LEFT: Pygmy sloth in a box back on Isla Escudo de Veraguas. Photo: Shannon Thomas RIGHT: Radio tracking sloths on the island. Photo: Craig Turner / ZSL

By Tanya Dimitrova
20 September 2013

(mongabay.com) – Last Monday (9 September 2013), the police officer on morning duty at Isla Colón International Airport, Panama noticed some foreigners loading crates with what appeared to be animals on a private jet. Finding this suspicious, he alerted his supervisor. Within minutes the local police chief, the mayor of Bocas, the director of the regional office of the National Environmental Authority (ANAM), community leaders and heads of local conservation organizations were informed about the incident. Little by little, a crowd of concerned citizens from Bocas town gathered around what turned out to be eight pygmy sloths – some of the rarest mammals on Earth.

The pygmy three-toed sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus) is one of the world's most endangered species. A recent scientific survey found fewer than 100 sloths hanging on in their island home – Isla Escudo de Veraguas, Panama. They live nowhere else in the world. For the past 15 months, Bryson Voirin, expert on pygmy sloths and member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission, has been tracking ten of them with radio-collars to find where on the island they spend their time. Voirin has been working on sloth conservation in Panama for the last 10 years alongside scientists from Zoological Society London, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and many local organizations.

But on Monday, as the drama at the airport was developing, it became clear that the foreigners who were trying to export the pygmy sloths were Luis Sigler and Daryl Richardson of Dallas World Aquarium, Jason and Julia Heckathorn – children’s books publishers and amateur naturalists based in the U.S., and Judy Arroyo and Rebecca Cliffe from a sloth rehabilitation center in Costa Rica.

According to the flight manifest, the charter flight was headed for Island Roatan in Honduras before its final destination: Addison airport, Dallas. None of the passengers wanted to comment about the reason for this interim destination.

According to Sigler, the conservation biologist on staff at the Dallas Aquarium, the rare animals were being relocated in order to establish a captive breeding population in Texas. Sigler presented to the airport officials a research permit, animal export permit and a veterinary certification – all the required paperwork for the export. The National Environmental Authority (ANAM) in Panama City has since confirmed their legitimacy.

The Dallas Aquarium local partner in Panama was Jacobo Lacs, director of Zoologico del Istmo in Colon – also a private animal center, closed to the public, where tropical birds and other animals are bred for export. According to the research permit, Lacs was supposed to take two of the eight pygmy sloths to his facility. […]

“We are really worried,” a local resident, who asked to remain anonymous, told mongabay.com. “They said they were going to come back and this time we wouldn’t be able to stop them. We think they plan to ship them out via David City, at the Pacific side of Panama.” [more]

Attempt to export nearly-extinct pygmy sloths sets off international incident in Panama

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