Tapirs: Endangered ‘Gardeners of the Forest’

Believed to have existed for forty million years, but now facing extinction, tapirs are Nicaragua’s largest terrestrial mammals. They play an important role in the ecology as seed dispersers and are often referred to as the ‘gardeners of the forest’ in their habitat along the Caribbean Coast of this exotic Central American country. In an effort to boost the tapir population in the wild, tapirs born in captivity at the Nicaraguan National Zoo located in Masaya are being released into their natural habitat, where researchers will track them by means of a satellite telemetry system.

Although data on the tapir population in Nicaragua is sketchy, the fact that these reclusive animals are decreasing in number is undisputed. Local estimates are that the tapir population has dwindled to around 500 individuals and conservationists estimate that they could become extinct in the next twenty to thirty years if steps are not taken to prevent this. In order to carry out a successful intervention, researchers needed to establish how far the tapir’s habitat range extends. To do this they used motion-sensor camera traps to capture pictures of animals in a number of areas over a period of three years.

The resulting data revealed that the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua is home to the largest number of tapirs in Mesoamerica, particularly in the Indio-Maíz Biosphere Reserve and the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve that in the past was joined by a so-called genetic corridor. Unfortunately, the development of highways and oil palm plantations has broken this corridor, while habitat destruction for agriculture and other developments continues unabated. Add to this the continued problem of illegal hunting and illegal pet trade, conservationists are facing a tough battle to preserve the tapir.

Quite similar in shape to a pig, tapirs have a short, prehensile snout that is able to move in all directions and grab foliage to eat. Adults can reach two meters in length and stand about one meter tall at the shoulder, weighing up to 300 kgs. The fact that their gestation period is 13 months, and only a single youngster is born every two years is another factor in the tapir’s dwindling numbers. They spend most of their waking hours foraging for fruit, berries and leaves, and enjoy wallowing in water which they sometimes do for hours.

Through the combined efforts of Proyecto Tapir Nicaragua, an initiative of the Nicaraguan National Zoo, and the Caribbean Coast Regional Autonomous University, the Foundation for the Autonomy and Development of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, Michigan State University and other interested parties, the future of the tapir population in Nicaragua looks promising and stands a reasonable chance of being rescued from extinction.