Scientists Trap, Tag, and Track Tapirs to Design a Survival Strategy

Brazilian Patricia Medici knows how to catch a tapir. Argentinian Juan Pablo Juliá knows how to let one go. Both biologists are involved in projects that aim to better understand this reclusive and strange-looking animal, the largest mammal in Neotropical forests, and save it from extinction.

Illustration by Allan Núñez ('Nano')Medici and Juliá are studying the lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris), found in forests from northern Colombia to northern Argentina. An herbivore, it is one of three tapir species native to Latin America — the largest and rarest tapir species is found in Southeast Asia. Tapirs are the only native American members of Perissodactyla, the ancient order to which horses and rhinoceroses belong. Like their relatives, they are far from dainty, averaging six feet (195 cm) long and three feet (85 cm) high and weighing about 440 pounds (200 kg). At one end of their hefty, rotund bodies are short, stumpy tails and at the other, elongated upper lips that curve down like abbreviated elephant trunks. They use this flexible proboscis as a dining tool, sniffing out and sweeping tasty vegetation and fruits into their mouths.

Not much is known about tapirs, which move about quietly and at night. They are endangered species because their forest habitats are rapidly being logged and developed; they reproduce slowly, producing just one calf annually; and they are hugely popular game animals. In spite of their large size, they are relatively defenseless and easily tracked down by hunting dogs.

As Patricia Medici tells it, what’s easy for dogs is quite difficult for biologists. She has spent night after night for months, perched on a platform built in the canopy in Morro do Diabo State Park near São Paulo, Brazil, waiting patiently for tapirs that never appeared. She and her team eventually realized that if the animals could smell salt, an irresistible tapir lure, then they could also pick up the pungent odor of treetop biologists. So the scientists moved their platform up higher, out of tapir snout range. Experimentation revealed the best way to trap tapirs — with pitfalls dug just deep enough to prevent escape but not so deep as to cause injury.

Medici, who works for a Brazilian nonprofit group called the Institute for Ecological Research, says a trapped tapir is calm and easily jabbed with a tranquilizer dart. After the biologist takes data and attaches a radio collar to the snoozing tapir, she fills in the pitfall, so after awakening, the animal can simply trot away. Then Medici tracks the animal with a radio receiver and maps its movements.

The trapping and tracking began in 1996 in Morro do Diabo, which holds 86,450 acres (35,000 ha) of protected lowland Atlantic rainforest, one of the most endangered ecosystems on Earth. Just seven percent of this forest habitat remains, and Morro do Diabo is the largest remnant. Medici estimates that there are 400 or so tapirs in the reserve. She and her colleagues have trapped, collared, and tracked 18 tapirs over the past five years and have learned a great deal about their habits and movements.

Their findings have challenged common assumptions about these secretive animals. Tapirs were long considered to be solitary, but the residents often graze in pairs and not just in the predictable couplings of mother and calf or male and female. Tapirs are most often found near streams or other water sources and were assumed to be fairly sedentary. But the group that Medici tracked turned out to be wide ranging. “We found that they move through the landscapes, leaving the park,” she reports. “And they travel rather far, crossing human settlements and visiting other forest fragments.”

To safeguard the tapir population, Medici now wants to map their pathways and promote protection of these trails. The idea is to connect the forest fragments favored by tapirs with corridors that will give the animals safe passage. She calls the tapirs “landscape detectives,” since their own movements indicate exactly which forested corridors and remnants need restoration and protection.

She notes that tapirs are extremely important to the health and biodiversity of tropical forests, because they are among the best agents of seed dispersal. Like other mammals that are herbivores, they lack the enzymes that can digest plant cellulose, so their stomachs have separate chambers where microorganisms live and digest the vegetation. Since this isn’t a very efficient system, they must ingest large quantities of plants and fruits for sufficient energy, and then, throughout their range, expel copious amounts of droppings, which are loaded with seeds and other undigested material. Seeds dropped by roaming tapirs grow into the same plants and trees that provide future tapirs – and of course, many other animals — with future meals and shelter. “Morro do Diabo would be a very different forest if we didn’t have tapirs,” Medici acknowledges.

Tapirs disappeared from the forests of Tucumán province, in northwestern Argentina, some 60 years ago, victims of hunters and habitat loss. But Tucumán National University researchers have ambitious plans to reintroduce tapirs in two university-owned reserves.

Biologist Juan Pablo Juliá explains that the university maintains a semi-captive breeding group of seven tapirs in 494-acre (200 ha) Horco Molle Experimental Reserve. The animals are extremely popular with visitors, and so serve as important environmental education ambassadors.

The University’s “Project Tapir” would add wild tapirs to the enclosure in Horco Molle and over three years gradually release them into the wild. While Horco Molle is relatively small, the university also owns the nearby Sierra de San Javier Reserve, which holds 34,580 acres (14,000 ha). All that’s needed are forested corridors to connect the two reserves with others in the region.

“We think the tapirs can be flagship species,” Juliá says. “We can use the tapirs to change attitudes among local residents, mobilize them to support our project, and help us establish and conserve the corridors between the two reserves.”

He recognizes that initiatives to introduce wild animals to former habitat are often criticized, since they are expensive and often unsuccessful. “I think these criticisms are valid,” he responds, “but it’s a fallacy to believe that the only measure of success or failure of such a project is whether a viable population is established. You have to also consider the secondary objectives: environmental education, changed public attitudes, and conservation of areas associated with the charismatic species you are trying to introduce.”

Illegal logging and poaching are not uncommon in Tucumán, so a decrease in these activities would be one measure of project success, he notes, adding that if Project Tapir could change public attitudes, that would be an even more significant accomplishment than a reestablished wild tapir population.

In early November, Juliá and Medici traded tapir facts and figures at a weeklong conference held in Costa Rica. The First International Tapir Symposium was sponsored by the Tapir Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, the Tapir Preservation Fund and other conservation groups, zoos, and foundations. The participating scientists are working on a conservation and management plan to save all four species of these hoofed forest vegetarians.

Contacts:

Patricia Medici
IPE
Rua Sergio Bernardino
1296 Centro
AVARE – SP Brazil CEP 18700-120
Tel-fax: 55/14-721-5989
Email: epmedici@uol.com.br

J. Pablo Juliá
Univ Nac de Tucumán
Miguel Lillo 205
Tucumán 4000, Argentina
Web: www.csnat.unt.edu.ar/Reserva Horco Molle/index.htm

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