuguero National Park. Even viewed through his telescope, the animal he has spotted is almost invisible, its body having blended into a knotted tangle of branches and leaves. Only when a rangy limb begins to scratch sluggishly at a mass of grey-green fur virtually indistinguishable from the vegetation does the creature finally betray its hiding place.

For Jade, visiting Costa Rica from Texas, the sighting is enough to bring her to the verge of tears. “This is the first time I’ve seen a sloth in the wild,” she chokes. “I’ve been dreaming of this for years.”

The sloth hasn’t always been viewed with such enthusiasm. Its earliest mention in historical literature was recorded by the Spanish colonialist Oviedo, who declared that the sloth was “the stupidest animal that can be found in the world”, adding that he had “never seen such an ugly animal or one that is more useless”. Sloths are also, quite literally, synonymous with laziness no matter which language you’re referring to them in, and they suffer the additional ignominy of sharing their name with the seventh deadly sin.

Fast forward to the social media era and the sloth has – in a rather un-slothlike fashion – rapidly become an online sensation. Zara Palmer, marketing manager for the Toucan Rescue Ranch, one of Costa Rica’s most respected wildlife rehabilitation centres, calls them “the new kittens of the internet” and explains how their popularity was key to securing funds while the centre was closed during the pandemic. “If we post a picture of one of our owls, toucans or even the spider-monkeys, we’ll get maybe a few hundred ‘likes’. But the sloths? They really blow up.”

Costa Rica is home to two of the six species of sloth – the Hoffman’s two-toed sloth and the brown-throated three-toed sloth – and their burgeoning popularity hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Costa Rican government; in July 2021, it was declared that both species had been inaugurated as a new national symbol. This announcement came at a time when Costa Rica was tentatively reopening to tourists following the collapse of international travel during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Long celebrated as the premier destination for eco-conscious holidaymakers due to its world-leading attitudes towards sustainable tourism, the pandemic almost spelt disaster for many of the country’s pioneering, community-led conservation projects that rely so heavily on visitors for their income. Now, Costa Rica’s borders have been flung open and the sloth has found itself at the centre of the tourism board’s marketing campaign to bring back the much-needed tourists.

What, then, has turned the humble sloth from the much-maligned creature of yesteryear into one of the internet’s most beloved animals and the unwitting ambassador for the modern Costa Rican tourism industry?

For some, their appeal lies in precisely that with which Oviedo took issue. Where once sloths were vilified for their apparent laziness, now their languid movements, breezy charm and seemingly carefree attitude have inspired thousands of millennials to pay homage to their ‘spirit animals’ in the comments sections of the countless viral sloth videos that have flooded TikTok and Instagram. But for zoologist Sam Trull, a lot of this love is based on a fundamental misconception. “They’re not lazy at all,” she says. “They’re efficient.”

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