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Conservation Impact

South and Central American Wildlife

The Zoo partners with wildlife-saving organizations in Central and South America to protect the wild counterparts of the animals we have at the Zoo. Since 2004, the Zoo has provided support and training for people running research programs that protect giant anteaters, giant armadillos, giant otters, jaguars, and tapirs in Central and South America. The Zoo also provides support for research programs that replant and protect forests in Colombia for wildlife like howler monkeys and blue-billed curassows. The research collected in these programs informs future wildlife protection plans in Central and South America.

Conservation Partners

The Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative-Institute for Ecological Research (IPE) was developed by Founder and Director Dr. Patricia Medici as a nation-wide, long-term research and conservation program. This effort focuses on tapirs as ambassadors for the conservation of regions in Brazil where they occur, initiating habitat conservation, environmental education, local training and capacity building, and tourism initiatives.

The major threats to the species in the region are reduction of habitat connectivity, collisions with vehicles on roads, overuse of pesticides on agricultural land and competition with domestic livestock.

The Houston Zoo has been working closely with this program since 2000 in support of field research, educational activities and staff capacity building.

  • Program is largest tapir conservation effort in the world. Since its inception in 1996, LTCI has collected data on over 150 individual tapirs including 95 in the Pantanal with a focus on social organization, reproduction and habitat use.
  • Students, teachers, school coordinators and principals in rural and urban schools, including landowners, farm, and ranch employees, are reached through environmental education programs focused on the tapir as a flagship species.
  • To train the conservationists of the future and build capacity for effective conservation, the program trains wildlife veterinarians, Brazilian undergraduate and post-graduate students and conservation professionals.

These nocturnal vegetarians are wide-ranging and responsible for browsing down vegetation and dispersing seeds, making them “the Gardeners of the Forest.” Prior to the beginning of the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative, little was known about the health of their populations or their habits. Thanks to their radio-collar and camera-trapping studies across the region, the team has learned that the Pantanal is the most stronghold for the species and are working with local landowners, schools, and the media to increase public interest and understanding of tapirs and involving them in conservation efforts.


The Houston Zoo has partnered with the Giant Armadillo Project to protect wildlife in the Pantanal for 10 years.  The Zoo provides support and training for a number of conservation professional staff, including Brazilian veterinarians and biologists, and has assisted in the support of numerous Ph.D. and Masters students. Founder and Director, Dr. Arnaud Desbiez, assisted the Zoo with designing our the Pantanal exhibit. Several of his Giant Armadillo Project staff have traveled to the Houston Zoo for leadership and veterinary training from Zoo staff, and have assisted with several of the Zoo’s education programs.

Fire, conflicts with landowners, and being struck by cars on roads contribute to the decline of this species. Due to the large size of adult giant armadillos, these animals also face the threat of becoming a preferred hunting target of local communities and subsistence hunters. The Houston Zoo has supported our conservation partner’s work to address these threats and discover more about the ecology and natural behavior of this little-known species and understand its role in the ecosystem.

Through the efforts of the Giant Armadillo Project staff, and their contributions in both scientific journals and popular media, the world now knows more about this species and its crucial role in the lives of many species in the South American landscape. By monitoring burrows with camera traps our conservation partners have collected over 55,000 camera trap images offering insight into development of offspring and activity levels of both adults and juveniles. Considered an ecosystem engineer (an animal that provides food and shelter for other wildlife from its activities), over 70 different species of wildlife have been documented using abandoned giant armadillo burrows as a thermal refuge, shelter against predators, and as a feeding ground.

The Houston Zoo provides support and training for the Anteaters and Highways Conservation Project in Brazil where some of the largest remaining populations of giant anteaters exist. Today, Brazil is fragmented by an ever-increasing network of roads. Giant anteaters are among some of the most frequently killed animals on these roads.

To address this threat, our conservation partners collect data on why, when, and how giant anteaters interact with roadways from individual animals that have been fitted with tracking devices. The team of field researchers and veterinarians work to follow tagged individuals to assess the impact of roads on giant anteater populations in Brazil. Research results will provide insight into anteater movement patterns and inform road management strategies in Brazil.

Our partners are protecting giant anteaters by:

  • Quantifying the impact of highways on giant anteater populations.
  • Evaluating the effect on species behavior, population structure, and health.
  • Researching the effect roads have on giant anteater populations.


The Houston Zoo provides support and training for Brazilian conservation partners, Projeto Ariranhas. This team led by Dr. Caroline Leuchtenberger has been generating scientific knowledge about giant river otters for almost 15 years and many of these studies are the backbone in developing Brazilian and global protection plans for this species. Throughout the entire distribution of giant otters, their population is declining due to contamination of rivers and loss of riparian vegetation which is caused by gold mining, agriculture and other human activities. Human conflicts with the species are also common and many times are motivated by the idea that the species is competing for local fish or is dangerous.

Uninformed tour guides on the rivers can also pose a threat. High traffic and loud tour boats that approach quickly, may scare the otters, disrupt feeding, and lead to pup mortality. The Houston Zoo provides support and training for Projeto Ariranhas to provide workshops for local tourism guides in Brazil. They teach them to lead giant otter-safe and jaguar-safe tours so that local people and wildlife in the region can safely and successfully benefit from ecotourism.

Currently Projeto Ariranhas is looking at:

  • Evaluation of the impact of tourism on the population dynamics of giant otters in the Pantanal.
  • Creation of guidelines to guide tourist activities for giant otter observation in the Pantanal
  • Evaluation of spatial models for studying giant otters.
  • Workshops to train fisherman and tourism professionals to maintain distance to reduce stress on giant otters and jaguars and conduct giant otter observation activities in the Pantanal
  • Giant otter-focused environmental education programs for local rural schools in the Pantanal.


The Houston Zoo has been very successful with breeding blue-billed curassows over the years. The wild population of the blue-billed curassow is decreasing due to habitat loss and hunting pressure. Zoo staff have been working closely with the Barranquilla Zoo and other Colombian zoos to strengthen their captive reproduction efforts for this species with the long-term goal of reintroducing birds into the wild to restore the population in their historic range in Colombia.

The Zoo is providing support for Colombian conservation partners to protect wildlife and forests in Colombia. Proyecto Tití assists in the conservation and protection of the cotton-top tamarin habitat, which is in decline. Many other species you see at the Zoo, such as the howler monkey and ocelot, depend on this habitat, and this area at one time also hosted blue-billed curassows. The Houston Zoo, Proyecto Tití, and Barranquilla Zoo are conducting monitoring efforts that include camera-trap grids and community interviews in the region to identify if the curassows continue to remain within their historical range.

The Zoo also provides support for Proyecto Tití’s forest replanting and restoration efforts and local education and awareness programs that find solutions to mitigate the threat of hunting and extraction of wildlife for the pet trade in the area.


Inside Videos

KPRC Special: "Saving Wildlife: Giants of the Pantanal"

Giant Armadillo Release

More Conservation Impact