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A Gentle Giant

The gentle Baird’s Tapir, Today’s Endangered All-Star, inhabits the murky semi-darkness of Central American jungles, snoozing in muddy wallows during the stiflingly hot days, browsing along well-trodden trails by night, eating fruits, seeds, twigs, and foliage. Too large for most predators—only a jaguar, mountain lion, or a full-size American crocodile could attack an adult—the Tapir harms no one, except when people build homes and gardens in the species’ remaining habitat, luring the animals to raid their produce. Yet the Tapir Specialist Group estimates that there are probably fewer than 5,500 left in the wild. Extinct in El Salvador, there are perhaps a thousand each in Guatemala, Panama, and Costa Rica; 1,500 in Mexico; a few hundred in Honduras and Colombia. Every year, as more of the forest is lost and poachers shoot these long-lived and slow-to-reproduce animals, the population declines. The IUCN reports that in Costa Rica, there are hunting clubs devoted solely to shooting tapir. While such hunting is illegal, the reserves and protected areas where tapir survive are remote and poorly patrolled. In Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park, the last major rainforest preserve on Central America’s Pacific Coast, the country has often run out of funds to pay its few park rangers, allowing poachers to decimate the peccary population, which, in turn, severely affected the park’s jaguars. When I was there in 2007, a local guide, Luis Angulo Angulo, told me that his father-in-law, in a village near the park, had killed a tapir that ate his potato crop. While he was fined ($575, an enormous sum), these kinds of management and law enforcement issues (discussed further in my book, Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution) plague conservation throughout Central America. Unless governments and organizations like The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International find consistent, practical, permanent solutions to these problems, the Baird’s Tapir will likely disappear.
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