At 10am on October 5th, I was trekking through the jungle trying to avoid the giant spiders whilst scanning the treetops for Madonna, the female sloth I have tagged with a backpack. I couldn’t see her anywhere.
With my neck getting stiff from staring upwards I was beginning to lose hope of finding her (even with GPS and radio transmitters telling me exactly where she is, it can be impossible to see her through the canopy sometimes!) Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw something move. It was Madonna and she had moved to a low down tree. She was acting strangely, and it didn’t take me long to figure out why. She was giving birth, right there in front of my nose, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I felt like laughing, screaming, crying and celebrating all at once. With shaking hands I grabbed for my camera and began trying to record what was happening. Unfortunately the gloomy jungle made photographs and videos difficult, but out of thousands that I took a few worked out well.
As the baby made its way into the world (looking a little bit like a slimy alien…) things didn’t quite go as I am sure Madonna had planned. Instead of climbing up onto her chest, the baby crawled onto her hand and somehow got tangled up in a vine. Then the baby fell. I thought my eyes were going to pop out of my head. A million scenarios of what I should do raced through my mind but I found myself rooted to the spot. Thankfully I didn’t have to intervene. By some miracle, the baby managed to grab onto Madonna’s leg with its tiny fingers and began to yell. Madonna quickly scooped her baby up and into the safety of her arms where she began the cleanup job. Meanwhile I was still picking my jaw up off the ground with my camera glued to my face.
Over the next hour, Madonna happily chewed through the umbilical cord and delivered the placenta. By now the baby was starting to look a bit more like a typical cute baby sloth and was snuggled on Madonna’s chest. She took a moment to move to the front of the tree and lean back with her arms out, completely exposing the baby to me, before beginning her climb back up to the canopy. Why she did this I have absolutely no idea, but I definitely wasn’t complaining.
I have been following her movements ever since the birth and I am happy to announce that both mom and baby are doing great. The baby can only be described as a whopper, clearly taking after Madonna. She was, after all, by far the biggest sloth I have ever worked with! We won’t know baby’s gender for a while but he/she has been named Jo-Jo, fondly referred to as little ‘peanut’!
After the birth, Madonna curled into a ball at the top of her favourite tree and stayed there. In fact, she didn’t move a muscle for 3 days. I couldn’t see the baby at all, and I nervously began scanning the forest floor to make sure she hadn’t dropped the little peanut. On the 4th day she was back relaxing in the place she gave birth, with a fluffy and bright eyed Jo-Jo clambering all over her. Today she came down to the ground to poop (I found the mountain of evidence) before climbing back up into her favourite tree. At only 5 days old, I was amazed to see Jo-Jo attempting to eat a leaf (and a branch, and basically anything that was within reach- we clearly have something in common!)
So far, everything has worked out perfectly. Because Madonna was in our care before being released, she is completely habituated to our presence and doesn’t feel threatened. I knew this ever since she happily sat on my knee as we travelled to the release site – we have never known a wild sloth to be that trusting of humans. She really is special.
I feel incredibly privileged to have been witness to such a special moment in Madonna’s life. With her backpack still working, I am going to be able to follow her for the next year, watching and learning exactly how she raises that little baby. She is going to teach us a huge amount, and I can’t wait to share this adventure with you.
More photos in the Wild Sloth Gallery