Are Sloths an Endangered Species? The Growing Dangers

Our favorite forest creatures are so adorable and easygoing that it is really sad to think that their species might be endangered. What is the reason why sloths are threatened?

Sloths are endangered due to one major reason:  human beings. You might think that the slow and meek-natured animals are easy prey in the jungle, and that is why they are in danger. However, that is not the case. Sloths are perfectly adapted for their normal environment, but human activity is a threat to them.

Lider Sucre / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

One clarification is important here. As we have discussed in other articles, there are many different species of sloths. Not all of these species are endangered, thankfully, but sadly the pygmy sloth is struggling.

As you can imagine, the pygmy sloth is extremely cute! Because he is native to an island off the cost of Panama called Isla Escudo de Verguas, this sloth has evolved to be smaller (and thus cuter 😍🦥😍).

This is a unique animal because it wasn’t officially documented by scientists until 2001 when it was observed that these smaller cousins of three-toed sloths also had unique skull shapes and darker fur. Scientists theorize that the island was once connected to the mainland, but once it became separated the sloth population became isolated and evolved into its own species.

Isla Escudo de Verguas is a small place with a very small population. The Ngabe-Bugle people have historically lived on the island, but the population has been sparse until recent years. Since the 1990s fishermen have been settling on the island and now there is a population of about 500 people. This might seem like a small number of people, but it is enough to have a big effect on the natural environment, and it has affected the population of the pygmy sloths. Those humans are cutting down trees for wood they use to build homes and for fuel, and we all know that sloths depend on trees as a source of food and shelter. This has lead to a loss in habitat and correlative loss in the pygmy sloth population, almost 80%.

As you can see from this chart, the pattern is not looking good. The habitat continues to dwindle, which will leave our forest friends without homes or nourishment.  Beyond that, there is also the threat of poaching. Because the pygmy sloths are so popular, poachers try to capture them to export them to exhibits, mostly in the United States. The Animal Welfare Institute and other activists interfered to prevent a dozen pygmy sloths from being exported to an aquarium in Texas after the animals were captured on the island. Read more about that incident here.

What can be done?

The most important thing we can do to protect pygmy sloths and all their cousins is to save their habitat. Sloths live in rainforests, which are disappearing very quickly. At one point scientists estimate that rainforests covered more than 10% of the entire globe. Now they only represent 3% of the Earth’s surface. 8 million hectares of rainforest are destroyed each year. 

Believe it or not, our own behavior has a big influence on the patterns of rainforest destruction. Timber, rubber, palm oil, soy and beef are common ingredients used in products we consume, from furniture to Nutella. Trees are cutdown to become timber, and also to clear land for farms to produce these food items that we consume. 

In the specific case of Isla Escudo, the Panamanian government has put laws in place to prevent the destruction of the sloth’s habitat on the island. However, it is difficult to enforce these laws. So, there is a need to make the local community aware of the danger the sloths are in and how to protect them. The Zoological Society of London has started a program to visit the island to monitor the sloth and also to raise awareness within the local community.  Read more about their efforts here.

Another danger to all sloths is poaching. While usually poachers are killing protected animals for their tusks or skins, sloths are hunted to be taken captive. This is primarily so that the sloths can be exported to zoos. So, again this is something tied directly to our behavior. Although we love to see and interact with sloths in our hometowns, we need to realize this can be connected to poaching efforts, which remove our strange buddies from their natural habitat. 

While other sloth species are not categorized as endangered, they are still facing the same threats.  Because of that that, a number of organizations exist to help protect sloths.

The Sloth Conservation Foundation (SloCo) is dedicated to protecting sloths and preserving their habitat. SloCo was founded in 2016 by a sloth researcher named Dr. Rebecca Cliff. Dr Cliffe’s organization is dedicated to increase understanding of sloths through research, information sharing, and education efforts. SloCo also works to implement solutions to some of threats faced by sloths, such as ensuring sloths can move around safely in their environment by creating safe crossing spots for them. 

You can participate in The Sloth Conservation Foundation’s efforts by:

A similar organization is The Sloth Institute. They also work to research the condition of sloths, educate the public on those issues, and to take action to protect our forest friends. You can also help this organization in their work. Visit their website to see how.

Adopting a sloth is a popular way to try to protect the species. Beyond the organizations we already discussed, The World Wildlife Foundation has worked for more than half a century to protect animals all around the world. One of the ways they are doing that is by also offering an option to adopt a sloth.

Another interesting organization is called “Kids Saving the Rainforest”, which is exactly that, young people working to preserve our world’s tropical forests and the animals that live there. Hold on to your heart because what these kids do is receive orphaned baby sloths to nurse them to health, raise and educate them, and reintroduce them to the wild.  To learn more about this program and to sponsor one of the rescued baby sloths, please visit their program’s webpage.

It’s definitely very sad that our favorite animals are facing the threat of losing their habitat and poaching. The important thing to keep in mind is we can take action to help. We must all take the well-being of sloths seriously and make sure our actions do not harm their species. At the same time, there are some exciting ways we can be a part of the solution by adopting sloths and helping conservation efforts.

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