On Monday, at the TEDGlobal 2014 Fellows stage, Brazilian tapir conservationist Patricia Medici called for the protection of the elusive yet ecologically essential South American lowland tapir. Curious, we asked her to share more about this species and the dangers they face. She gives us a few facts to remember about these fascinating animals.
1. Tapirs are considered living fossils. They’ve been around since the Eocene, having survived several waves of extinction. It’s pretty amazing they’re still around, especially as they reproduce very slowly — with a gestation period of 14 months — and only one offspring is born at a time. If a certain population’s numbers decline due to deforestation, disease, hunting, roadkill, and so on, it’s very hard for the population to recover. In fact, it reaches a certain point where there are no populations to speak of, only individuals lost in the landscape. They can be persistent and adaptable in isolation, which is why they’ve managed to survive for so long, but their genetics get compromised.
2. Tapirs are called “gardeners of the forest.” Tapirs move great distances between various kinds of habitats as they travel from forest to forest, providing a functional link between them. They eat fruit in one place, swallow the seeds, walk long distances, and defecate on the way — creating a genetic flow between habitats. Many other animals play this role, but because tapirs eat enormous amounts of fruit, they distribute an enormous quantity of seeds. Forest structures and diversity would be very different without the presence of tapirs.
3. Even though South American lowland tapirs are threatened, it can be hard to convince people that this is the case. These tapirs live in four different biomes: in the Atlantic forest, in the Pantanal, in the Amazon, and in the Cerrado. Their wide distribution makes people think that tapirs are plentiful, but in reality, the biomes are not connected — there’s only 7% of the Atlantic forest left, and the Cerrado is going pretty much the same direction. The edges of the Amazon are being cleared as we speak. So really, we have only small, isolated populations of tapirs in South America. Still, every year conservationists must fight to keep the lowland tapir on the IUCN list.
4. Tapirs, which happen to be South America’s largest land mammals, are hunted for their meat, demolishing populations within the Amazon. A recent study of indigenous hunting practices in the Amazon revealed that the areas immediately surrounding a particular tribe were devoid of mammals. There are huge gaps with no tapirs, peccaries, agouti, everything — in a place where deforestation hasn’t even started yet.
5. If you want to call someone a jackass in Brazil, you call them a tapir, or “anta” in Portuguese – misjudging the animal as stupid and not worthy of saving. I prefer to compare tapirs with jaguars – powerful and majestic – but unfortunately people in Brazil don’t care about tapirs. That’s something I am working hard to change.