David Salisbury saving a sloth

Impromptu sloth rescue highlights dangers to the rainforest

January 26, 2024


In July, University of Richmond professor David Salisbury and two Peruvian colleagues were traveling the Jurua River in the Amazon Rainforest when they spotted a three-toed sloth struggling to stay afloat in the fast-moving waters. The sloth was clinging to a log in the middle of the river’s headwaters in Peru, drenched and exhausted.

Sloths, among the world’s slowest animals, live in treetops and are known for their long claws. They are good swimmers, but the river’s strong current was taking its toll.

“We went past him, and I said, ‘We have to go back,’” recalled Salisbury, an associate professor of geography, environment, and sustainability and an Amazonia expert. They turned around the narrow, 20-foot-long dugout canoe, and Salisbury leapt into the water, wading chest-deep into the middle of the river to pick up the sloth — the size of a house cat — which grabbed his arm tightly.

Once on shore, Salisbury walked across a beach and through long grasses, which led to a forest of cecropia trees. Under the tropical canopy, he placed the sloth on a branch.

“He was excited to grab onto a tree,” Salisbury said. “He was really tired and had probably been hanging onto that log for a long time.”

The sloth rescue took place in a matter of minutes, which was captured on video by Hellen Ríos Ruiz, a health and education extension agent, with Juntos, a program in Peru.  UR student Sophie Tanner, a junior, and Ruby Salisbury, his daughter, did the voiceover, subtitles, and editing of the 60-second video.

“It was such a special moment for me to be able to interact with the sloth and to help him,” he said. Particularly poignant was a double-blink from the sloth once safely in his tree, the video’s concluding image.

Salisbury spent one month this past summer in the area, which borders Peru and Brazil, as part of UR's ongoing work with Indigenous communities to protect their ancestral homelands, forests, rivers, flora, and fauna.

The remote headwaters where he rescued the sloth are particularly important to the Indigenous people as they depend on the clean water, fish, game, and medicinal plants there, he said. Loggers have now expanded their network of roads to the edge of the headwaters and the Indigenous people are working to prevent the roads from advancing and bringing deforestation.

Salisbury was also traveling with his Asheninka guide, Arlindo Ruiz Santos, from the Upper Amazon Conservancy. During the rescue, they were on their way to visit Ruiz Santos’ community to present maps of climate change and forest change. Over the course of the month, Salisbury distributed 300 climate change maps to 32 different Indigenous communities — representing 13 Indigenous nations — who appreciated how they were scaled to fit their individual territories.

UR students created almost all the maps, he said. “Sometimes these were some of the first maps anyone created for the territory.”

While Salisbury has enjoyed his share of adventures during his Amazonian travels, rescuing a sloth, he said, was one of the more dramatic ones. “I hope we can protect these forests and rivers so that this sloth and the other animals in the rainforest can have the healthy habitat they need to live long and happy lives.”