The World’s Smallest Sloth is in Need of Protection
Sloths, despite their reputation as lethargic tree-hangers, have won the Internet. It’s impossible for sloths to not be completely adorable. So it makes sense that, in the tradition of Shark Week, the folks at the Animalist and Animal Planet are devoting six days to the awesomeness of sloths. Starting June 20, you’ll be able to get your sloth fix at SlothWeek.com and see footage from the Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica.
Thanks to the Internet, more people than ever can be seduced by the wide eyes and slow movements of the humble sloth. I think most people know that there are two broad categories of sloth: the two- and three-toed sloth. However, there are actually five distinct species of sloth; two of the two-toed variety and four of the three-toed. Recently, there has been a push to get one of the three-toed species, the Pygmy three-toed sloth, some official protection.
The Pygmy three-toed sloth is endemic to only one place: the Isla Escudo de Veraguas off the coast of Panama. In 2011, there were less than 80 of these creatures left in the wild. A count in April showed that there were several healthy babies. However, several months before, the Dallas World Aquarium tried to import six pygmy sloths from Panama, which is apparently legal but didn’t make people very happy. After protests at the airport, those six sloths (plus two more that were bound for Panamanian zoo) were returned. However, one of those sloths died, possibly because of the stressful experience.
The Pygmy three-toed sloth was only classified as a distinct species in 2001, and since it has such a limited range, it makes sense that there wouldn’t be a great many of them. Even so, the number of these sloths in the wild is startlingly low. No humans live on their native island, but visiting fishermen sometimes poach the animals. This, even though the island they live on is a protected refuge. The Pygmy three-toed sloth is already listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, and now there is an effort by the Animal Welfare Institute to get the animal listed on the endangered species list, as well.
The emergency petition was filed with the Fish and Wildlife Service last November, but it was just last week that the FWS said that yes, the world’s smallest sloth may deserve protection under the Endangered Species Act. You may be wondering what this means in practice. The Pygmy three-toed sloth isn’t native to the United States, so what can we do? Protection under this act would require a permit process for anyone who wants to import one of these animals.
This news, however, does not mean that this small mammal automatically gets federal protection. Now we have to wait a year for the Fish and Wildlife Service to officially conduct a review. During this time they will gather information on the sloth’s population, habitat, and threats to its survival. Then, if the FWS decides that protection is warranted, we have to wait at least another 15 months until legal protections kick in.
So it’s a long road ahead, but if it helps save these adorable creatures it will be worth it. None of the other extant sloths are as at risk of extinction as the Pygmy three-toed sloth. None are quite like their small cousin, either. The Pygmy three-toed sloth has no predators. They live a peaceful life, eating and swimming from mangrove patch to mangrove patch. Hopefully we’ll be able to save them before it’s too late.
Photo Credit: BBC