As GWC’s tapir expert, it is no secret that I am very much enamored with the planet’s four species of tapir. And although my experience with tapirs was very much a love-at-first-sight type of story, I have also fallen in love with a diversity of species at first sight, including Giant Anteaters, Great Green Macaws, Neotropical River Otters, Snow Leopards and Atelopus frogs.
As humans, we have the ability to vicariously experience the lives of other species through what we learn about them during research and observation. We can learn about where they live, which types of habitat they prefer, where and what they like to eat, where they mate, and where they prefer to sleep. While some of us may have natural inclinations to like big carnivores or herbivores, I believe that for the most part species become our favorites not at first sight, but when we work to understand them, and have intimate experiences with them that allow us to develop a deep understanding of how they exist. Indeed, a species becomes our favorite when we can envision the world through its eyes.
In 2013, the Ecological Battalion of the Nicaraguan National Army, acting on a formal complaint from our team, confiscated a baby female Baird’s Tapir that a poacher had for sale in the Wawashang Reserve. To our surprise, after the confiscation, the Army handed the tapir over to us. We had no infrastructure to care for a young Baird’s Tapir (never mind the 600+ pound adult she would grow into), but we figured she would be better in our care than transporting her halfway across the country to an uncertain fate.
So while we raised funds to build infrastructure for her in a 650-hectare private reserve, I spent 40 days in the jungle by her side making sure that a Puma didn’t eat her, but also watching as she learned to eat more than 100 of the 200+ species of plants, seeds, bark, and fruits that tapirs consume in Central America’s rainforests; tested the waters of local creeks; and played on muddy trails in bursts of energy that included shoving her head between my feet and knocking me to the ground.
After this experience, I began working from an office at the Nicaraguan National Zoo during my time away from the field. The Zoo has several tapirs, so on a daily basis I would walk to their enclosures to observe their behavior. These basic observations developed into efforts to document more interesting aspects of their captive lives, including a day spent in the top of a tree within a tapir enclosure filming a male’s attempts to breed with a young female, then being able to greet the 20-pound watermelon of a baby upon her birth 13 months later.
Through our current GPS telemetry research, I meet several tapirs each year when we install their GPS collars. One of the more striking and captivating discoveries of this work is that each individual tapir reacts differently when we observe, capture and collar him or her. It allows me the incredible opportunity to get to know each tapir as an individual, then get to watch how these individuals use their 8-11 square kilometer home range over the course of a year.
In the end, it’s not my first impression of tapirs and their incredible proboscis that makes them my favorite animals. It has instead been this work to understand their ecology, and the many incredible experiences I have had with individual tapirs. My experiences enable me to envision the world through the eyes of a tapir, which gives me a deep appreciation and respect for them. And without a doubt, tapirs are incredible, awe-inspiring animals that deserve celebration on World Tapir Day.
But the world is full of millions of incredible, beautiful, awe-inspiring species of animals and plants worthy of being your favorite, and many of them are endangered with extinction, just like 75 percent of the world’s tapirs. So let’s celebrate Mountain, Baird’s, Lowland, and Malayan Tapirs, but let’s also make an effort to start learning about other lesser-known species of wildlife: where they live, which types of habitat they prefer, where and what they like to eat, where they mate, and where they prefer to sleep. There are so many species in the world that need someone to take up their cause; a conservation champion who will work to ensure their survival in a world rife with countless threats to wildlife and wild lands. If we all begin seeking to understand and experience the lives of these species, we will begin to care deeply about them too, and we will be one step closer to saving the diversity of life that makes our planet a unique, beautiful place.