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Cute, soft and slow – very slow – sloths are seen by many as affable living stuffed animals, and that is how they tend to be portrayed in children's movies, documentaries and viral videos.

But that’s a distorted, and dangerous, perception – and one that has driven the illegal trade in this unique species. The truth is that sloths aren’t meant to be cuddled. They are wild animals, and they belong in the wild.

There are six sub species of sloths in Central America and South America, all of which are threatened by deforestation and degradation of their habitat (tropical forests), and by illegal trafficking. Sadly, these factors often result in fatal outcomes for the creature. 

Organizations responsible for the protection of the species in Central America and Colombia estimate that between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of trafficked sloths die in the process. 

"Sloths are very sensitive animals. They get stressed very easily, and this immediately affects their respiratory and digestive systems," says Néstor Correa, biologist and president of the Pan-American Association for Conservation (APPC), an organization that rehabilitates sloths rescued in Panama.

Baby sloths – which are highly coveted by traffickers – are also the most fragile. "The separation from their mothers and the lack of breast milk is traumatic for them," says Correa.

Newborns are separated from their mothers, often violently, and are then malnourished, kept in overcrowded environments and physically abused. In many cases, their nails are cut to prevent them from harming humans, impeding them from preforming their main activity: hanging from trees. Sloths, which feed on plants and fruits that are found only in tropical trees, only go down to the ground to defecate, approximately once a week. Their metabolism is very slow, so they spend very little energy when they move.

Hundreds of sick and dehydrated newborns have arrived at the APPC shelter in the community of Gamboa, on the banks of the Panama Canal. People tend to take them there when they get critically sick after days or weeks of transport or inadequate care.

“Baby sloths are like porcelain,” says Tinka Plese, whose organization, Fundación Aiunau, in Medellín, Colombia, has been devoted to the conservation of sloths, armadillos and anteaters for more than 20 years.

The highest number of sloths arrive at the organization's shelter in the holiday seasons, which is when the inhabitants of Medellín travel to areas where the species live and buy specimens on the margins of the roads, says Plese, who is also a part of the Group of Specialists in Anteater, Sloth and Armadillo Bears of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The high prices that these animals command in cities or high-income countries have stimulated the illegal market for sloths in vulnerable communities, where a single baby sloth can go for represent much more money than weekly or monthly salaries earned by those living in rural communities. The animals are offered on roads and squares and even on request, according to Plese.


A baby sloth rides on its mother's back. (Photo by Roger Burkhard on Unsplash)


In addition to their focus in species rehabilitation, the Aiunau organization also investigates illegal trafficking at the local level, offers educational experiences for civil society and government officials, and participates in the development of national policies against the illicit trade.

Colombia and Panama are home to four of the six existing sloth subspecies. The Bradypus variegatus (three-toed) and the Choloepus hoffmanni (two-toed) live in both countries, while the Choloepus didactylus (two-toed) inhabits Colombia and much of the Amazon. These three subspecies are included in the "least concern" IUCN red list.

The only subpecies in critical danger of extinction is the Bradypus pygmaeus or "lazy pygmy", which lives only on a tiny Panamanian island in the Caribbean.

There are two other subspecies of sloths. The Bradypus tridactylus, which lives in Brazil, French Guiana, Guyana, Surinam and Venezuela, and the Bradypus torquatus, which inhabits only a section of Brazil's Atlantic forest and is considered vulnerable.

The role of tourism

Sloths have become a new commodity in the tourism sector. If they are not sold to tourists, they are displayed in cities and ports, where people can pay to hug and feed them.

In Panama, the APPC works to raise awareness among tourists about these harmful practices. Its neighbour and ally, the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, has built facilities for tourists to learn about the process of rehabilitating of sloths, without disturbing the species’ space or routines.

The centre includes a stretch of forest where the organization can check if the specimens in the APPC are ready to return to a pleasant life in the treetops.

Some sloths, however, are not able to afford to return to life in the wild, as they have lost the opportunity to learn survival instincts from their mothers. Their docility would make them an easy prey for other species, such as the jaguar.

That is the case of Coquito, a Bradypus variegatus known in the APPC for his meekness. As he can´t go back to the depths of the forest, he now has a new job: to be the image of the organization so that his life story can help humans to change their relationship with wildlife.