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Tapirs: Keystone Species for Conservation 

The four living tapir species occur in the tropics of Central America (Baird’s tapir, Tapirus bairdii), South America lowland tapir, T. terrestris,and mountain tapir, T. pinchaque), and Southeast Asia (Malayan tapir, T. indicus).  The lowland tapir has the broadest range of the four species extending from north-central Colombia and east of the Andes throughout most of tropical South America down to north-eastern Argentina and Paraguay at elevations up to 2,000 masl.  The species occurs in 11 countries and 21 different biomes.

The lowland tapir is currently listed as VULNERABLE TO EXTINCTION in the categories A2cde+3cde (IUCN 2008). The previous Red List Assessment (IUCN 1996) had lowland tapirs categorized as Lower Risk, meaning that the species status has deteriorated over a 12-year period. Additionally, lowland tapirs are listed in CITES Appendix II (CITES 2005), and as Endangered on the USFWS list. In Brazil, the species is listed as follows: Amazon: LEAST CONCERN; Atlantic Forest: ENDANGERED; Caatinga: REGIONALLY EXTINCT; Cerrado: ENDANGERED; Pantanal: NEAR THREATENED (ICMBIO 2011). The Amazon and the Pantanal are the last strongholds for the species in Brazil.

The Lowland Tapir Conservation Action Plan published by the IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group in 2007 identified habitat destruction/fragmentation with resulting population isolation, as well as hunting as the main factors behind the decline of lowland tapir populations throughout their geographic range. Due to their individualistic lifestyle, low reproduction rate, long generation time, and relatively low population density lowland tapirs do not achieve a high local abundance, which makes them highly susceptible to threats. Populations show rapid decline when impacted. A large part of the lowland tapir populations are found outside the boundaries of legally protected areas, which hinders their protection.

Tapirs are widely recognized as “umbrella species” (species with large area requirements, which if given sufficient protected habitat area, will bring many other species under protection). Meeting the needs of an umbrella species provides protection for the species with which it co-occurs and the wild lands on which they all depend. In addition, tapirs are “landscape species” (species that occupy large home ranges often extending beyond protected area boundaries, which require a diversity of ecosystem types and have a significant impact on the structure, productivity and resilience of ecosystems). The movements of landscape species can functionally link different habitat types within a given landscape. The elimination of a landscape species may undermine these functional links and lead to cascading changes in ecological communities or even the loss of the ecosystem functions critical to the persistence of other species, communities, and the larger landscape itself. Lastly, tapirs play a critical role in shaping the structure and maintaining the functioning of ecosystems, mostly through seed dispersal and browsing, and thus have been recognized as “ecological engineers” as well as “gardeners of the forest.” Tapir population declines and local extinctions can seriously impact biodiversity.

Project History

Patrícia Medici has created and has been leading since1996 along-term research and conservation program on lowland tapirs in the Atlantic Forests of the Pontal do Paranapanema Region, São Paulo, Brazil. This program has included studies in basic biology and ecology, population demography, epidemiology, genetics, habitat use and effects of habitat fragmentation, as well as promotion of community involvement through sustainable development, environmental education and habitat restoration efforts. One of the main achievements of the Atlantic Forest Tapir Program has been working with local communities on the establishment of agro-forestry projects to restore critical tapir habitat (corridors, stepping-stones, areas of multiple use) identified through telemetry studies, while creating economic alternatives for local families. Results from the Atlantic Forest Tapir Program (1996-2008) have been used to design a Regional Action Plan for Tapir Conservation in the Atlantic Forest which is currently under implementation in partnership with several local stakeholders.

The Atlantic Forest Tapir Program has demonstrated that the tapir is a keystone species that plays a critical role in shaping forest structure and maintaining biological diversity, and is essential for key ecological processes such as seed dispersal and predation. Ecological research of keystone species generates information to guide habitat conservation initiatives, as well as to promote education and local community participation. This will then lead to landscape conservation efforts that will ultimately influence decision- and policy-making. The research and conservation of keystone species can help design the necessary steps to safeguard a biome and influence policies.

To  advance scientific knowledge and promote the conservation of this widely spread but seriously imperilled large mammal, in 2008 Patrícia Medici expanded the IPÊ’s efforts and launched a Brazil-wide Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative aiming at establishing tapir conservation programs in other Brazilian biomes where the species occurs. The first of these was the Pantanal, where no tapir research has ever been conducted.

The Pantanal Tapir Program was established in 2008, at the Hotel Fazenda Baía das Pedras in the Nhecolândia sub-region of the Pantanal, State of Mato Grosso do Sul. The main goals of this new long-term program are to collect ecological, demographic, epidemiological and genetic data to assess the conservation status and viability of tapir populations in the Brazilian Pantanal. As in the Atlantic Forest, results will, once again, substantiate the development and implementation of a specific set of conservation recommendations that will benefit tapirs, other wildlife and the Pantanal biome itself.

The Pantanal Tapir Program uses tapirs as ambassadors for conservation in the region, catalyzing habitat conservation efforts, environmental education and outreach, training and capacity-building, and scientific tourism initiatives. In the near future, the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative will establish similar programs in the Amazon and Cerrado biomes. Tapir programs in each biome will aim to benefit tapirs as well as a large number of other species and key habitats while having long-term positive impacts on the local communities. The combined database of tapir information coming from different Brazilian biomes will contribute to the process of implementing the IUCN/TSG Lowland Tapir Action Plan and for the design of a National Action Plan for Tapir Conservation in Brazil.