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The pygmy sloth from Isla de Escudo, Panama

By on March 11, 2011 in Uncategorized, Mammals

While on holiday in Panama, David Curnick, a member of the Marine and Freshwater team at ZSL and sloth enthusiast met with Bryson Voirin who has spent the last 5 years filming and following the progress of the pygmy three-toed sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus) on the tiny island of Isla de Escudo which lies 17km from the coast of Panama.

The pygmy three-toed sloth is endemic to Isla de Escudo and is not found anywhere else in the world. However, there are serious concerns that this species could disappear in the next 10-20 years. When Bryson first visited Escudo about 5 years ago he would regularly see up to 50 sloths in one day, however now he is lucky to see a few a day.

So what could be causing this apparent decline in population? Isla de Escudo is a national park with no official permanent residents. The distance between the island and the mainland used to provide natural protection from human disturbances, with only a few of the more adventurous fishermen using it as an outpost for offshore fishing trips.  However, since outboard motors have become increasingly affordable there has been a rise in the number of visitors to the island. Recently, even a political rally with hundreds of participants was held there. The regulations concerning the national park status of the island have not been enforced allowing mangrove trees to be cut down, coral reefs to be destroyed by destructive fishing practices, and fishermen to build ‘holiday homes’ on the island. Accompanying the people are numerous dogs which further threaten the sloths.

The pygmy three-toed sloth lives in the mangroves fringing the island, rarely venturing into the forest in the centre of the island. It is unclear how often the sloths use the forest and why they seem to prefer the mangroves. Considering only a fraction of the island is covered in mangroves, their potential habitat is exceedingly small. The removal of mature mangrove trees on the island reduces the area of habitat available and may create a patchy habitat that restricts the movement of the pygmy three-toed sloths who travel in the tree canopy because they are much more agile hanging upside down in a tree than on the ground. (Although sloths are surprisingly good swimmers!)

Further research into the population size and habitat use of the pygmy three-toed sloth is required in order to determine the population size and needs of this species. People in Panama seem to be unaware of just how unique and threatened the pygmy three-toed sloth is so raising community awareness of the uniqueness of this species and the threats it faces is essential if it is to gain the attention it requires. If, indeed the sloth population on Isla de Escudo is in decline, action to protect the pygmy three-toed sloth and its habitat is required before it become too late. To help address this need ZSL and EDGE would like to establish a long term conservation initative that will help protect the pygmy three-toed sloth and the habitat in which it lives that will also benefit a number of other species living on the island.

If you would like to help support the conservation of pygmy three-toed sloth and other species on the EDGE of Exitinction you can find out more about supporting EDGE here.