The endangered lowland tapir in South America

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They have been around since the Eocene and have survived waves of extinction – but as with many other species, the lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris) is now seriously threatened. Its original range has been reduced by more than 98% and human activity is the main driver.

Image credit: Flickr/Vonguard.

The plains tapir is the largest land mammal native to South America. It weighs up to 250 kilograms (550 pounds) and can adapt to almost any habitat on the continent. Tapirs can also move over any terrain and are excellent swimmers, hiding when pursued by predators. They have a diet of over 200 plant species, eating fruits, leaves, twigs, bark, and even soil. All in all, it’s an adaptable creature with plenty of evolutionary advantages up its sleeve.

However, tapirs have low reproductive potential, with offspring after a gestation of 13 months and birth intervals of up to three years. This makes them vulnerable to population declines by predators. Tapirs are also relatively easy to track, especially by humans, as their habit of fleeing to water does not work against humans. Roadkill is also a significant cause of tapir mortality, and they are also vulnerable to habitat destruction. In recent years, this has weighed heavily on their population.

At the beginning of the 16and century, tapirs could be found throughout the Atlantic Forest, which covers Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. But over the past 500 years, the situation has changed dramatically. around 19and century, tapirs were eradicated from coastal areas and lower slopes. Hunters extirpated most populations between the 1950s and 1970s. Human infrastructure did the rest.

Kevin Flesher of the Center for Biodiversity Studies and Patrícia Medici, coordinator of the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative, began studying tapirs in 1996, when their conservation status was largely unknown. Since then, they’ve visited over 90 reservations in the Atlantic Forest, talked to people, and also analyzed 217 sets of dates. He can now tell a full and heartbreaking story.

The Challenged Tapir

The study showed that there are at least 48 tapir populations in the Atlantic Forest, with the population ranging from 2,665 to 15,992 species occupying approximately 26,000 square kilometers of forest. Tapirs have suffered a 98% reduction in their range since the arrival of Europeans and have been removed from northern Bahia and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Hunting has been the main driver of tapir decline, and in 14 of the populations studied, tapir deaths have been confirmed. Hunting still takes place in more than 95% of the forests inhabited by tapirs. Highways are also a big threat. The study identified roadkill as a cause of death in six of the eight reservations located near highways.

The black-spotted area represents the geographic boundaries and fragmentation pattern of the Atlantic Forest. Each number refers to a particular population. Image credit: The Researchers.

But there are also reasons for optimism. Key populations still survive and we now know what the biggest threats are.

Some tapir populations remain in all of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest states, Argentina’s Misiones province and nine forest reserves in Paraguay, the researchers found. The most important populations are those of Misiones and the neighboring reserves of Iguaçu and Turvo, respectively in Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul.

In the long term, researchers believe isolation is the main threat, with nearly 94% of tapir populations vulnerable to extinction over the next century due to their small size. The Atlantic Forest has been largely fragmented over the years due to deforestation, with most forests being less than 50 hectares.

The researchers called for urgent action to connect the isolated tapir population and ensure their long-term conservation. They are cautiously optimistic for the future, because after decades of conservation efforts, the situation is starting to improve. Tapir populations appear to be stable or increasing, which is a much better prospect than what we have seen in the past – although these are still only the first stages of an uphill battle.

As with tapirs, the world is facing a great biodiversity crisis, which some have called the sixth mass extinction; a human-caused extinction. The size of wildlife populations has fallen by two-thirds globally since the 1970s, according to WWF’s 2020 Living Planet report. Nearly 70% of the decline is due to land conversion for agriculture and wildlife trade. The story of tapirs is that of many other animals, and we must act quickly if we are to ensure that we do not wipe out these populations from the face of the planet.

The study was published in the journal Neotropical.

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