Through the long shadows of the Atlantic rainforest’s tall trees, a chalky face gradually comes into view…
Clinging to its surrogate human mother it looks like the result of some impossible union between an Ewok and ET.
Like its science fictional parents this timid character comes in peace.
Drawing closer, soft, chocolate eyes give an indication of its gentle, unthreatening nature.
They gaze at me and I can’t help but stare back until, like a shy child, the animal slowly turns away and wraps its hairy limbs even more tightly around the woman it is reliant upon.
Her name is Vera Lúcia de Oliveira, but she is known to many as the ‘sloth mother’.
It’s a nickname she bears proudly – an acknowledgement of the two decades she has dedicated to looking after the injured animals.
A glance at the paws of the docile being in her arms instantly shows why he has ended up in her care.
The long, curved nails he relies upon to climb, clean and claw for food have all fallen out.
Caused, it is believed, by an electric shock from a power line running deep into the rainforest.
Found bleeding, disorientated and frightened, he was sent to Vera who runs one of the world’s only sloth recuperation centres in the Brazilian state of Bahia.
She has spent the last year tenderly caring for the five-year-old adolescent in an attempt to restore him to health.
The bond between the two became so strong that she began to think of him as one of her own, naming him Meu Bebê – My Baby.
Unfortunately, Meu Bebê will never make a full recovery. His nails will not re-grow and without these basic but vital tools, he is incapable of fending for himself.
Meu Bebê is just one of 24 injured sloths currently being cared for at the charity-funded sanctuary located in the CEPLAC national park, about 1,000 kilometres north of Rio de Janeiro.
Some of the sanctuary’s sloths hang out in the trees, high up in the rainforest’s thick vegetation.
They live a simple life, spending 90 per cent of their time eating and sleeping and only descending to the ground for a toilet stop once a week.
Their dirty brown, horse-tail texture hair camouflages them perfectly among the twisting branches and makes them almost impossible to spot.
Not that they need to blend in. Despite being the most unaggressive of animals, Vera says they have few natural predators.
Other sloths are too badly injured to reach the canopy and I am invited into a large cage where around a dozen are recuperating.
Some are sleeping up in the rafters; others are cleaning themselves by repeatedly dragging long nails through coarse hair.
As I watch these amazing animals at close quarters, one wafts a paw towards me in slow motion. Everything these furry creatures do is at a tortoise pace. They even blink slowly.
Apart from the sound of scratching and munching on plants, it is quiet. These solitary creatures only make a noise when they want to attract a partner – smell is their primary sense.
I begin to see why Vera has devoted her working life to helping these ‘mini Chewbaccas’. She tells me she began Project Bicho-Preguiça in 1992 after encountering sloths in the wild.
“When I first saw them I thought they were the most gentle animals on the planet and I fell in love with them. I decided I wanted to try to ensure their survival by educating people about their plight.”
While their habits may be simple, Vera says that sloths are highly intelligent, with the ability, for example, to recognise and react to her voice while ignoring all others.
“They are emotional and can suffer from depression,” she adds. “When a sloth comes here after a trauma I have to win its trust very slowly.”
Unfortunately not everyone has the same affinity for sloths as Vera. Man is now threatening their future.
Deforestation of vast tracts of Brazilian rainforest has forced the Brown-throated Sloth to seek out new feeding grounds to source gameleira, imbiruçu and umbaúba trees, which provide the only type of vegetation its delicate, slow metabolism can manage.
Unfortunately the wood from these tree types is of no economic value and so once the trunks are chopped down, the cleared land is either used to rear cattle or to plant hardwood and eucalyptus seedlings.
The encroachment of the more common Brown-throated Sloth into Brazil’s unique Maned Sloth’s feeding areas has helped to put the latter on the endangered species list and Vera fears that in as little as two decades, the indigenous black-collared breed could become extinct.
There were at one time many different types of sloth, now there are only five species living in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America.
“I am worried for their future,” says Vera. “The combination of deforestation, hunting and the sale of sloths as pets is causing numbers to dwindle.”
As the animals are unable to breed in captivity, she fears there is a real risk of this unique species being wiped out.
That would be a great shame as I will remember my brief encounter with these wondrous Other-Worldly creatures for a long time. I hope future generations will get the same opportunity.