Introducing “The Avengers” for Baird’s Tapir Conservation

World Tapir Day is celebrated on April 27th, and this year we would like to introduce you to some superheroes who are fighting for the conservation of these awesome, amazing animals that are not as well-known as they need to be.

In 2018, Global Wildlife Conservation, the Houston Zoo, the IUCN Tapir Specialist Group, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s International Affairs Program convened Central America’s tapir conservation experts and allies, forming the Baird’s Tapir Survival Alliance, which seeks to make the tapir better known, and unite Central America’s conservation heroes to save the species from extinction.

Credit: Nick Hawkins / Nai Conservation

The Baird’s Tapir is an Important Hero

The Baird’s Tapir is more important ecologically, economically, and culturally to Central America than you might have known — it’s an essential part of the plot to what makes the forests of the region thrive. In fact, we would not be surprised if this is your first time hearing about these cool animals! Here’s more:

Elusive and mysterious, and known as the “Gardeners of the Forest,” Baird’s tapirs are the largest terrestrial mammal in Central America. They consume over 200 different species of plants, seeds, and fruits. Their size makes them among the few large animals that are capable of dispersing the seeds of slow growing trees with dense wood, including the wild almond tree. These trees provide food and habitat for many other animals, such as macaws. This means that if tapirs are driven to extinction, a chain effect will likewise threaten many other plant and animal species that are reliant upon the seed dispersal provided by tapirs.

A baby tapir with its mom. Credit: Nick Hawkins / Nai Conservation

Current estimates indicate that there are only about 4,500 tapirs left, as the threats posed by poaching and habitat destruction continue to lower their numbers. Conserving tapirs and the large forests they live in is essential to helping safeguard the timber, water, and botanical resources that are available in the region. It’s essential that people unite to save them. Who are these superheroes leading the way?

Meet the Avengers

Chris Jordan

Known As: The Convener

Superhero Power: Whistles like a tapir to reunite the Alliance when needed.

Working In: Central America

Backstory: Chris began his work with tapirs in Nicaragua in 2009 while working toward his PhD with Michigan State University. He met several tapirs while doing research in the lowland rainforests of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast and never looked back. He currently works as Global Wildlife Conservation’s (GWC) Central America and Tropical Andes coordinator and is an Associate Scientist for Panthera. He is also a member of the IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group and a National Geographic Explorer. He collaborates with a diversity of organizations, indigenous peoples, and governments across the Americas to implement wildlife and wildlands conservation projects; his regional role helps him to push rangewide efforts for the Baird’s tapir and to serve as a neutral facilitator able to convene diverse groups of stakeholders and work with them to develop conservation solutions.

How He’s Fighting for Tapirs: Even though superheroes have their own adventures, rangewide collaboration is essential to overcome the threats facing Baird’s tapirs and to help the Alliance persevere through challenging times. Chris is the Convener of the Baird’s Tapir Survival Alliance. He has helped to organize trainings for the Alliance team members to make them stronger individually and as a team. In addition to helping them further bolster their skills in fundraising, communications, and conservation planning, Chris helps to shape the vision for the Alliance, and encourages the team to take actions both in their countries and regionally to collectively ensure that tapirs thrive for generations to come.

Credit: Untamed Science — R. Nelson

Ninon Meyer

Known As: Macha de monte ( Macho de monte is tapir in Panama)

Superhero Power: Can smell tapirs in the rainforest and track them.

Working In: Panama

Backstory: Ninon started working in Panama in 2011 when she did a camera trapping study with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Her interest for tapirs was triggered when she saw her first tapir track in Soberania National Park where the species was thought to be close to extinction. She committed to work on tapir conservation a couple of years later in 2014 when she visited fellow Alliance members Chris and Armando’s project in Nicaragua. She fell into a tapir trap and was brainwashed… Although she has worked in many remote forest sites across Panama, currently her main efforts are in Darien National Park. There and together with a Panamanian colleague from Fundacion Yaguara Panama, she has helped establish a mammal monitoring program which focuses on tapirs, locally known as ‘macho de monte’ or ‘danda’ in the Embera indigenous language. Living with an Embera family enabled her to learn about their culture and understand some of their daily challenges in order to identify effective strategies that would benefit both people and forest resources, and eventually help conserve tapirs and wildlife. Since the project started, hunting pressure has considerably decreased in the area.

How She’s Fighting for Tapirs: Ninon is training members from an Embera indigenous community living next to Panama’s Darien National Park to do SMART patrols as a strategy to foster involvement of indigenous people in the activities and co-management of the park. The national park is a stronghold for tapirs in Panama and the region, but they are threatened by poaching and habitat destruction driven by activities such as illegal timber extraction. Teaming up the community patrollers will provide the authorities in charge of the park management an additional direct input of information that is necessary for law enforcement, detering threats and ultimately help protect tapirs and other wildlife.

Esteban Brenes-Mora

Known As: The great-Danto

Superhero Power: With psychic powers he uses “the Force” to reach peoples’ minds, leading them to be part of tapir conservation.

Working In: Costa Rica

Backstory: When Esteban was a kid, his grandfather exposed him to multiple Mesoamerican wildlife images and stories. At the age of five, he saw his first tapir in the wild. Since then his passion for the species has led him to study biology, specialized in conservation and wildlife management. He created a tapir-conservation group in Costa Rica: Nai Conservation.

How He’s Fighting for Tapirs: Esteban has been working for nearly five years tackling tapir threats, initially developing roadkill mitigation measures. He is researching and piloting several projects with farmers living near Costa Rican tapir habitats to learn if there is the potential for tapir-based ecotourism or added value products such as “Tapir-Friendly” crops. Costa Rica’s situation is unique in Central America, as the establishment of protected areas and ecotourism in Costa Rica has caused a recovery of wildlife populations, including tapirs. This has led to an increase in interactions between tapirs and people, including conflict with farmers where tapirs raid crops causing major losses. Farmers often end up killing the tapir. Esteban’s work aims to reduce these conflicts and achieve co-existence by developing and boosting tapir-based economic activities.

Additional Heroes in Costa Rica: Mauricio Sanabria (The Resilient), Sofía Pastor (Mystic-Land), Nicole Leroy-Beaulieu, Cristina Aguilar (Foresta), Jorge Rojas (Long-snout), Patri Blanco, Juan Carlos Delgado, Vilmar Villegas (El Danto Mayor), Lucia C. Montero

Armando Dans

Known As: El Gato de Monte ‘Mountain Cat’

Superhero Power: Ability to track tapirs near water, swamps, and tapir trails. Ability to chase poachers.

Working In: Nicaragua

Backstory: Armando is a young Nicaraguan conservationist who has worked in remote forested areas on the East Coast of Nicaragua. He has led terrestrial biodiversity monitoring field expeditions for Michigan State University (MSU) using camera traps, has assessed jaguar poaching, and completed occupancy surveys with Panthera-Nicaragua. Armando works with the recently-established Nicaragua Tapir Project of MSU working with Dr. Gerald Urquhart & Dr. Christopher Jordan. He is currently an associate conservationist of Global Wildlife Conservation as field coordinator of the Nicaragua Tapir Project.

How He’s Fighting for Tapirs: The South Caribbean coast of Nicaragua is where approximately 50% of Nicaragua’s tapirs live. It has been a deforestation hotspot in recent years. A 2013–2014 study indicated that poaching of tapirs has increased considerably in the region since 2000 along with increased deforestation. If these trends continue, tapir populations could disappear in 10–15 years. Armando is leading actions to increase tapir knowledge and to help local indigenous and Afro-descendant communities to protect their territories where tapirs live. He is also working with indigenous communities and territorial & regional governments to develop a conservation plan for tapirs in the region. He recently helped establish an indigenous conservation area for tapirs, basing it on reliable data of where tapirs live and securing it with joint conservation management agreements.

Additional Heroes in Nicaragua: Juan Mendoza

Nereyda Estrada

Known As: LadyDanta

Superhero Power: Enchanting people to love tapirs.

Working In: Honduras

Backstory: Nereyda got involved in tapir conservation in Honduras approximately 15 years ago. In 2002, she met Patricia Medici, one of the world leaders in the conservation of tapirs. Patricia invited her to take part as a volunteer for the IUCN Tapir Specialist Group. Nereyda has collaborated on tapir distribution and population status research in Honduras, as well as in awareness and educational campaigns. She studied biology and as a graduate student at the University of Costa Rica, her research was focused on large mammals in Corcovado National Park. Today, she serves as a professor at the Biology School of Honduran National University.

How She’s Fighting for Tapirs: Habitat loss and poaching are the main threats to Baird`s tapir conservation in Honduras. Pico Bonito National Park is located within the Nombre de Dios mountain range in northern Honduras and is one of the only highland forest areas with tapirs. Many human settlements are located around the park and cocoa is one of the main crops in these villages. Poachers hunt in cacao farms and use these farms to enter the core area of the park. Nereyda is working with community members and cacao farmers to help protect tapirs by implementing a community-based monitoring program, conducting innovative education and outreach activities with local schools about the importance of tapirs to the region, and developing an anti-poaching strategy in conjunction with local wildlife enforcement authorities.

Luis Herrera

Known As: The Rainforest Wizard

Superhero Powers: Making tapirs appear in camera traps. Expertise in rainforest animal tracks.

Working In: Honduras

Backstory: Luis is a Honduran Biologist and works as an Assistant Biology Professor at the Valle de Sula Campus in the Honduras National Autonomous University (UNAH) teaching young students about tapirs and conservation more generally. For five years he worked for Panthera, where he learned to monitor wildlife including the Baird’s tapir in Honduran rainforests. He previously lead the implementation of a tapir conservation grant in Nombre de Dios National Park and La Ceiba city.

How He’s Fighting for Tapirs: As a professor in the public university, the Rainforest Wizard is the director of Scientific Research and Conservation in the Biology department, promoting and teaching scientific survey techniques and conservation activities with young students and his colleagues. He wants to ensure that new people start gathering knowledge and creating awareness for tapirs and general nature conservation within their countries. He is currently helping Nereyda to develop anti-poaching strategies in the Nombre de Dios mountain range. They serve as Assessors for the government wildlife officials on tapir conservation related national actions. He has also organized a voluntary student group for Tapir awareness in San Pedro Sula city. Ideas are constantly being created in the Wizard’s head and hands to keep up and make sure tapir conservation can happen in Honduras and beyond.

Manolo García Vettorazzi and Raquel Leonardo

Known As: Tukumbalan and Incredible bairdii

Superhero Power: They combine their super powers to promote the conservation of tapirs.

Working In: Guatemala

Backstory: Manolo and Raquel are both biologists from San Carlos University. Since 2006 they have developed a program which has been gathering and generating information regarding the conservation status of tapirs in Guatemala. From 2007 to 2009, they completed their first assessment which included potential distribution, population viability analysis, and habitat classification categories. The assessment was updated in 2016. In the last 3 years the program has focused its attention in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

How They’re Fighting for Tapirs: The Maya Biosphere Reserve is the main stronghold for tapirs in Guatemala. Although officially protected, the reserve is highly threatened by land use change, poaching, and illegal colonization. Some of these threats are related to the lack of economic alternatives for local communities and a lack of resources to implement education and outreach programs about the importance of tapir conservation. The tapir conservation program is training tourism guides to offer programs about tapirs as an additional source of income and hopes to enlist them as spokespeople and conservationists for tapirs. They also are working with schools inside the reserve to make tapirs a fixture of what students learn.

Additional Heroes in Guatemala: Vivian González, Gerber Guzmán, Mynor Sandoval, Carlos Gaitán, Gabriela Cajbón, Andrea Aguilera, Lucía Reyna and Adriana Rivera, Rangers from the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Nery Jurado, Víctor Cohuoj, and Gregorio López.

Marina Rivero

Known As: Tapir Girl

Superhero Power: Convincing kids how cool tapirs are.

Working In: Mexico

Backstory: Marina is a Mexican biologist who started her career working with different species of bats to understand some aspects of their ecology. This include migratory species that travel through one of the most hostile areas in Mexico, the Sonoran Desert, where they feed on the saguaro flowers and also working with frugivorous bats that live in the tropical forests in south Mexico. Since 2011, she has been involved in several conservation and research projects with mammals such as jaguars and white-lipped peccaries in the Lacandona rainforest. However, tapirs are her main interest and her greatest passion. Since 2015, Marina has been working with the tapir populations that live in the Sierra Madre de Chiapas with the project Tapires de la Sierra.

How She’s Fighting for Tapirs: The Tapires de la Sierra project seeks to understand the ecology of tapirs that live in the mountains and protect them using a community-based conservation approach. Through this project Marina has trained local people in the basic concepts of biological monitoring. Now, they have become the tapir community monitors. They are in charge of implementing the surveys using camera traps with the aim to evaluate the conservation status of Baird’s tapirs in the region, and they also conduct surveillance patrols to prevent hunters from entering their lands. Additionally, the project is developing sustainable alternatives that will allow for the coexistence of tapirs with local communities.

Additional Heroes in Mexico: Gamaliel Camacho

You can follow the Baird’s Tapir Survival Alliance on Facebook and Instagram.

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