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World’s top tapir expert prepares for unprecedented Amazon mission

Aquidauana_MS, 18 de agosto de 2019 Pesquisadora Patricia Medici desenvolvendo seu trabalho de pesquisa com a anta (Tapirus terrestres) no Pantanal. FOTO: JOAO MARCOS ROSA/NITRO

  • Brazilian conservation biologist Patrícia Medici first won a Whitley Award, the “Green Oscars” for conservation science, in 2008; this year, she’s the recipient of the top tier of the prize, the Whitley Gold Award.
  • She will use the $75,000 prize to fund the new stage of her studies, in which she plans for the first time to study the lowland tapir in the Amazon.
  • Medici has already spent two decades studying the species, South America’s largest land mammal, in the Atlantic Forest, the Pantanal wetlands, and the Cerrado grassland.
  • She hopes to use the next stage of the study, in the Amazon, to expand understanding of the species by seeing how it reacts to deforestation driven by mining, large-scale agriculture, and logging.

Social and travel restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic prevented Brazilian conservationist Patrícia Medici from going to London last month to receive one of the most prestigious awards in the world of conservation science.

The Whitley Gold Award — the top prize given out every year by the Whitley Fund for Nature — is considered such a major honor that it is known as the “Green Oscars” and is handed out by Princess Anne of England, the fund’s patron. Medici, who received her first Whitley Award in 2008, was named the recipient this year for her work to conserved Brazil’s threatened wildlife in general and the lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris) in particular. The awards ceremony at the Royal Geographical Society has now been rescheduled to December, if things are normal by then.

Until then, however, Medici says she hopes the health crisis doesn’t prevent her from resuming her expeditions with the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative (Incab) in the second half of 2020.

That’s when she does most of her fieldwork, when the weather is dry in the Pantanal, the sanctuary of the lowland tapir in Brazil, and scientists are better able to document the animal’s behavior and breeding habits. In the Cerrado grassland and the Atlantic Forest, human impact has changed the habitat to such an extent that the tapir is now deemed a vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List.

2020 is also the year Medici plans to move the study’s focus to the last and most challenging region yet: the Amazon, whose rain-free window runs from May to September. It’s in the Amazon Forest, the only Brazilian biome where tapirs continue to go unstudied by scientists, that Medici intends to spend the 60,000 pounds ($75,000) she received from the Whitley Fund.

The unprecedented work will map the presence of tapirs in the so-called Arc of Deforestation, a region under pressure from mining, large-scale agriculture and logging, and understand how the species is responding to these changes.

“Researchers use camera traps to study other animals in the Amazon and they end up collecting data on the tapir. But this will be the first systemic, wide-ranging, and targeted survey,” Medici says.

As scientists in Brazil go, Medici stands out: she built her career not in universities, but by focusing on direct communication with the public to achieve her conservation goals. One example was her idea of ​​creating the hashtag #antaeelogio (“tapir is a compliment”) to draw people’s attention to the need to protect the species. The hashtag plays on the Portuguese word for tapir, anta, which in Brazilian slang is used as an insult.

Medici has also garnered fame outside the conservation world with her TED Talk video, in which she won over the audience by displaying photos of baby tapirs to impress on viewers the importance of saving the species. “College does not prepare us to do science-oriented communication,” she says. “But it is an important action. Circulating information helps conservation.” She also encourages actions focused on environmental education and scientific tourism.

Conservationist Patrícia Medici’s research is in its 24th year and has already generated the world’s largest database on lowland tapirs. Image by João Marcos Rosa.

Expedition in an altered forest

The lowland tapir is South America’s largest land mammal, and Patrícia Medici is considered the world’s foremost expert on the species. Her research shows that an individual tapir needs 500 hectares (1,240 acres) of natural environment to survive. The species prefers forest areas along water courses, but it also roams other environments in search of food.

It moves through vast areas as it does so, often drawing paths between various habitats and providing scientists with clues about the relationship between the elements in a landscape mosaic.

All this prior information raises expectations about Medici’s prospects for encountering tapirs in the Amazon, where conditions are very favorable for the species. But there is also apprehension.

In a preliminary expedition in June 2019, when the road map for the new stage of the study was defined, the researchers sought areas that combined the presence of humans with economic activities; one of their goals is to map threats to the species and find ways to mitigate them.

But the situation uncovered by the team was more serious than they thought: they found a forest that has already been irreversibly altered by human action. “We even made some forays in the Xingu region, where there are protected areas. But they are only fragments,” Medici says.

They had to exclude the state of Rondônia from the expedition planning. “It is, by far, the state with the lowest percentage of forest,” Medici says. “There, the Amazon is over.”

Pará and Mato Grosso states are still on the road map. In northeastern Pará, the researchers want to study the tapir in a wide area of ​​oil palm plantations owned by a company that preserves pockets of native forest. Going further south, they plan to visit the Carajás National Forest, where the world’s largest mining complex is located, with dozens of working mines and processing plants.

In Mato Grosso, the expedition will assess the tapir’s interaction with large-scale plantations, especially soybeans. Finally, they plan to conduct a study in a logging area where cutting is selective and takes into account strict environmental management criteria. If everything goes as planned, the Amazon survey should be completed within five years.

Among the biomes studied, the Pantanal wetland is currently the most stable for tapirs. In the Cerrado grasslands and the Atlantic Forest, human impact has made the species vulnerable. Image by João Marcos Rosa.

A resilient animal

The good news is that the tapir does not give in: during the 2019 expedition, scientists found signs of its presence even in environments that had been profoundly altered by human action.

It’s a similar scenario to what they witnessed in the Cerrado, where research efforts have been under way since 2013. There, the tapir takes refuge in tiny green fragments — 13 individuals were detected in a 250-hectare (620-acre) area​​, half of what a single tapir is thought to need to survive in. The original vegetation persists only in preserved areas, and most of the territory is occupied by soybeans, sugarcane, eucalyptus or cattle pasture.

All of these economic activities are served by a network of roads. As a result, more than 600 remains of run-over tapirs have been found, making road traffic one of the main threats to the species, along with pesticide contamination.

“We cannot say for sure that there are tapir populations living in the Cerrado, but there are individuals in very poor health. But they are there, persisting. We don’t know how long they will survive,” Medici says.

The tapir is considered a “living fossil.” It dates back 50 million years, when Antarctica separated from what is now Australia and a collision between India and Asia caused the Himalayas to emerge. Originally from North America, tapirs are currently spread across 11 countries in South America, Central America and Asia. Three of the four species are threatened. The most serious case is that of the mountain tapir, of which only 1,500 individuals remain in the Andes.

“The tapir survived many waves of extinction due to natural causes. It is a resilient animal that adapts well to different ecoregions and levels of threat,” Medici says. “But this is the first time that it is at risk as a result of human action. In Brazil, although tapirs are still present in some areas, they are not viable, as their social organization has been completely dismantled.”

On a preliminary trip to the Amazon, the researchers found dramatically altered areas, which no longer provide habitats for many animals. Image by Laurie Hedges.

Green corridors and seeds

While Patrícia Medici’s studies point out the degradation of the environment and the risk it poses to the tapir, they also indicate ways to preserve the species. One of the alternatives for improving their living and breeding conditions in the Cerrado, and perhaps in the Amazon, replicates a previous and successful experience by the same team in the Atlantic Forest.

The area known as Pontal do Paranapanema, in the state of São Paulo, was the group’s first focus of study between 1996 and 2007. There, where forest fragmentation is the main threat to the tapir’s survival, a project is under way to artificially reconnect the Black Lion Tamarin Ecological Station and the Morro do Diabo State Park. The corridor is 20-kilometer (32-mile) green block with 2.7 million trees — the largest planted ecological corridor in the world.

“This is a feasible idea. And it is probably the best way to connect other areas. In the Cerrado, we are in contact with landowners and small farmers [from land reform] settlements to make it happen,” Medici says.

Just as the corridor is expected to benefit the tapir, the animal is also expected to help maintain the green space. Research by Medici’s team was able to prove an old hypothesis: that tapirs play an important role in seed dispersal and therefore in ecological preservation, which is why the animal is often called “the gardener of the forest.”

Medici has looked at isolated stretches of the Atlantic Forest and simulated the tapir’s extinction there. Her findings, set for publication in a few months, show that the forest has become much less diverse in those areas. “It is a big animal that eats 6 to 8 kilograms [13 to 48 pounds] of fruit a day. It has enormous potential for sowing,” she says.

The tapir dates back 50 million years. This is the first time in that period that its survival is threatened by the impact of human actions. Patrícia Medici’s expedition in the Amazon is expected to help improve understanding of the conservation status of this valuable Brazilian mammal. Image by João Marcos Rosa.

Banner image of Patrícia Medici, winner of this year’s prestigious Whitley Gold Award, observing a tapir temporarily captured for study. Image by João Marcos Rosa.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on June 4, 2020.

Learn more: What is a lowland tapir? Candid Animal Cam takes us to South America:

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