Just off the coast of Costa Rica’s picturesque Caribbean sea and nestled in the Cahuita National Park lies an animal sanctuary dedicated to protecting the much-maligned sloth.

The site is a popular attraction for swarms of tourists keen to catch a glimpse of the curious-looking mammals. Volunteers at the refuge work around the clock to rescue, research and rehabilitate the local sloth population.

The loveable creature, named after one of the deadly seven sins, has long suffered an image problem. However, it’s gentle temperament and cute face is slowly winning over new fans.

As urban development encroaches on the sloth’s habitat, the sanctuary is stepping up efforts to educate visitors and the local population about the little-known mammal.

Started over two decades ago, the sanctuary began its work after a resident handed over a starving baby sloth to refuge founder Judy Avery Arroyo. Over the years, the number of sloths in the rescue’s ranks has swollen to over 130 creatures in need of medical attention and rehabilitation.

“The neighbour’s girls across the street brought Buttercup over to us and Buttercup was a tiny baby three-fingered sloth and there was no place to take her in those days and so we just decided to do the best we could for her,” said Avery Arroyo.”And she survived, she thrived and two years later another one came and six months later another one, and it just continued to snowball and today we’re one of the only rescue centres in the world that rescues sloths.”

The sloths are herbivores with the bulk of their diet mainly consisting of leaves and shoots high up in the trees of Costa Rica’s exotic jungles.

With urban areas muscling in on the Costa Rican jungles the sloths call home, the local population of the mammal is under pressure from electrical cabling strung up through its habitats and deforestation.

Sanctuary veterinarian Marcelo Espinoza said the refuge’s mission is to rehabilitate the animal and return it to its natural home when possible.

“There are many cases of electrocutions and they recover here, there are also fractures when they fall from trees and their limbs and (we) repair them and send them back to the jungle,” he said.

Many of the baby sloths that make their way to the refuge are often orphaned due to parents leaving weak offspring behind or mothers falling prey to jungle predators.

Despite a dedicated team of professionals and volunteers working tirelessly to bring the infant creatures back to full health, the sanctuary’s founder admits that no human efforts can substitute the attention a baby sloth receives from its mother.

“This is a problem that we are facing. How do we teach a baby who has arrived and is less than a year old, who doesn’t have the information that its mother teaches?” said Avery Arroyo.

Many of the sanctuary’s sloths are unable to be released into the wild due to permanent damage such as finger amputation, severe electrocutions and other serious trauma.

Sloths are the world’s slowest-moving mammals and are found across parts of Central and South America. There are six-known species across the continent and the Costa Rican sanctuary is home to the Bradypus and Choleopus species. According to the World Wildlife Fund, many species of the sloth are at risk of extinction.

3 News / Reuters, Photo from Reuters