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Baird’s Tapir, a Day in the Life…

By on February 21, 2019 in News

Marina Rivero is our National Geographic Photo Ark EDGE Fellow who is working to conserve the Endangered Baird’s Tapir (Tapirus bairdii). In this blog, she gives us an insight into what it’s really like to track these elusive animals.

Baird´s tapir (Tapirus bairdii) is one of the most incredible and wonderfully weird species on earth. However, unless you are in Costa Rica or in Belize airport, the chances of seeing one are very slim. In Mexico, they have become elusive because they are persecuted by poachers for their meat and displaced from their forests due to deforestation. One of the only ways to study this species is through camera traps and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing – over the past few months, I’ve been trying to learn more about the tapirs that live in the mountains of La Frailescana in Mexico.

Visiting the project site isn’t easy, we have to wake up very early before the sun comes up. We only take a coffee with some cookies as the first breakfast because it´s easier to climb the mountain with an empty stomach. Then, as a reward once we reach the top, we have a second breakfast.

Don Jaime preparing the “taberna”, a traditional fermented drink. It is obtained by cutting the palm called Coyol (Acrocomia aculeata) when it is adult. You need to open a hole called “canoe”, from which emanates the thick sap, white and sugary that can be left to ferment or can be consumed fresh even directly from the palm | © Marina Rivero

Walking there is not as easy as you can think. Since the Protected Area La Frailescana is a mountain range, there are only two possibilities: going up or going down. If I’m being honest, both options are terrible. Going up means feeling your heart beating so fast that it trembles in your head and if you are lucky enough you can also hear your partners’ hearts. And it’s better not to look up, because it seems that the rise never ends. As I walk, my mind often starts thinking about millions of things: thesis, reports, breakfast, tapirs, my aching legs, fatigue, breakfast again… and when I get very tired, I can´t avoid thinking, is this worth it?

Going up the mountain with Daniel and Fede to check the camera traps in the Ejido Plan de Ayala | © Marina Rivero

Just when the going gets tough, everything gets more positive – we arrive at the first camera trap. We take out the SD card and put it in a camera to see the pictures. The first photo a squirrel, then a herd of around 15 peccaries (Pecari tajacu), then, a mountain deer (Mazama temama) next, a puma (Puma concolor). Finally, what I was waiting for… a tapir! This tapir was not alone, it was with its calf. As the photographs continue to pass, we find more tapir images including an adult male. According to the experts, tapirs tend to form family units, it has been observed that an individual’s range will tend to overlap with other related individual’s ranges. Most likely, this is what we saw in this set of images – the mother with its baby and the father, or maybe the male is the offspring of the previous reproductive period. I prefer the first option.

Baby tapir with its mum in La Frailescana | © Marina Rivero
Landscape view from the top of the mountain | © Marina Rivero

When we finish collecting the information of all camera traps, it’s time to go down. Once again, I prepare myself for an avalanche of situations that make me wish I was born in this place and not in a city. As most of you may know, running is the easiest way to go down the hill, but not when there are obstacles like vines, roots covered by leaves, stones and a knee with broken ligaments. But when you get down, all those negative feelings fade away and you discover how much you enjoy being up there, seeing the landscape and knowing that there are a lot of incredible species up there who share their home with the tapirs. It reminds you that you can´t give up the fight for what you really think is important.

Now it’s time to analyse the data. All the information that we are gathering with the camera traps will be used to estimate tapir densities and identify the areas where it is most likely to find tapirs in la Frailescana. In the coming months, we will conduct interviews in different communities, allowing us to make a map of critical areas where the tapirs are more vulnerable to the different threats that the species face in the region.

Learn more about Marina’s project here.

Learn more about Baird’s tapir here.