How Did Dallas Aquarium Almost Get Away With Taking 8 Endangered Pygmy Sloths from Panama?

The citizens of Panama take a hard line when it comes to their country’s endangered species. If they think you’re spiriting them out of the country without permission, they will stop you.

That’s what the Dallas World Aquarium (DWA) found out recently when it arrived in Panama to capture and export eight endangered pygmy three-toed sloths. As it turns out, DWA apparently had all the appropriate paperwork to take the sloths.

The problem was that they didn’t seem to have done enough prior coordination with Panamanian officials or sloth experts before showing up at Bocas del Toro in a private plane with full crates in hand. The resulting uproar became something of an international incident.

The pygmy three-toed sloth lives only on Isla Escudo de Veraguas, a small uninhabited island near Panama. Fewer than 100 of them exist. It is the smallest sloth in the world and is understood to feed mostly on mangrove leaves, though experts know little about its habits. See a YouTube video about this species here:

The DWA wanted eight of these animals and came to get them on September 9. That’s when the situation almost got out of hand.

Protesters Reportedly Threw Rocks, Trapped DWA Personnel in Van

The activity on the tarmac at Isla Colón International Airport looked mighty suspicious to the morning guard. He saw the little plane and the crates sitting in the customs area containing unknown animals ready to be loaded as cargo.

Alarmed, the guard alerted his supervisor. With admirable speed, word spread to the local police chief, Bocas del Toros’ mayor, the National Environmental Authority’s (ANAM) regional director and local conservation organizations. That’s when the crowd started forming.

The situation at the airport escalated rapidly, according to reports. A crowd of 75 to 100 protestors reportedly trapped the would-be exporters in a van, pelting them with rocks until they got an agreement that the sloths would be immediately returned to their island home.

“It got a little scary there for everybody,” Daryl Richardson, DWA’s chief executive, told the Dallas Morning News.

The sloths were to be returned to the island the next day. Two protestors stayed all night at the sloths’ temporary enclosure, guarding them to ensure they actually made it back to their island home the next day.

Sloth Conservation Experts Mystified by DWAs Actions

DWA says its intent was to create an “insurance population” of pygmy three-toed sloths, in case the island one day can’t support them any longer. The problem with that idea, say sloth experts, is that no one has ever successfully bred this species in captivity. It does not survive well as a captive species.

More to the point, say experts, a successful captive breeding program needs to be conducted under the auspices of a species management plan, which doesn’t yet exist for the pygmy three-tied sloth. Additionally, conservationists argue DWA didn’t bother to consult with other scientists currently studying this species on Isla Escudo de Veraguas, a group considered to be the world’s top experts on the pygmy three-toed sloth.

DWA, on the other hand, says it sent its plan to export the sloths to several conservationists and NGOs and received multiple comments on it. However, DWA has not named who these people and organizations were.

Conservation group Mongabay reached out to international sloth conservation experts for input on this situation. The experts were surprised and mystified.

“I fail to understand why Dallas World Aquarium did not consult with the experienced researchers prior to exporting these animals,” said Dr. Mariella Superina, Chair of the IUCN/SC Anteater, Sloth and Armadillo Specialist Group. “Furthermore, I fail to understand how ANAM approved the export of roughly 10 percent of the wild population if this species has never been kept in captive conditions.”

“There is no way any kind of captive program for the sloths should have been established or even considered without a comprehensive management plan developed in consultation with experts on the species as well as with all relevant stakeholders,” Dr. George Angehr of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute told Mongabay.

Pygmy Sloths Not Yet Protected by CITES

Unfortunately, DWA apparently had all the paperwork it needed to cart away these eight sloths: a research permit, an animal export permit and a veterinary certification. It didn’t need anything else.

This is because this species was discovered relatively recently and therefore is not yet included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Until the pygmy three-toed sloth becomes a CITES III protected species with tougher import/export standards, it remains vulnerable to situations like this one.

Had DWA merely done a bit more coordination ahead of time, it would easily have been able to export the eight sloths it wants. DWA says it will return at some future point and try again, because it can. Panama, however, is already acting to get the sloth added under CITES III, which it has the unilateral ability to do.

DWA Threatens Legal Action for Mongabays Story on this Incident

Mongabay broke this story shortly after the events at the airport. According to Mongabay’s website, DWA made legal threats and complained that its side of the story had not been included. Mongabay has since added annotations to its original article that express DWA’s inputs and correct some details. Interestingly, Mongabay says it asked DWA for such input before its story ran, but got little from DWA. So why the legal threats later?

DWA has attracted the wrong kind of attention for export attempts before. In 1997, they tried to capture and export four Amazon River dolphins from Venezuela, but had to pull back and abandon that idea after some heavy hitting conservationists, including primatologist Jane Goodall, voiced objections.

One good thing to come out of this fracas is that the conservationists of the world are now watching DWA’s activity in Panama a little more closely.

Photo credit: WikiImages / Pixabay


Jim Ven
Jim V2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Mark Donners
Mark Donner3 years ago

Bunch of profiteering Texas rednecks trying to bully their way in a South American country. They should be arrested if they ever show their faces in Panama again. DWA has stolen sloths before and most of them died because they do poorly in captivity, and those Dallas criminals know this. There is nothing known about these rare sloths and they would have killed them too for their greedy Texas circus.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing

Nicole D.
Nicole D4 years ago

If a good captive breeding program could be built up, then the capture of the sloths would actually be a good thing, as there would be a population in captivity able to repopulate the wild sloths if they were ever threatened. However, since there isn't a decent program yet and they don't live well in captivity, I side with Panama's residents: let the sloths be. I think biologists need to better analyze their habits in the wild, come up with a plan to keep them in captivity humanely, and then attempt to maintain a captive breeding population SOLELY for repopulating the wild sloths.

GGmaSheila D.
Sheila D4 years ago

Kudos to the people of Panama who stopped the taking of these animals under false pretenses. Kudos to the government moving so fast to protect these sloths. If more people would get involved there might be more animals saved from illegal seizures like DWA has tried more than once. Wonder how much they would have sold them for??

Jonathan Smithsonian


sandra j.
sandra j4 years ago


Laura Saxon
.4 years ago

Why would they need sloths anyway? Thanks for sharing.

Gill Kilroy
Gillian Kilroy4 years ago

sounds suspicious to me that this Aquarium (didn't know Sloths were an aquatic animal!!) just wanted them as a Commodity, nothing more. a money spinner!! Shame on DWA for trying to pull the wool over people's eyes with their claims - rubbish!! But the need for these animals to become listed on CITES (or whatever it is that will protect them), needs to get this done like yesterday!!

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se4 years ago