[dropcap type="circle" color="#ffffff" background="#e53b2c"]W[/dropcap]e love sloths here at Bananama Republic. They're cool animals with a friendly smiling face and interesting behavior. The picture here is of your reporter with one of those amazing creatures near Gamboa. It wouldn't let go of my hand after I carried it away from the middle of the road where it would certainly have been killed.
What we didn't know in our newsroom, however, was that there is such a thing as a pygmy sloth, and that it is special:
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 (STRI) and many local organizations.
The description comes from an article on Mongobay.com, a popular science and conservation news site. Why did they write about this particular animal? Because the story is, in fact, an expose about the shenanigans of a Dallas based zoo to fly a bunch of these endangered animals to Texas, to exploit them there as attractions in their park, for money:
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. (...)
... 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.
Eventually, the ploy was foiled but it took the efforts of activists and law enforcement to prevent the sloth heist and have them released in their natural habitat again.
You would of course expect a profound apology from these Texan sloth rustlers, like, "we're sorry that we tried to export Panamanian endangered sloths for fun and profit". Not so.
Instead, they threatened the website mongobay.com with a lawsuit, for libel. Losers.
The law suit has been avoided, apparently, by Mongobay.com adding a number of footnotes below their article, with a response from the Dallas World Aquarium. Those responses came after the sloth smugglers initially did not reply to requests for comment - and after the article had started to make waves.
We've had other high profile attempts to rob Panama of its wildlife before, like the Ocean Embassy scheme to catch and export dolphins. That didn't work, and neither did this pygmy sloth heist. Will these people now finally give up and leave our animals alone?