Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative

To establish long-term tapir research and conservation programmes in Brazil


The four living species of tapirs 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. The species is currently listed by the IUCN as “Vulnerable” in the categories A2cde+3cde (IUCN Red List 2008). Additionally, lowland tapirs are listed in CITES Appendix II (2005), and as Endangered in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service list.

Tapirs play a critical role in shaping and maintaining biological diversity, and function as an indicator species of the health of various tropical biomes, and are critical species to key ecological processes, for example, seed predation and dispersal, as well as nutrient recycling. Additionally, the tapir has been widely recognized as a landscape species and can help us investigate and interpret the landscape interrelatedness, and demonstrate the importance of protecting this mosaic of different habitat types found in a given biome.

The IUCN/SSC Tapir Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan (Medici et al. 2007) along with previous results from field projects suggest that lowland tapirs are threatened, primarily by habitat degradation and hunting. Both these factors work in synergy to reduce and isolate tapir populations. The small size of populations, associated with isolation, exposes them to increased demographic, genetic, and environmental pressure, dramatically increasing the probabilities of local extinctions. Population decreases and local extinctions can trigger adverse effects in the ecosystem, causing disruptions of ecological processes, and eventually compromising the long-term integrity and biodiversity of the ecosystem.

Tapir populations occur mostly outside of protected areas, where the more severe effects of habitat degradation are being felt. As such, the tapir is in particular danger, because the effects of isolation and the small population size are exacerbated by the tapir’s intrinsically low reproductive rate (inter-birth interval of two years; generally only one young per pregnancy; start breeding at an age of three years), making it harder for populations to recover.

Due to tapirs important role in shaping and maintaining biological diversity, their recognition as an important landscape species, and their threatened status, there is an urgent need to establish conservation projects aiming at developing and implementing long-term, integrated conservation and management plans for tapir populations in all biomes and countries of occurrence.

"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 policy-making. Tapirs are such a keystone species."


The Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative aims to establish a long-term Tapir Research and Conservation Programs in all key Brazilian biomes. Specifically, basic ecology, population demography, habitat use and animal movement, genetic profile, and health status will be evaluated in each biome. The main goals of this project are to use the data collected to assess the conservation status and viability of the lowland tapir populations in the Brazilian biomes, and to design specific set of recommendations for the conservation of the species in each one of them. Furthermore, data gathered in each biome will be entered into a database and analysed comparatively with information coming from other biomes. Through the use of this comparative perspective, we will be better prepared to understand the importance and magnitude of the ecological factors affecting lowland tapir populations throughout their distribution range.

In 1996, Patrícia Medici started a long-term Lowland Tapir Research and Conservation Program in the Atlantic Forest of the Pontal do Paranapanema Region, São Paulo, Brazil, which she slowly built into what is considered today a model for multidisciplinary conservation efforts. This program has included studies in ecology, population demography, epidemiology, genetics, habitat use and effects of habitat fragmentation, as well as promotion of community involvement, environmental education and habitat restoration efforts. One of the main achievements of the Atlantic Forest Tapir Program has been providing scientific information to restore critical tapir habitat (corridors and stepping-stones) identified through telemetry studies. Results of the project are currently being used to design a Regional Action Plan for Tapir Research and Conservation in the Atlantic Forest biome which will be implemented throughout the next years.

In order to advance scientific knowledge and promote the conservation of this widely spread but seriously imperiled large mammal, Patrícia has now launched a country-wide Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative that will establish tapir research and conservation programs in other key biomes of Brazil. The first of these is a new Lowland Tapir Research and Conservation Program in the Brazilian Pantanal, where no tapir research has ever been conducted. The Pantanal is increasingly threatened. Deforestation is now widespread throughout the region, threatening tapirs and other wildlife with local extinction.

The Pantanal Tapir Program was established in 2008. 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 be used as the basis for the design of a specific set of recommendations for the conservation of the species in the Pantanal. Some of these recommendations will certainly include strategies for population and habitat conservation and management, reinforcement of public protection in existing protected areas, establishment of new protected areas, and promotion of conservation awareness among local landowners. Tapirs will be used as ambassadors for conservation in the Pantanal, catalyzing habitat conservation efforts, environmental education, as well as training and capacity-building and scientific tourism initiatives.

The next biomes where the initiative will be established in the near future are the Amazon and Cerrado. 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 priority actions included in the new IUCN/TSG Lowland Tapir Action Plan resulting from the Lowland Tapir PHVA Workshop held in 2007.

WAZA Conservation Project 09007
is implemented by the IPÊ - Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas (Institute for Ecological Research - Patrícia Medici) and is supported by the Copenhagen Zoo, European Association of Zoos & Aquaria (EAZA), Tapir Taxon Advisory Group (TAG), Sorocaba Zoo, Hotel Fazenda Baía das Pedras, Idea Wild, Instituto Florestal do Estado de São Paulo, Parque Estadual Morro do Diabo, IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group (TSG), IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG), Pousada Xaraés e Fazenda Nossa Senhora do Carmo, WildTrack, and is financially supported by AAZK - American Association of Zoo Keepers, Puget Sound Chapter, Brevard Zoo Conservation Fund, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Columbus Zoological Park Association Inc., Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo & Jim Knox’s Wild Zoofari, Houston Zoo Inc., John Ball Zoo Society, Wildlife Conservation Fund, Nashville Zoo at Grassmere, Oregon Zoo Future for Nature Conservation Fund, SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, Whitley Fund for Nature & Whitley Awards 2008, Chester Zoo, North of England Zoological Society, Givskud Zoo, Dutch Foundation Zoos Help, Emmen Zoo, Golden Ark Foundation & Golden Ark Award 2008, Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Parc Zoologique CERZA Lisieux, Parc Zoologique d’Amnéville, ZooParc de Beauval, and private donors.


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