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3.12 Tapirs

3.12.1 Tapirus terrestris (Amazonian tapir)

Tapirs are primitive members of the Perissodactyla and the only native representatives of this order in American wildlife. The three species are the Central American or Baird's tapir (Tapirus bairdii), ranging from Oaxaca and Veracruz to Mexico through Central America to western Ecuador; the mountain, woolly or Andean tapir (T. pinchaque) of the Colombian and Ecuadorian Andes and northernmost Peru, found from 2 000-4 000 m, and the Amazonian tapir (T. terrestris, very widely distributed throughout South America (273)). These are the most corpulent terrestrial mammals in the neotropics and are game animals par excellence throughout their range. The IUCN lists T. bairdii and T. pinchaque as particularly vulnerable (576).

3.12.1 Tapirus terrestris (Amazonian tapir)

Vernacular names: Anta (Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia), bofroe (Suriname), danta (Colombia, Venezuela), macho monte (Panama), sachavaca (Peru), tapir (various countries).

Geographical distribution and variation: South America from northern Colombia to northern Argentina and southern Brazil on the eastern side of the Andes. There are four recognized subspecies (92).

Elevational range: Primarily a lowland dweller, T. terrestris can nonetheless be found up to 1 700 m (245).

Size and weight: Total adult length ranges from 170-220 cm, shoulder height from 80-90 cm, and total weight from 170-250 kg (273, 401). Carter (102) cites a record weight of 300 kg.

Habitat: Tapirs are basically forest-dwellers, preferring the vicinity of waterways in primary moist forests, but may also be found in flooded gallery or swamp forests, alternating with savannah and hillside areas and even cloud forest (66, 141, 245, 401).

Abundance: Their prominent position in subsistence hunting and the number of tracks observed in some sites would suggest that the tapir may be fairly common in its preferred habitat. There is no solid numerical backing that can be used for estimating abundance, however. Some available figures show 0.6/km2 on a farm in Pantanal de Mato Grosso, Brazil (520), 0.8/km2 in the Guatopo National Park, Venezuela (174), 5/km2 in Manu National Park in Peru (573) and 0.5/km2 on Barro Colorado Island, Panama (T. bairdii, 199). These latter are protected areas and may well represent peak levels. The tapir is very scarce or currently extinct in many areas.

Behaviour: Tapirs are reclusive, hard to see, solitary and apparently sedentary although they may cover great distances along their permanent trails through the brush. They tend to be crepuscular or nocturnal but may also be active during the day. They frequent waterways where they can bathe, rest, feed, defecate or seek shelter when persecuted. Their main senses seem to be hearing and smell (93, 102, 357, 401, 520, 574).

Feeding habits: Tapirs are browsing herbivores, mainly cropping leaves and stems of new growth up to 2 m. They also eat herbaceous vegetation, particularly aquatic plants, and both green and ripe fruit such as the Mauritia palm which grows in flood sites (66, 298, 401, 432, 611). The Central American tapir feeds on a great variety of plants but does reject some, exhibiting a certain selectivity (305, 574). There are no specific studies on the diet of South American tapirs in the wild.

Reproduction: Reliable data on the reproduction of this species in the wild is not available. There are some indications, however, of oestrus just before the rainy season. Following a gestation period of some 400 days, peak births should thus occur at the onset of the next year's rainy season (93, 102, 401). One calf per birth is the rule. The newborn calf is precocious (seven to eight months) leading Carter (102) to estimate that there must be at least one birth every two years. Sexual maturity is probably reached by the age of three or four (102, 613).

Hunting: The tapir reveals its presence by its tracks, trails and excrement and the sound of its rumbling walk and whistling calls. Tapirs are hunted by day with dogs which sniff them out. As the animals flee, generally into the nearest body of water, they are shot, or brought down with the bow or harpoon (66, 241, 268, 379, 401, 543). Nocturnal hunting is also practised in places where the animals come to saltlicks, particularly during the dry season. Hunters may also wait along their trails or in places where ample fallen fruit may attract them (32, 42, 401). They are also tracked (539). Their snoring may give away their presence (284), or they may be killed from canoes as they come down to the river.

Products: Subsistence hunting of tapirs is intense, second only to Tayassu pecari in terms of the amount of meat consumed by indigenous peoples and others living in the South American forests (Tables 6 and 10). The meat, darker and tougher than beef, is nonetheless much esteemed by the local people.

Because tapirs are so big, the hunters gut and quarter the carcass on the spot for ease of transport. The thick, spongy hide, representing 10 percent of the total weight, is not of commercial value. In addition to the meat, some indigenous peoples also use the innards: liver, heart, lungs and intestines (17, 102, 401, 570). The tapir is not considered a prize specimen by sport hunters, but they may occasionally kill it when the dogs have tracked it as a fortuitous alternative to deer or peccary (379).

Management: Tapirs, inhabitants of the primary forest, are losing ground to deforestation and other habitat modifications. The tapir is relatively defenceless despite its size, and very vulnerable to hunting. Then too, its low reproductive rate rules out continuous harvesting. Even in small settlements or clusters of huts, in the midst of vast tracts of primary forest, tapir populations can be depleted in just a few years (32, 268, 543, 608). Tapir hunting is authorized in Suriname (556) but illegal in the other countries.

Globally speaking, the vast range of Tapirus terrestris, including huge, virtually unpopulated and remote forests (particularly montane flood plains) and national parks, rules out a classification of endangered or vulnerable. However, tapir populations are clearly undergoing an accelerated process of degradation, fragmentation and reduction of their original distribution (102, 141, 245, 294, 307, 401, 451, 597). Although tapirs do offer a major source of protein for people living in isolated settlements in forest areas, the prospects for rational future management are severely limited by the species' low reproductive rate and inability to survive in disturbed habitats.

The way to offset creeping losses of tapir populations is: to establish effective subsistence hunting restrictions for campesino communities; to prohibit sport hunting; to guarantee tapir survival in national parks and other protected areas; to do the necessary basic research for management; and to implement experimental, local-scale management plans. Although T. terrestris is the most widely ranging and important species, its ecology is apparently the least known.

Captive breeding: Tame tapirs raised from babyhood are quite common as pets in campesino and indigenous households. Their size, strange appearance and relative ease of maintenance make them popular in zoo collections where they can live as long as 30 years (138, 359, 432). In captivity, they form hierarchical groups and though apparently docile can have sudden outburts of aggressive behaviour (138, 613). Captive breeding for meat does not appear promising, due to their slow growth and low reproductive rate.

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