While Latin America is home to the trafficking of all manner of species, several foundations are working to save arguably its slowest-moving victims: the sloths.
The trafficking of these placid creatures has often gone underreported aside from a few important legal cases. In Colombia, the most recent example came last April when a man was arrested in the southwestern department of Nariño for attempting to sell a sloth for 3 million pesos ($810).
And the country’s most well-known case came in 2015 when Isaac Miguel Bedoya Guevara, a wildlife trafficker from the northern department of Córdoba, was sentenced to over five years in prison for trafficking more than 3,000 sloths. Over the course of 30 years, Bedoya is suspected of having captured over 10,000.
Bedoya and his partners were systematic in their operations. He regularly updated maps of sloth nests, making them easier to find. He then systematically removed babies from their mothers before cutting their nails and selling them to international buyers, including the United States and Italy.
Their cute demeanor and tranquil nature make sloths popular within the exotic pet trade, which is the main reason they are snatched up as babies in Colombia.
But sloth trafficking happens in a number of Latin American countries. In 2019, InSight Crime visited a controversial zoo in Honduras, which illegally contained a range of exotic animals, including sloths. Other cases have been reported in Peru, Panama and Brazil.
However, these delicate creatures are unlikely to survive in captivity. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), between 80 and 90 percent of trafficked sloths die in captivity.
To curb this trade in Colombia, conservationist Tinka Plese has founded the Aiunau Foundation in the Aburrá Valley, outside of Medellín. Plese dedicated her life to stopping sloth trafficking after visiting Colombia as a tourist in 1996 and rescuing two baby sloths that had been captured by traffickers. The foundation has since rescued around 1,300 animals and has opened a second center in Córdoba.
The Aiunau Foundation’s activities in Colombia include rehabilitating sloths so that they can return to the wild and providing support for the environmental authorities working to stop wildlife trafficking, as well as educating the public. The organization also campaigned for the designation of International Sloth Day on October 20.
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Sloth trafficking varies considerably from country to country, largely due to local law enforcement.
In Colombia, sloths are often sold to local tourists as pets. According to Plese, local sloth trafficking chains in the country primarily begin in rural areas along the country’s Atlantic Coast. “Law enforcement agencies do not pay much attention in rural areas,” she told InSight Crime.
Meanwhile, in Costa Rica, sloths are not usually poached to be sold internationally. It is actually illegal for any wild animal to leave Costa Rica and this is strongly enforced.
Instead, according to Rebecca Cliffe of the Sloth Conservation Foundation, sloths in Costa Rica are poached to feed the demand for hands-on tourist encounter experiences.
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In addition to discouraging people from thinking these animals make good pets, conservationists highlight the importance of educating tourists. Cliffe explained that tourists are often unwittingly complicit in sloth trafficking when they pay locals for photos with the animals. In response, Costa Rica recently launched a "Stop Animal Selfies" campaign.
“Tourists are often tricked into believing that the sloth has been rescued and is being cared for,” Rebecca Cliffe of the Sloth Conservation Foundation told InSight Crime, explaining that sloths are “solitary creatures that become easily stressed out by human contact.”
Cliffe also stressed the need for international media outlets to stop glamorizing sloth exploitation, by featuring them on talk shows and the like.
However, combating wildlife trafficking requires regional collaboration in order to be effective. Sloths are known to be shipped to the United States from countries like Venezuela and Ecuador, where export laws are less stringent.
Once in the US, sloths are forced to breed and the babies are sold into the pet trade, according to. It is legal to own a pet sloth in several US states, including Alabama and New York. The Sloth Conservation Foundation told InSight Crime that the going price for a sloth in the US is around $5,000.
Nevertheless, Cliffe stressed the importance of not "villainizing the traffickers."
"These people are often just trying to make a living and feed their families," she said, adding that sloth sales can often exceed the average weekly income for those living in rural areas of the country.