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Nicaragua’s Tapirs Running Out Of Time And Space

January 29, 2014

Born and raised outside of Managua, in Nicaragua’s Zoológico Nacional,  “Maya” and “Carburito” will soon be traveling east – aboard a military helicopter – to the Región Autónoma del Atlántico Sur (RAAS), where they will swap their familiar chain-linked enclosure for the leafy wilds of the Wawashang forest.

Two-year-old Baird’s tapirs, the youngsters are unwitting protagonists in a public-private initiative to save the trunk-nosed herbivores from extinction. Using GPS (Global Positioning System) technology, researchers involved in the Proyecto Tapir Nicaragua, or Nicaraguan Tapir Project, as the initiative is called in English, will keep close tabs on the pioneering pair as they try to settle into their new environment. There is no guarantee the introduction will work. “We’ll see how widely they range, how they adapt… if they can survive. Or not,” Zoológico Nacional veterinarian Eduardo Sacasa told the wire service Agence France Presse.

But if Maya and Carburito are able to make the transition, Sacasa and his colleagues will likely want to repeat the experiment. Ideally, such efforts could give the dwindling species – which is naturally slow to reproduce – a much-needed boost. Baird’s Tapirs, Nicaragua’s largest land mammal, do not reach sexual maturity until they are between two and four years old. Pregnancies last for more than a year and in most cases produce just a single offspring. “The tapir is the most endangered animal right now in Nicaragua, and in the world, because its gestation period is so long. They are pregnant for 400 days, so they are dying out,” the veterinarian said.

Seriously threatened

The Baird’s variety is the second largest of the world’s four tapir species, three of which live in Latin America. The other, the Malayan tapir, inhabits pockets of Southeast Asia. Baird’s tapirs live throughout Central America (except in El Salvador), in southern Mexico and in northern South America. They appear on the IUCN’s influential “Red List” as “endangered,” meaning they face a “high risk of extinction.”

Conservationists estimate there are fewer than 5,500 Baird’s tapirs left in the world. In Nicaragua, where the animals go by the name “danto” or “danta,” the number may be as low as 500, down from 2,000 just a few years ago, according to Proyecto Tapir participants. Efforts to save the species, in other words, need to happen now – before the animals disappear from Nicaragua, as they already have from neighboring El Salvador, and from the world as a whole.

Introducing zoo-bred animals to the wild is only one of the strategies being employed by Proyecto Tapir participants, which include RAAS regional authorities, personnel from the Ministerio del Ambiente y los Recursos Naturales (MARENA) and researchers from Michigan State University in the US. The group is also trying to raise public awareness about the animals, promote better enforcement of existing conservation laws, and collect more data on the species’ habits and natural habitat.

Participants have already made some significant discoveries. Researcher Chris Jordan of Michigan State University has concluded, for example, that most of Nicaragua’s remaining tapirs live in forested areas along the Caribbean coast. His findings challenge the prevailing view put forth by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a global environmental organization, which had long assumed tapirs were more or less gone from that part of the country.

“There is a lot of suitable habitat remaining; so much, in fact, that we think that the entire [Caribbean] coast served as a genetic corridor between Honduras and Costa Rica until very recently,” Jordan told the environmental news site Mongabay. “Palm oil plantation and road development over the past five to seven years have almost certainly divided this Caribbean coast corridor, but with a moderate and very feasible amount of conservation planning and reforestation, this corridor could very well be re-established.”

Poacher’s prey

The tapir’s sluggish reproductive cycle is only part of the problem. Because of their size (adult Baird’s tapirs can be more than two meters long and weigh as much as 300 kilograms) they have few natural predators. Humans, which have long hunted the animals for their meat, are the one notable exception. Though it is now officially banned in Nicaragua, tapir hunting still occurs, particularly on the country’s remote eastern wilderness areas, where enforcement is all but nonexistent.

“I have never come across a member of the national level natural resource ministry (MARENA) in a Caribbean Coast protected area,” said Jordan. “An Ecological Battalion was created as a part of the National Army in 2011 to help enforce environmental laws in rural contexts. However their posts are scattered about the country in strategic locations, so they have no real presence in the majority of forests.”

The problem of tapir poaching along the Caribbean Coast has worsened in recent years due to an ongoing influx of colonists from the west, according to the Michigan State researcher. He says the species was more or less able to withstand hunting by the area’s traditional indigenous and afro-descendent groups, in part because they never cleared large swaths of forest for development. But as newcomers push their way – often illegally – into the RAAS and adjoining Región Autónoma del Atlántico Norte (RAAN), the dynamics have changed.

“Over the past decade or so, this wave of colonists has reached a critical mass and the autonomous regions now harbor more Pacific coast people than indigenous and afro-descendant people. Furthermore, the Pacific coast people hunt tapirs at very high rates,” he said.

Deadly deforestation

The poaching problem is being compounded by major habitat loss. Western colonists are clearing eastern forests for logging, farming and mining. Much of the cleared space is being converted to ranch land, or turned into palm oil plantations. A case in point is the Reserva de Bosawás in the RAAN. Despite its status as a UNESCO-listed “Biosphere Reserve,” the extensive jungle area – which borders on Honduras – is rapidly losing ground to land invaders. Jordan estimates that Bosawás is losing on average more than 40,000 hectares per year.

“We are bearing witness to the complete destruction of one of the most important, largest reserves in Central America,” he said. “I traveled to the reserve in April of this year to a region where I had done some camera trap sampling for tapirs in 2012 and there were no longer any forests.”

Deforestation spells problems not only for the Baird’s tapir but also for countless other species hanging on for survival in Nicaragua. The influx of colonists has caused serious social conflicts as well. In the Bosawás reserve – Central America’s largest rain forest – tensions between local indigenous groups and western colonists reached a boiling point this past April when a local leader was killed during a confrontation with land invaders. Members of the Mayangna indigenous group threatened to go to “war” against the intruders, prompting action by the government of President Daniel Ortega, which sent in police to forcibly remove some of the illegal colonists.

Proyecto Tapir participants urge the Ortega administration to commit more resources to conservation, to continue evicting land invaders when needs be, and to “empower” the autonomous regions’ indigenous and afro-descendant inhabitants by demarcating and titling their communal lands.

“In recent years things have spiraled out of control and illegal loggers, cattle ranchers, and land traffickers are quickly destroying remaining forests and hunting unsustainably as they do it,” said Jordan. “The situation is quite urgent and if the Caribbean Coast indigenous and afro-descendant populations aren’t empowered and supported adequately for them to control the destruction, and assisted in the process of making conservation of their forests a viable livelihood strategy, it is possible that there will be little forest left in Nicaragua in a decade or two.”

(This article originally appeared November 2013 in LADB)

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