Eduardo Naranjo shines a spotlight on Central America’s largest land mammal.
Why study this species?
Baird’s tapirs were barely known or researched 30 years ago, and they still receive little attention from ecologists and the general public, compared to felines, monkeys and raptors, which are considered more charismatic. However, we now know that Baird’s tapirs are an ideal focal species to assess the impacts of forest fragmentation.
Where do they live?
These herbivores inhabit lowland tropical forests, palm swamps and cloud forests, which provide food, cover and water sources, where they can escape predators, seek relief from the heat and try to get rid of irritating parasites. Historically, Baird’s tapirs were found throughout southern Mexico, Central America and north-western South America, but they have now disappeared from most of their original range. Currently, they reside in fragmented forests in parts of Central America and north-western Colombia.
What are their biggest threats?
Tropical forest loss, due to farming and logging, is putting Baird’s tapirs at risk. These mammals move over extensive forested tracts and live at low densities, even in optimal habitat. Therefore, they need to inhabit a very large area to ensure their populations are big enough for genetic viability.
What did your research reveal?
Our study has shown that many tapir populations are suffering from increasing isolation, conflict with farmers, and road collisions in unprotected forest fragments across south-eastern Mexico. However, there is local recovery in large protected areas and in some places where people live.
What protection does the species now require?
Effective management and safeguarding of habitat are necessary to conserve the Baird’s tapir and encourage connectivity between isolated populations. I’d also like to see an increase in communitybased awareness to get people to look after the species and its habitat; implementation of environmentally friendly land-use practices; and stronger enforcement of laws to combat deforestation and poaching. LW
EDUARDO NARANJO is a population ecologist working in Mexico. FIND OUT MORE Tropical Conservation Science: bit.ly/bairdstapir
Baird’s tapirs use their short ‘trunk’ to strip leaves or pluck fruit from branches.