The Wooly Tapir of the Cloud Forests- High in the cloud forests of Colombia, Ecuador, and northern Peru, a peculiar creature tromps through the landscape with surprisingly agile and dainty toed feet—the tapir. The largest animal in South America and one that has been around since the Eocene era, 10 million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs. While less known than other animals like rhinos and elephants, tapirs are still getting more familiar in the general public and winning people over with their wobbly, snuffling noses.
Our partners at Spectacled Bear Conservation are usually looking for spectacled bears, but in this instance, they captured the handsome face of a mountain tapir on their camera trap, the smallest of the four tapir species– Mountain, Lowland, Baird’s, and Malayan. Tapirs are built like a solid block of muscle with a remarkably thick hide to protect them from the thick vegetation of their environment and the predators they encounter. The mountain tapir has a distinctive wooly fur coat that keep them warm during the freezing nights in their mountain home and earns them the nickname “wooly tapir.” The dark fur covers their whole body, especially on their underside and flanks, but the adults have two hair-free patches in the rump, which may indicate sexual maturity. Bands of white fur circle their lips and the tips of their ears. Like all tapirs, they have a flexible nose, otherwise known as a proboscis, connected to their lips and snout which gives them an extraordinary sense of smell.
At one time the biggest threat to mountain tapirs was hunting, but in recent years increased legislation in some regions of their range have lowered that as a threat. Nevertheless, poachers can still obtain high prices for their body parts as a folk cure for ailments, such as heart disease, epilepsy, and as an aphrodisiac which has accelerated their rate of decline. There are fewer than 2,000 individuals left in the wild, and as serious as poaching is, the destruction of their habitat and the further encroachment of humans is the greatest threat they face. Habitat fragmentation caused by the conversion of forests to agriculture and cattle ranching forces the elusive tapir to move out of their natural homes and deeper into the forests, where the climate is less ideal. As sensitive animals that avoid confrontation, tapirs would rather do that than compete for food with domestic cattle or have their water be polluted. As humans continue to encroach into their space in many different ways, the tapirs choices for ideal environments are dwindling away.
Conflicts involving armies, guerrillas, and paramilitaries who stay camped out in forests are an additional stress to the mountain tapir population. Much of the forest which the tapirs depend on are cleared out to plant poppy fields to cultivate opium and to produce other illegal narcotics. Tapir field researchers and conservationists can be considered a threat to the armies who won’t let them into their occupied territory to monitor the tapirs.
Hydroelectric dams, petroleum exploration, and many other forms of human land development all break up the mountain tapirs habitat. Freeway crossings and roadways can be especially deadly to all species of tapirs and is a threat that many tapir conservationist try to counteract with reflective radio collars, campaigns to control the speed limit, and the creation of more wildlife corridors (additional new areas that are linked together) to keep tapirs off the road. They might be a species that is a living fossil which evolved around 55 million years ago but they’re still no match for a truck speeding down a freeway at high speeds in the Andes mountains. Many proposed roads could make it easier for poachers to enter and move around the park and without enough park rangers to protect them, illegal hunting of tapirs and other wildlife could continue to escalate.
Mountain tapirs are in high danger of extinction but are fortunate to be protected by law in a number of protected reserves throughout their range in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. They are protected by Appendix I of CITES which restricts international trade of the animals and their parts, but illegal hunting within is still a threat. Habitat preservation is the most important measure. Only by managing these reserves and creating additional wildlife corridors can the tapir survive.
A small handful of breeding pairs live in zoos but with such limited genetic diversity, the zoos are instead focusing on protecting wild populations of all four species of tapirs by educating the public about the dire situation they’re in and supporting expert conservationists in the field like the Tapir Specialist Group (TSG). Founded in 1980, TSG’s mission is to advocate for tapirs around the world, including the mountain tapir, through scientific research and promoting conservation programs that will ensure this charismatic but shy species continues to thrive in its mountain home.