Searching for tapirs in the Pantanal

I’m currently in the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil looking for the incredible Lowland Tapir (Tapirus terrestris). I’m lucky enough to be here with Patrícia Medici, co-founder of IPÊ and Chair of the IUCN SSC Tapir Specialist Group, and her expert team who are dedicated to studying tapirs and learning everything they can about them.

This beautiful tapir is Michele. She was the one of the first tapirs I saw in the Pantanal.

It’s easy to get into a routine on the cattle ranch we are staying at here in the Pantanal. Wake up at dawn, eat breakfast and head out in a four-wheel drive to check the box traps. If we’ve been lucky, there will be a tapir waiting for us, or maybe we will spot one on route and dart it with tranquilizers. By the time we return to the ranch, it is time for lunch and a shower. The afternoons are spent entering data, looking through photos caught by camera traps, reading, preparing kit, or napping before heading out again at four in the afternoon to look for tapirs until after dark when a spot lamp helps in the search for our elusive quarry.

The routine is the result of many years of work by Patrícia Medici and her team: Zezinho, an expert in trapping and hunting wild animals; Renata, a vet; and Thamy, a volunteer like me but she is a trained vet. By trying out various methods such as hunting on foot and by car, and using different traps, Patrícia has been able to deduce which method gives the greatest return on effort. Happily for my feet and love of sleep, the most sightings of tapirs occur between 4pm and 8pm when searching by car. However, this is only an indication of tapir sightings and should not be interpreted as information about tapir activity.

The aim of this hunting and trapping is find out more about the Lowland Tapir – a large mammal found across lowland areas of northern and central South America. Zoologists and conservationists would like to know much more about this solitary, shy animal. The Lowland Tapir spends much of its time hiding in forests, venturing out at the beginning and end of the day to cross from one forest to another or cool down in one of the many pools found across the flood plain.

Whenever Patrícia catches a tapir she has never caught before, it is tranquilized so blood and tissue samples can be taken. She will also place a microchip under the tapir’s skin so it can be identified easily in the future. Ticks are removed and sent to the University of São Paulo for identification and the blood will be examined for genetic information, and diseases. If the tapir is large enough it will be fitted with a radio or GPS collar so its movements and home range can be understood better than they are now.

All this information will allow Patrícia and many other people who are interested in tapirs, to understand more about how tapirs live and how we can best protect them. The Lowland Tapir is currently listed as Vulnerable on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and is most threatened by habitat loss through deforestation, illegal hunting and competition with livestock. Once we understand how tapirs interact with each other and the habitat they live in, we will know more about how best to ensure tapir populations stop declining.

Visit the IPÊ website for more information about the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative.