Conserving our planet's botanical resources and ecosystems

Pygmy Sloth Export Incident Recap and Future Plans

In the letter below, Bryson Voirin, a long-standing TREE Foundation research associate, gives an overview of the pygmy sloth export incident that occurred on September 9, 2013, and describes what the future plans may hold.

Dear Pygmy Sloth Enthusiasts,

I’d like to take a few moments and update everyone with an overview of pygmy sloth incident last Monday, 9/9. I’ve had dozens of talks with many individuals involved in this situation, as well as several face-to-face meetings with different organizations.  I know there is a lot of communication going on trying to point fingers, deflect responsibility, dispute facts, and propagate false information. Everything I state here has been collaborated by multiple sources, and it is not my aim to defame anyone, any organization, or stir unnecessary controversy. I have never even met anyone who was on the collecting trip / export personally (Daryl Richardson, Judy Arroyo, Becky Cliffe, Luis Sigler, Francisco Arroyo, Julie Heckathorn, and Jason Heckathorn), and am not a person with a personal grudge against anyone, nor do I wish to try and control, diminish, or demean the work of others. I avidly provide all of my research aims and findings on my sloth work with anyone interested, and would never try and be deceptive or secretive in any of my work. I am a professional scientist with affiliations at several internationally accredited universities and institutes, and I have been and will alway be 100% transparent in my work. I am asking all the involved parties to do the same. One thing we all share in common in a desire to protect the pygmy sloth. While that unites us, we must understand what has happened that divides us, and where to go from here.
To recap the event:
In total, 8 pygmy sloths were taken from Escudo de Veraguas. They were brought back to Bocas in cages and kept outside at a Bocas hotel for some days. They were fed and taken care of during this time, and were being prepped for departure to Dallas. 6 of the sloths were destined to go to the Dallas World Aquarium, under the care of Daryl Richardson and Judy Arroyo, and two were to remain in Panama, going to Jacobo Lacs in Colon. The export permit from MIDA was for 6 sloths, and the photos at the airport show only 6 crates. However, after the situation at the airport, and after the sloths were returned to the hotel during the uprising, all 8 sloths were subsequently handed over to Gabriel Jacome at STRI. I want to be sure that it is clear STRI had absolutely nothing to do with the collection of these sloths, nor were they or ZSL aware of the project. STRI only volunteered to a boat to return the sloths to Escudo de Veraguas after their help was requested from them by several people in Bocas.
At the airport in Bocas del Toro on Monday, local police became suspicious while seeing sloths being loaded into a private jet. They called around, trying to verify the legality of this. I have the names of the 4 policemen involved in this, so anyone doubting their involvement can contact me for their into. Local residents, tourists, and other concerned people began gathering around the airport, demanding the sloths be released. (Note: this uproar was not the sole action of a single foreigner trying to cause trouble, nor of a local reporter trying to brew controversy, nor of a fanatical anti-zoo, anti-captivity foreigner, as have been suggested in previous threads). I won’t deny that such people could have been involved, but the protest also consisted of several prominent and reputable community leaders of Bocas town, a scientist with PhD credentials, and other residents of the bocas community. The protest occurred in Bocas town, and not in the indigenous territory of the community to which Escudo belongs (its capitol is Kusapin). As such, the protesters were mainly people of Bocas town, and not the indigenous community of the Ngoble.
The protesters threatened physical violence against the group; (this is rural Panama / indigenous territory, and violent protests do unfortunately occur). Following the confrontation at the airport, the sloths were taken back to the hotel, where the protest escalated as word spread through Bocas town. Several residents whom I know in Bocas town called me, demanding the sloths be released (I was in Florida). As is often the case with any protest in Latin America, some hooliganism and violence occurred. Again, I think anyone familiar with political movements in Panama will agree that this is unfortunately not uncommon.
I spoke briefly to one of the DWA members on the phone (I could not hear his name, but it was either Luis or Francesco) during the protest, and they were in the middle of a discussion with some residents, a local ecologist in Bocas, and police. He acknowledged knowing who I was, but was unable to speak on the phone at that time. After this meeting, it was collectively decided that all 8 sloths (the six departing for Dallas, and the two departing for Colon) would be handed over to STRI, and returned to the island. I can confirmed that all 8 sloths were for sure returned to the island, in the mangroves where there were caught. As of Tuesday afternoon, all sloths were back on Escudo de Veraguas, and the collection party had departed Bocas.
The premise for this collection of 8 pygmy sloths was to maintaining them in captivity, and if successful, possibly breeding them at the Dallas World Aquarium. The Dallas World Aquarium is a private zoo housing many rare species from around the world. They do have some captive Bradypus sloths in their collection. The zoo is headed by owner Daryl Richardson, who is active in many environmental and wildlife projects. Since 2003, the zoo has helped fun The Sloth Sanctuary in Limon, Costa Rica. The center houses over 100 sloths, including some Bradypus. The director / head of this center is Judy Arroyo, and she has much experience in maintaining sloths in captivity at her rehab center. Judy was present at Bocas Airport Monday. The collection group that went to Escudo consisted of five people, plus the local captain. Luis Segler is the conservation director at the Dallas World Aquarium, and had previously visited the island this year. Francisco Arroyo works at the Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica. Becky Cliff is a PhD student working with sloths, also based at the Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica. Julia and Jason Heckathorn are authors of children’s books, including on about the pygmy sloths. They have also been working on a sloth conservation plan in Kusapin independent of the EGDE fellowship conservation program supported by ZSL and other organizations. Darly Richardson, owner of the Dallas World Aquarium,  was only present for a day, and was not on Escudo during the collection and transport. My point of naming everyone is not to point blame, but to simply as a reference so people unfamiliar with everyone can have an accurate picture of who is who, and who was where.
The aim: captive / breeding of pygmy sloths ex-situ
Breeding programs for some threatened or endangered species have been successful; however, Bradypus sloths are very difficult to maintain in captivity- they often do not survive. For years, many have tried to maintain them artificially outside the NeoTropics, and nearly all of them have failed. The Dallas World Aquarium has been able to maintain some Bradypus sloths by providing fresh Cecropia leaves to them. However, the actual diet of the pygmy sloth is unknown, although they are thought to eat primarily red mangroves. I have found them on the interior of the island in deep forest, suggesting that other trees make up at least a portion of their diet. Extensive studies of their yearly wild diets are needed before any thought of housing them artificially is even discussed, as not doing so would likely result in their death, only further decreasing their population size. In fact, the Dallas World Aquarium experienced significant sloth mortality early on in their attempt to maintain captive Bradypus outside the NeoTropics. They have recently been able to maintain a small population of three-toed sloths in Dallas.
The idea of an external breeding program to increase the number of pygmy sloths sounds logical and noble at first, but when you consider that it’s hard enough to just keep common three-toed sloths alive in captivity, let alone breed them (efforts to do so are largely unsuccessful), it seems highly unlikely that a satellite breeding population in Dallas would have yielded anything more than at best a few sloths surviving in captivity in a foreign zoo, but more likely 8 fewer surviving pygmy sloths. The potential risks at this time do not justify the means from a conservation standpoint with the data we currently have, nor given absence of a dire situation on Escudo. Promising the local community or officials that by removing a few sloths from the island they will eventually benefit by receiving captive bred replacements (and more) is a fantasy at this point. We cannot make promises to residents that are highly unlikely to materialize.
It is concerning that aside from the Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica and the Dallas Aquarium, none of the Panamanian and international research, conservation, and scientific associations working with pygmy sloths were aware or involved in this matter. This includes the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the IUCN, the Zoological Society of London, CONAVI, the Max Planck Institute, and others. The first we heard of it is when I emailed everyone Monday evening, after hearing from several people in Bocas about the incident. I have talked with over a dozen zoos and wildlife organizations, and all have shared their shock and disapproval of such an operation at this time. Even if protecting the sloths was the motivating force behind this action, such unilateral action is not laudable.
Where do we go from here? Future directions
In the immediate future, several of us are working to get the pygmy sloth recognized as endangered by the international community. As I said before, the pygmy sloth is not CITES listed nor protected under the Endangered Species Act in the USA. Although the IUCN placed the pygmy sloth on its Red List, this does not warrant special treatment within the US government. Regardless of what any of us feel about the recent events, I think we all can agree that this is a important and necessary step for the pygmy sloth. Without recognition, the pygmy sloth isn’t acknowledged as even being protected outside of Panama (however, ANAM does recognize it as endangered, and requires a special consideration and permission for a research permit to do any work with pygmy sloth).
Dr. Diorene Smith is the EDGE fellow working on pygmy sloth conservation in Panama. Her primary work is in Kusapin, but she (as well as numerous others from ZSL and other organizations) have been working closely with the Ngoble people throughout the region. Although her work focuses on the pygmy sloth, she is actively involved in whole island conservation. In addition, we are monitoring sloths over the course of several years with various technology to better understand their biology, behavior, and population dynamics. This comprehensive scientific and conservation project involves a number of people working together has been funded and supported by numerous organizations, including ZSL, STRI, the Riverbanks Zoo, the Columbus Zoo, Eddie Bauer, The Explorers Club, and others. Diorene has worked extensively with the people of Kusapin, the residents of the Comarca, the Ngoble Congress, ANAM, and the seasonal inhabitants of Escudo, building important relationships with each, and repeatedly presenting the projects goals and possible outcomes. She has been very successful to-date, and was scheduled to again visit the region soon for another round of talks. The politics in this region of Panama are extremely complicated (especially for foreigners) and understanding the discrete relationship quandaries requires an intimate knowledge of the people, the culture, and the language. A native of Panama, Diorene has worked tirelessly to bridge these relationships and build an inclusive plan of action.  Unfortunately, these recent events have jeopardized everything she and the team accomplished so far, and everything has been put on hold until we can be sure what the reaction is in the Comarca, and how best to proceed. Because of the confusion involved with this event, any scientist or foreigner traveling to Bocas, the comarca, or escudo to work on sloths is liable to be branded as an accomplice in the sloth incident, which is a potentially dangerous situation. There is still much confusion in the local community as to who did what, with many still blaming me, ZSL, or other scientists.
I know Dallas World Aquarium and the Hackathorns are involved in their own, independent conservation program also aimed at protecting the sloth. Although I do not know the specifics of their project goals and outcomes, having two conservation projects so similar running concurrently has created a lot of confusion in the local community (as well as within the larger community and beyond).
I think everyone would agree that we need to work towards a singular, transparent, inclusive conservation plan with pygmy sloths involving all the relevant parties from here on out. We all are wanting to protect this great species, and to do so successfully, we need to work together and work openly. We shouldn’t learn about a conservation effort relating to the pygmy sloths in the middle of the night amidst violent social unrest. That is not the way that good science and true conservation works. Our success will be dependent on collegiality, of us working together and sharing information- the good and the bad. I’m willing to answer any questions about my work, my goals, my aspirations with the conservation project, as well as my successes, my failures, and such. Likewise, I have many questions for the team that was in Bocas this past week, questions whose answers could help further the scientific understanding of all Bradypus sloths. What is the survival rate of Bradypus husbandry in the tropics (Costa Rica, Colon, etc), and what is the survival rate of them in Dallas? How many have been born in captivity and have any survived to adulthood? How many sloth babies have been successfully released to date for any center? Is the Dallas World Aquarium going to try and obtain pygmy sloths again? We all have an enormous amount of experience with sloths (and other Xenarthrans) between us, and have so much potential to do good for this amazing sloth species. I welcome any questions or comments, and am always available on email, phone, skype, or passenger pigeon. Cheers