By Michelle Soto for LatinClima — Read the original article in Spanish.
We do not have elephants in the Neotropics, but we do have tapirs. Weighing 300 kilograms, tapirs are the largest mammals found between central Mexico to northern Colombia and Equator.
The Central American tapir (Tapirus bairdii) is capable of eating up to 30 daily kilograms of tree bark, seeds, and foliage. In fact, tapirs are quite crude when it comes to feeding and can even swallow whole seeds, up to six centimeters in size.
This peculiarity found in tapirs, becomes more significant when linking it to maintaining the rainforests. Tapirs are thought of as landscape architects and even engineers, as a result of their contributions to the ecosystem.
According to Esteban Brenes, biologist and Nai Conservation researcher, the largest seeds are usually associated to trees having dense wood. These are precisely the tree species that achieve higher carbon sequestering and fixation in its biomass.
Actually, when the seed passes down the tapir’s digestive tract, it becomes exposed to a process including acids and high temperatures, which increases its possibilities of becoming a tree. “It seems like this digestive process ‘cures’ the seed and therefore increases its viability,” expressed Brenes.
Tapirs disperse those seeds through their feces. “There is scientific evidence of tapirs in Nicaragua defecating yellow almond and wild zapote seeds,” commented Brenes, and added: “studies in the Amazon conclude that carbon sequestering has significantly decreased in forests where tapirs have left.”
In other words, forests require stable populations of large herbivores like the tapirs. Despite their contributions to minimize and adapt to climate change, tapirs go unnoticed in a country’s preservation policies.
“We still have not estimated biodiversity’s role in carbon fixation and ecosystem adaptations to climate change, through the environmental services provided to us,” expressed Brenes, and highlighted: “countries in the Neotropics cannot comply with the Paris Agreement without help from tapirs.”
The Central American tapir diet includes a menu of 200 plant species.
“Thanks to their digestive features, tapirs have the ability to eat plants that other hoofed animals (superorder of mammals including the mountain goat) cannot. Their digestion is very fast: tapirs keep food in their digestive system for less than 40 hours, while hoofed animals keep it for up to 80 hours. This results in some plant toxins not being absorbed, compared to other hoofed animals that do get intoxicated. This results in a more diverse diet,” explained Brenes.
A characteristic that becomes a contribution to the forest is that “the tapir’s feces are loaded with nutrients. Unlike ruminants (like cows), their digestion is vague — meaning that it does not go through so many stages. But their feces are loaded with fiber and nutrients which are still very much alive. The nutrients are deposited into the soil through their defecations.”
In the moorlands and oak groves — high altitude forests located in Costa Rica between 2,000 and 3,820 meters above sea level — the tapir diet is composed of 70% bamboo, and the remaining 30% is tree bark like the myrtle, fallen fruits, or fruits picked from trees, as well as ripened palm fruit.
Bamboo proliferates and limits the growth of other plant species in the highlands, mainly within the oak groves, because it makes the undergrowth (vegetation that grows under the trees) impenetrable for other seeds to thrive. Tapirs feed on that bamboo, therefore also performing a biological control role.
During their expeditions, tapirs open trails and clear the woodland, which favors the plant species — carried in their feces — to colonize new areas, thus keeping the forest balanced.
Additionally, tapirs contribute to the landscape connectivity. “Although they prefer living in preserved forests, tapirs practice foraging (feeding) in secondary forests or in grasslands, where they have access to more plants. They also happen to defecate on site,” explained Brenes.
The most stable tapir population in Costa Rica is located in the Talamanca mountain range. The land has the most extensive continuous forest in Costa Rica, shaped by protected wildlife areas as well as people inhabited areas.
Altitudinally, this mountain range extends between 80 and 3,820 meters above sea level. This characteristic facilitates the presence of a great variety of ecosystems that range from humid rainforest to moorland.
Talamanca also covers two slopes: Pacific and Caribbean. High endemism is present due to its biogeological origin, so unique species in the world inhabit it. Therefore it is not surprising that Talamanca is one of the five conservation priority nuclear areas in Mesoamerica.
Nevertheless, the environmental conditions in this area are shifting, because of rising temperatures. “Species are altitudinally migrating, but whenever they cannot achieve it, species migrate into the forest canopy. There is a vertical movement, to seize those microclimates,” commented Brenes.
Biodiversity has jointly evolved with the ecosystem in the highlands, like the moorlands. In other words, biodiversity has had thousands of years to assimilate and adapt to changes happening along time. Nowadays, the temperature and precipitation variations have become more frequent. Species then have three options: to perish, to migrate, or to adapt.
Besides the loss of ecological functions delivered to the ecosystem, extinction also carries financial repercussions. For example, in Costa Rica, the highlands show a high bird endemism that has become a tourist attraction. The local economy highly depends on birdwatching tourism.
Tapirs are “buying time”, by performing their seed scattering and landscape architect functions, in order to allow the highland species to adapt to new conditions caused by climate change.
Altitudinally, tapirs travel from 0 to 3,600 meters above sea level. Tapirs migrate encouraged by food availability and more favorable environmental conditions, according to the season. On their expeditions up and down the mountain, tapirs aid in forest maintenance.
“Preserving an altitudinal gradient in Talamanca, another multi slope, allows many species to migrate, and acclimatize little by little. We still do not know how resilient many of the species are. Some species might not endure and some others might not even notice the changes. When we refer to climate change and adaptation, it sometimes is hard to accept that some species will win and others will lose. At least, because of the tapirs, we are earning some time to find out,” said Brenes.
Unfortunately, there are only 4,500 Central American tapirs around the world, according to data from the Tapir Specialist Group at the International Union Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Tapir populations are quickly declining. According to the Tapir Specialist Group, there has been a 50% decrease in population during the last forty years, which coincides with the destruction of 70% of their habitat.
Even though Costa Rica has one of the most stable populations in Central America, it does not mean that their conservation status is optimal. In Costa Rica, tapirs are threatened by loss of habitat, roadkill, and poaching.
“We have a great issue when it comes to law implementation. There is a law with strong regulation prohibiting sport hunting, but there are cases of video taped tapir hunting, where dogs, weapons and bush meat have been confiscated; but once they appear in front of a judge, all that evidence is dismissed. So, basically, we are telling hunters that they can upload their videos to YouTube, they can keep their weapons and even take a selfie with a freshly hunted tapir, and nothing will happen to them. To me, the lack of law enforceability is one of the greatest challenges we still face in Costa Rica,” stated Brenes.
For researcher Brenes, there must be a comprehensive approach, as a supplement to better law enforcement. We must understand what the hunting motives are, from the social and cultural points of view. “The concept of leisure in the countryside differs from that in the city and we have to understand it,” said Brenes, and added: “many are moved by the adrenaline of chasing an animal. So we can change the focus by handing them a camera and a group of tourists, instead of a rifle.”
The risk of not taking any actions to favor tapir conservation lies on the impact that their absence would cause on forest stability. “El Salvador, only country where the tapir is extinct in the Neotropics, serves as an example of empty forests. There is a loss of ecosystemic services because of lack of forest regenerators,” highlighted the Nai Conservation researcher.
Brenes and his colleagues have currently identified the five territorial cores where tapirs are located in Costa Rica. One of them is, of course, Talamanca. There is still forest in Talamanca, because of how irregular the ground is, even though much of its territory is situated outside of protected wildlife areas. The area locations makes them part of the most important and extensive biological connection routes in Costa Rica.
“The routes are key for fauna circulation, to ensure genetic connectivity between slopes and to maintain viable populations along the territory, which can and will ensure forest regeneration and stability. In spite of how important tapirs are, they are the most unprotected. Most of the poaching occurs within those areas, thus interrupting their journey towards the Pacific, where they could move down to Osa through the Paso de la Danta (Tapir Path), as well as other biological corridors,” as cited on the research proposal submitted by ASANA, Nai Conservation, and the Conservation Genetics Laboratory at Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR), to the evaluation committee for the 1st Change Debt for Nature.
The research proposal happily received the approval from the evaluation committee for the 1st Change Debt for Nature. This is an agreement between the governments of Costa Rica and the United States, to redirect payments regarding external debt. In other words, through a bilateral treaty, the US would condone part of the external debt that Costa Rica has acquired, in an effort to have the latter invest the money on financing conservation programs.
The objective of the initial change funds, administered by the Asociación Costa Rica por Siempre, is to provide conservation, protection, restoration and sustainable use of rainforests located in six priority geographical areas. One of these areas is La Amistad, located precisely at the Talamanca mountain chain.
The proposal submitted by ASANA, Nai Conservation, and the Conservation Genetics Laboratory considers performing an assessment on the species population as well as accompanying fauna.
This will we achieved through biological monitoring using camera traps. Camera traps are “hidden cameras” activated by motion and heat sensors when animals approach. Scientists will use the captured images and video to measure parameters such as density, relative abundance, occupational rate, and habitat selection.
Interestingly though, scientists will not be the only ones monitoring. The goal is to involve communities, in an effort to have neighbors become research assistants as well as civil science generators.
The monitoring results will aid in identifying where the critical conservation sites are. This will allow the optimization of control and surveillance duties performed by park rangers.
The presence or absence of tapirs also represents an ecosystem healthiness indicator, which may guide management decision making. “The tapir has very specific habitat standards. Where there is a tapir, there most likely is a jaguar; and where there is a jaguar, there might be a puma; and where there is a puma, there possibly is a mountain goat. The tapir acts like the tip of a pyramid to measure habitat quality,” explained Brenes.
Parallel to the tapir monitoring through feces and hairs, a molecular analysis will be executed, to learn about the genetic biodiversity present in tapir populations, genetic flow, connectivity, demographics, and endogamy.
Habitat fragmentation could be isolating the population residing in the Tapantí-Cerro de la Muerte-Chirripó-La Amistad region from the population at Cordillera Volcánica Central-Paso de la Danta-Osa region.
“We want to see if these populations were isolated long time ago,” commented Brenes.
The stools will also be used to study present pathogens and parasites. Infectious diseases affecting wildlife might be one of the elements responsible for biodiversity loss.
“Habitat fragmentation generates high contact rates among individual and an increase in environmental stress, which is one of the most severe environmental issues. It causes changes in the physical and biological space that in turn compromises species and favors infectious disease proliferation, thus negatively affecting biological diversity. The impact of those diseases might lead to behavior changes on individuals from different populations, hence affecting the evolutionary and ecological process that will eventually affect species survival and impact ecological processes in the forest,” as cited in the research proposal.
Concerned about the hunting subject, researchers are carrying a perception, barriers, and motivations study on why people hunt.
“We will start by identifying the target species and areas with higher hunting occurrences, through community mappings and key players. Also, we will elucidate the motivations and barriers surrounding a hunt. Social marketing campaigns, as a tool to persuade and reduce hunting pressure per area, will be designed once the human dimensions related to hunting been characterized,” as cited in the proposal submitted by the 1st Change Debt for Nature.
The study results will be crossed with the population indicators plus genetic data, to evaluate the relationship between the tapir population status and hunting pressure. Identifying critical areas to optimize surveillance will be possible, along with reinforcing education initiatives and productive alternatives such as tourism.
“We want to identify challenges as well as opportunities, and I want to highlight the latter, because we usually only keep the negative and render any changes impossible,” expressed Brenes, and added: “all this data intends to understand what is happening, to look for solutions and use that knowledge to empower communities.”
The research project in La Amistad is complemented by another project that tries to assess the tapir population status inside protected wildlife areas. The project is being executed by Nai Conservation with the support of the La Amistad Pacífico Conservation Area (ACALP), ACC, Global Wildlife Conservation, Zoological Society of London, and local organizations.
Even though we don’t have any elephants in the Neotropics, we do have tapirs, and what they do in the forest is key during climate change times.
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