Posted by: Adam Kay | January 18, 2012

In the land of endangered species – sightings of the Baird’s tapir

In the land of endangered species – sightings of the Baird’s tapir

Liz’s picture of a male tapir on the beach in Corcovado

Our Introduction to Field Ecology course spent last week at Corcovado National Park in SW Costa Rica. This park is the largest protected area of lowland forest on the Pacific coast of Central America. Larger parks can support populations of animals that have large home ranges, special habitat requirements, or are particularly at risk when in proximity to human settlements. Many of these species – jaguars, white-lipped peccaries, and scarlet macaws – are abundant in Corcovado, and they are one of the reasons why this place is such an exciting location to visit.

Braedon’s picture of a baby tapir in the Rio Claro

Probably our most exciting animal sighting at Corcovado was the Baird’s tapir, Tapirus bairdii. Baird’s tapir is the largest non-domesticated land mammal in Central America. It used to be abundant across its range from southern Mexico to northern Columbia. However, in 2002 it was listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which estimated that there were only about 5000 tapirs left in the wild. This number is down by at least a 50% in the last 30 years, and it’s expected to drop by at least another 50% in the next 30 years.

Tapirs don’t have many natural predators. They’re big animals (about 2m long and 1m high) that are likely only attacked by big cats (jaguars and pumas) and crocodiles. These predators are themselves rare. Instead, the threats to tapirs are related to human activities: habitat loss, hunting, and transference of disease from domestic animals. About 70% of forest land in Central America has been lost in the last 40 years, and much of the remaining forest has been fragmented. Fragmentation is particularly detrimental to tapirs because small fragments are unable to maintain viable tapir populations. Even though tapir hunting is generally illegal across Central America, poaching laws are rarely enforced. Larger parks like Corcovado have guardians, but there are usually far too few park rangers to eliminate poaching. There has been speculation about disease transmission from cattle and horses. It’s probably important, but the magnitude of the threat isn’t yet known.

many of us with our honorary class member, a male tapir

Luckily for us, Corcovado still has a moderate number of tapirs and most of our group has been able to see one. Liz Chambers and Tyler Abrahamson took several pictures of a tapir on the beach. Our group kept their distance (tapirs have been known to charge humans that get too close) but they were still able to get great photos, including a nice group shot with the tapir in the background. In addition, Matt Scott took this amazing video of a male tapir walking near the ocean at low tide, and Tyler Abrahamson took this great video of a tapir in the surf. Tapirs in the surf aren’t looking for food – they eat fruit and leaves in the forest. Tapirs are good swimmers and they like to wade in the ocean or rivers to cool down and to get rid of ticks and other ectoparasites.

Spending time in Corcovado has made us think a lot about whether it’s possible to create a sustainable human society. Can we control resource use and reduce environmental degradation such that our current biodiversity is maintained over the long term? Watching a tapir walk through the surf gives me a sense of urgency; I want to help preserve places like Corcovado so that we can bring our kids and grandkids to see these amazing creatures.       

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