On September 9, 2013, Dallas World Aquarium (DWA) representatives traveled to Panama to collect several pygmy three-toed sloths—the world’s smallest sloth—to bring back to Texas. The sloths are highly endangered; as few as 79 are left in the wild. Occurring solely on Isla Escudo de Veraguas, pygmy three-toed sloths have only been recognized as a separate species since 2001.
Eight sloths were captured and crated that day; DWA had an export permit to bring back six. This species is not yet protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or the US Endangered Species Act (ESA)—which is why DWA only needed Panamanian export permits and a veterinary certification to take them.
DWA claims that it was taking the animals in order to ensure their survival, in case they disappear from the wild. However, the species does not survive well in captivity, and no one has successfully bred them in captivity. According to reports, DWA also failed to consult with anyone—Panamanian or international—actually working to save pygmy sloths. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the International Union for Conservatión of Nature, the Zoological Society of London, Panama's Conservacion, Naturaleza y Vida, the Max Planck Institute, and others were all unaware of DWA’s plans.
When the private plane containing the sloths landed in Bocas del Toro, 75 to 100 local protestors gathered and menaced the would-be exporters until they agreed to return the sloths, which were eventually released back to their native island. DWA, however, has vowed to try again.
AWI submitted an emergency petition to list the species as endangered under the ESA in an attempt to prevent future US imports. In moving forward, AWI will work to obtain an Appendix I listing (banning all international commercial trade) in pygmy three-toed sloths.