The world’s smallest and slowest sloth needs some fast action on its behalf following a controversy surrounding the Dallas World Aquarium’s (DWA) attempt to remove some of these rare creatures from the wild for captivity.
In September, officials from the DWA sparked international outrage after stealthily attempting to take six of eight pygmy three-toed sloths who were captured from the Isla Escudo de Veraguas off the coast of Panama. Eleven were originally captured, but three did so poorly they were released.
The DWA claimed that its plans to catch sloths and start a captive breeding program would benefit the species and argued that it had the proper paperwork and permits to do so.
However, local animal advocates and authorities physically stopped them from leaving with the sloths who were later returned to the island and released. Sadly, it’s believed that at least two have died following the release as a result of their capture, which raises serious concerns about zoos and aquariums doing more harm than good by taking endangered species from the wild in an effort to “help” them survive.
“Given what little information is known about this species and their diet, much less whether they can survive in captivity, it is absurd that Dallas World Aquarium would seek to remove a large percentage of the wild population to import into the United States,” said Tara Zuardo, Wildlife Attorney with the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI).
The island is the only place in the world these miniature sloths live, and there are now estimated to be as few as 79 of them left in the wild. Even though the island is protected as a wildlife refuge, sloths continue to face threats from losing mangrove trees — their primary habitat and food source — possible hunting and a growing number of visitors. Last year they were named one of the 100 most endangered species in the world by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Conservation Congress.
Even though they are classified by the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered, they’re not covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) because they were only recognized as a distinct species in 2001, which is one of the reasons it was so easy for the DWA to get export permits and move forward without an import permit from the U.S.
The DWA contended that it sent its plan to a number of conservationists and NGOs and received multiple comments on it, but according to Mongabay the only one that responded was the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), which stated that “the current draft raises a number of questions and concerns.”
Zuardo’s sentiments were echoed by other conservationists who were surprised by the move and the fact that the DWA would do this without a comprehensive management plan or consulting with sloth experts.
Even if the DWA’s intentions were good, it failed to acknowledge how its actions would impact the wild population of these sloths and apparently overlooked whether or not they would even survive in captivity. It has already experienced significant mortality rates (more than 85 percent) with imported three-toed sloths, and until recently only 1 in 16 sloths survived there. According to experts, no one has ever successfully kept or bred pygmy sloths in captivity.
“A modern and serious zoo should never bring wild animals in without knowing this basic information. As studbook keeper for two-toed sloths in Europe I can say that because of ignorance and lack of experiences from zoos, a lot of sloths paid with their lives in the past,” said Dr. Jutta Heuer, from the Halle Zoo in Germany, one of the worlds experts in sloth husbandry in Europe.
Given its track record one would think the DWA might want to pass on potentially being responsible for killing about 10 percent of the last remaining pygmy sloths in the universe. But that possibility didn’t stop it, or other zoos and aquariums from attempting similar moves, despite the threat removing wild animals poses to their survival and how poorly many species do in captivity.
There have been some zoos that have started captive breeding programs with the goal of releasing animals into the wild, but in most cases these programs exist purely to keep captive populations that keep people coming in, especially when it comes to crowd-pleasing new babies, and they don’t justify removing animals from the wild just to keep a handful in existence at their expense.
In an effort to stop this from happening again, AWI filed an emergency petition to list these rare sloths under the Endangered Species Act, which would at least require a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and public review for anyone else who might attempt to capture and import them. AWI will also continue working with Panama, the U.S. and other CITES member countries to support a CITES Appendix I listing, which would stop international commercial trade.
Other conservationists are also calling for greater transparency and partnerships to increase awareness about these these sloths, how to protect them and their habitat and for greater enforcement of regulations that are supposed to keep the island protected.
“If we want to protect this great species successfully we need to work openly together. We shouldn’t learn about a conservation effort relating to the pygmy sloths in the middle of the night amidst violent social unrest,” said Dr. Bryson Voirin, a research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama who studies sloths.
Please sign and share the petition asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to support AWI’s emergency petition to list these rare sloths as an endangered species.
Photo credit: Bryson Voirin.