The Time I Helped a Sloth to Cross the Road

This story is part of Paul Steyn’s #aroundtheworldin30days journey.  During his stay in Manzanillo, Paul was hosted by Korrigan Lodge. Follow him as he travels the globe with Ramsar and Star Alliance, in quest to appreciate water and wetlands on our changing planet. More about the trip here. 


It was my first day on the southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, and I was cycling along the thick forested road on my way to the Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, when I came across a strange animal crawling very slowly across the road.

When I stopped to take a closer look, I realised it was a big brown sloth making his way, at a blistering sloth’s pace, towards a tree on the other side of the road. He was about a quarter way across the road, slowing stretching one arm in front of the other like a drunk crawling his way to the front door. It was obvious that this animal was not made for the ground.

I stood in awe. I was amazed to be seeing a sloth in the flesh.


In preparation for my visit to Costa Rica, I’d read about some of the animals I might find in the coastal forests of the Caribbean. A rich coastal lagoon of coral reefs, seagrass beds, beaches and cliffs, the Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge is a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. Toucans, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, vipers, jaguars and many other creatures lurk in the thick forests, while the beaches host nesting sea turtles from Caribbean waters, and the oceans are a habitat for many endangered molluscs and fish, crustaceans, including lobster and 32 coral species.

Of all the animals that I was hoping to see, though, there was one specific animal that was top of my list:

I really wanted to see a sloth.

I’d read that my chances of seeing a sloth up close were slim. The tree-loving animals sleep for 19 hours a day, and often hug the tall branches at the tops of trees. It was obvious that my best chance of seeing a sloth was through a set of binoculars, high up in with the branches of a tree and practically out of sight.

And yet here I was, on my first day, bumping into a sloth on the ground, making its way across the road.

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Excitement soon turned to concern.

Busses and cars were approaching on the road ahead and the sloth didn’t look like he was going to achieve his objective any time soon. How he had made it this far without being run over is anyone’s guess.

Sloths have always fascinated me. It seems counterintuitive that these strange, slow animals have been able to survive the evolutionary gauntlet for so long. They are in fact the slowest mammal on earth. They are so slow that at certain times of year, algae is able to grow on their bodies and they change colour completely. The very top ground speed of a sloth is an extreme 5 feet per minute.

As tree-dwelling animals, sloths hate being on the ground at the best of times. And when I saw the sloth on the road I initially thought something was wrong. Perhaps he had fallen out of one of the trees and was injured. But it was obvious that he has the simple objective of reaching the tree on the other side, and nothing was going to stop him.

After standing ahead of the sloth and trafficking a number of cars past, I decided that I needed to help this animal before he got run over. I picked up a set of sticks, and placed each one under each arm of the sloth and slowly lifted him up. He was surprisingly receptive to my help. Either that, or he was too slow to lash out and show me how upset he was.

Whatever the case, I quickly ferried him across the road and placed him on the far side, about 10 meters away from the tree.

I then sat down in the shade and watched what he would do.

At first he remained still, perhaps trying to figure out if I was a friend of foe. But eventually he began to crawl again. It was as if I was watching a severely disabled person in slow motion. Inch by inch, his long arms would stretch far out ahead of him and his short back legs would follow behind. It was a sprint in millimetres, a dash for the safety of the tree.

Eventually, the sloth reached the tree and started climbing. Although he wasn’t moving any faster in the tree, he seemed to come into his own in the branches, and looked more at home grabbling vines and branches to maneuvering himself upward.


I left him to his climb, and vowed to return later to see his progress.

That afternoon, I cycled back past the tree and found two tourists standing on the side of the road looking up. “There’s a sloth way up there,” one said, excitedly, when I stopped. And there he was, hanging upside down in the shade of a branch; fast asleep. This was more like the sloths I’d read about; and considering how excited the tourists were to see one high in the tree, I realised how privileged I was to have been able to see him so close.

I sometimes wonder if I did the right thing. Maybe I should have left him to fend for himself and let things take their course, I’m not sure.

But we both seem to be ok.

He’s happy in his tree and still breathing, and I certainly feel richer for having helped a sloth to cross the road.


This story is part of Paul Steyn’s #aroundtheworldin30days journey.  During his stay in Manzanillo, Paul was hosted by Korrigan Lodge. Follow him as he travels the globe with Ramsar and Star Alliance, in quest to appreciate water and wetlands on our changing planet. More about the trip here. 

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Paul Steyn is a widely-published multi-media content producer from South Africa, and regular contributor to National Geographic News and blogs. Having guided throughout Africa for some years, he went on to edit a prominent travel and wildlife magazine, and now focuses on nature storytelling in all its forms. In 2013, he joined a team of researchers and Bayei on a 250km transect of the Okavango Delta on traditional mokoros. In 2016, he accompanied the Great Elephant Census team in Tanzania and broke the groundbreaking results on National Geographic News . Contact: Follow Paul on Twitter or Instagram