The four living tapir species occur in the tropics of Central America (Baird’s tapir), South America (lowland tapir, mountain tapir), and Southeast Asia (Malayan tapir). 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 lowland tapir occurs in 11 countries and 21 different biomes.
The species is currently listed as Vulnerable to Extinction by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Habitat destruction and fragmentation, with resulting population isolation, as well as hunting and road-kill are the main factors behind the decline of lowland tapir populations. Due to their individualistic lifestyle, low reproduction rate, and 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.
In 1996, Houston Zoo partner, Patrícia Medici established a long-term research and conservation program on lowland tapirs in the Atlantic Forests of São Paulo, Brazil. Over the years, this pioneer program has included studies in basic biology and ecology, habitat use, population demography, epidemiology, genetics, and threat assessments, 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 (1996-2008) has been working with local communities on the establishment of agro-forestry corridors and stepping-stones identified through telemetry studies to restore critical tapir habitat, while creating economic alternatives for local families. Results from the Atlantic Forest Tapir Program have been used to design a Regional Action Plan for Tapir Conservation in the Atlantic Forest which is currently under implementation in partnership with local stakeholders.
In order to advance scientific knowledge and promote the conservation of this widely spread but seriously imperilled large mammal, in 2008 Patrícia Medici launched the Brazil-wide Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative aiming at establishing tapir conservatin programs in other biomes of Brazil where the species occurs. The first was the Pantanal, where no tapir research had ever been conducted. The Pantanal is the largest continuous freshwater wetland on the planet, but current intensification of traditional cattle ranching practices in use for the past 200 years is threatening the biome. The main goal of Pantanal Tapir Program is to assess the status and viability of tapir populations in the region and use these results to substantiate the development of a specific set of conservation recommendations that will benefit tapirs, other wildlife and the Pantanal biome itself. Overall, the LTCI uses tapirs as ambassadors for conservation, catalyzing habitat conservation, environmental education, outreach and awareness, 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.
Since the Houston Zoo began support in 2004 there have been 57 tapirs collared for research to collect valuable information on how to protect this amazing species.
How the Zoo is helping tapirs in the wild:
- We assist with research and protection efforts to save tapirs in the wild.
- We provide funding for much needed equipment for monitoring tapirs in the wild.
- We have staff travel to Panama to assist with field research
- We assist with tapir awareness events in Panama
- We assist with the Tapir Specialist group webpage
What can you do to help tapirs in the wild:
- Learn more about the IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group and the plight of tapirs in the wild
- Donate to support the purchase of equipment to save tapirs in the wild
- Friend the Tapir Specialist Group on Facebook for updates on tapirs in the wild
- Some wood products we buy here in the US are made by destroying tapir habitat. Become an informed shopper about furniture and other wood products. Whenever possible, choose locally sourced wood and don’t buy anything that is made of imported wood.
- Visit the Houston Zoo, every time you visit the Zoo a portion of your admission goes directly to saving animals in the wild.