Team tracks nearly extinct elephant look-alike

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — Researchers are hoping to use GPS collars to monitor the movements of endangered tapirs living in the rainforests of Nicaragua.

Local farmers say the Baird’s tapir, one of four species of the elephant look-alike animals, are eating their crops.

The animals were thought to be extinct in that part of the world until just two years ago when a team from Michigan State University discovered them still living there through the use of “camera trapping”—where researchers set up still and video cameras to “capture” the animal.


“We’d like to figure out how and where they live and if they can co-exist with the agricultural community,” says Gerald Urquhart, an assistant professor. “We hope the results of this project are that the tapirs can persist in the landscape and can be tolerated by the humans in that area.

“The farmers may have to recognize that there might be some crop losses, but nothing too substantial.”

Despite being related to elephants, Baird’s tapirs are known to the local population as the “cow of the rainforest.” Weighing in at about 600 pounds, the animal plays a major role in seed dispersal—eating fruits and spreading seeds throughout the region.

Urquhart says the camera-trapping work also has helped the local economy as the team has hired local people to help with the project.

“Hopefully through this work they’ve recognized the value of wildlife for purposes other than for food,” Urquhart says.

It’s estimated that about 4,500 Baird’s tapirs still exist in the world today, most of which live in Central and South America. Their numbers have been declining steadily due to human encroachment into their environment.

All four species of tapirs are either endangered or threatened.

Funding from the National Science Foundation and Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund supports the work.

Source: Michigan State University