College of Liberal Arts

To save the Baird Tapir, Researchers Focus on the Habitat that Shelters Them

Mon, Oct 9, 2017
Baird Tapir
Baird Tapir

To prevent the extinction of the endangered Baird’s tapir, researchers must understand the specific habitat sheltering the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 remaining tapirs across Central America.

In a study published in Diversity and Distributions in September, researchers from The University of Texas at Austin, the Global Wildlife Conservation and the Tapir Specialist Group mapped the species habitat distribution to pinpoint priority landscapes and wildlife corridors essential to the species’ survival and develop strategies to best protect those places. 

“As our scientific tools and methods continue to advance our understanding of the natural world, it is imperative that we use that information to develop strategies that help prevent extinctions and recover our planet’s biodiversity,” said lead author Cody Schank, a UT Austin Ph.D. candidate in geography and the environment and GWC associate conservation scientist. “This is a great example of how cutting-edge science can be designed to inform effective conservation on the ground to save a species as unique, charismatic and imperiled as the Baird’s Tapir.”

The study uses a new statistical model developed from data contributed by more than 30 researchers around the world to determine the distribution of Baird’s tapirs across their range from southern Mexico to northern Colombia, providing the most comprehensive and accurate maps to date of tapir-inhabited forests and woodlands.  

“Most of the remaining habitat is found in either protected areas (i.e. parks) or indigenous areas and community managed reserves,” Schank said, adding most of the species is found in the Selva Maya within the Yucatan Peninsula.

Researchers were most concerned to find a large break in the habitat in Honduras, as well as substantial habitat patches down through to Panama. These populations “are much more vulnerable to fragmentation and isolation,” Schank said, adding that the high rate of deforestation and lack of protection within areas of Nicaragua are especially threatening to remaining tapir populations.

“The problems that wide-ranging endangered species like Baird’s tapir face are too big and too complex for any one individual or organization to address,” said Patricia Medici, chair of the IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group. “We need a truly collaborative culture that transcends individuals, organizations, disciplines and countries if we are going to save the world’s four tapir species from extinction.”

Baird’s tapir populations have suffered declines of more than 50 percent over the past three generations as the result of widespread hunting and habitat loss. Some of the largest core areas for the species have lost between 25 and 30 percent of their forest cover over the past 15 years, leaving less habitat where the species can live safely or connect easily to one another for breeding.

“One of the best aspects about this paper is that almost all of the co-authors are active tapir conservationists,” said Chris Jordan, GWC’s Nicaragua programs director. “So as we continue to work together to refine our understanding of which core areas and wildlife corridors are critical to the survival of Baird’s tapirs, our results are not just being printed in a journal but are being used to inform regional conservation planning and action.”

The researchers hope to use the new model to predict how many individual animals live in specific geographic locations. This, in combination with more accurate information about the size of the species’ home range, will allow conservationists to predict where and when Baird’s tapir may experience local extinctions if efforts to mitigate the threats are not in place.  

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