In Asia, demand for exotic meat and medicinal ingredients drives the illegal market in wildlife. But half a world away, in Colombia, it’s the pet trade that motivates poachers. And these days, nothing is more sought after than a pet sloth, according to an undercover Nightline report.
According to an ABC story that followed up on the investigation, animal trafficking now ranks just after gun and drug sales as the most profitable illegal industry in Colombia. Colorful birds, monkeys and sloths turn up in markets in the country and also make their way into the U.S.
An estimated 60,000 animals were trafficked last year alone, including a growing number of sloths.
In what is now considered the biggest exotic pet seizure in American history, 27,000 animals, including several sloths, were rescued from a pet distributor in Arlington, Texas, in 2009. Undercover video shot by PETA members showed that the sloths were kept in filthy cages that lacked the necessary equipment for the animals to survive in captivity, including heat lamps and humidifiers. The bodies of several sloths were later found in the facility’s freezer.
Sloths may be cute and gentle, but they are notoriously finicky animals. Their leaf-based diet includes around 40 rainforest plants. Their specialized digestive systems host symbiotic bacteria that break down the tough leaves, and they can take up to a month to digest a single meal. On their own, none of the six sloth species can survive outside of a tropical rainforest.
It is illegal to sell wildlife in Colombia, but ABC reports that one region, Cordoba, has become a hot spot of illegal activity. Police turn a blind eye and, according to ABC’s local guide, paramilitary groups still largely control the area. On the streets, sloths sell for about $30 each. From the investigation, ABC reports:
When a car suddenly pulled up next to us, the traffickers scattered, but it turned out to be a false alarm. Supposedly, it was the mayor of a nearby town who wanted to take a photo with the sloth.
Then, we got word of another suspected trafficker who had sloths for sale outside of a house. When we arrived, a family of pale-throated sloths, a mother with two babies, was being sold together, all three kept in one crate.
The team wound up purchasing the sloth family for $125 and turned them over to a local conservationists for release back into the wild. While purchasing animals from illegal traders is not a long-term solution and in some ways only perpetuates the trade, that sloth family, at least, got a second chance.
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