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Lowland tapirs in the Atlantic Forest are at risk of extinction

The Atlantic Forest of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay is quite threatened, so it’s no surprise that lowland tapirs in this forest are severely endangered as well. Although tapirs are adaptable and found in a wide variety of habitats across South America, they are still declining in numbers across their range. Lowland tapirs are now found in only 1.78 percent of their original range in the Atlantic Forest. 

A new study published in the journal Neotropical Biology and Conservation warns of the dire need for conservation actions to protect lowland tapirs of the Atlantic Forest. The research was headed up by Dr. Kevin Flesher of Biodiversity Study Center, Michelin Ecological Reserve and Dr. Patrícia Medici of the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative.

“Of the 48 tapir populations identified during the study, between 31.3% and 68.8% are demographically unviable (low number of individuals), and between 70.8% and 93.8% of the populations are genetically unviable (low gene flow). Only 3-14 populations are still viable in the long run when both criteria are considered. The evidence suggests that with the appropriate conservation actions, the lowland tapir could be broadly distributed throughout the Atlantic Forest,” explained Dr. Flesher. 

“Tapirs have low reproductive potential, including a long reproductive cycle with the birth of just one young after a gestation period of 13-14 months and intervals of up to three years between births. Our populational simulations clearly show how, in the case of small populations, even the loss of a single individual per year can result in rapid extinction of an entire local population,” added Dr. Medici. 

Dr. Flesher spent 15 years visiting 93 reserves in the Atlantic Forest, conducting interviews and analyzing 217 data sets to create a conservation plan for tapirs in the area. Unfortunately, tapirs in the states of São Paulo and Paraná in Brazil – where the largest number of populations remain – are isolated from each other.

“As far as our knowledge goes, there is no evidence of movement of tapirs between these populations,” said Dr. Medici. 

The fragmented populations aren’t connecting with each other, not because of great distances but the threat from cars involved. “The central problem is the multiple threats they face while crossing the habitat,” said Dr. Flesher. 

Highways and attendant motor traffic are a huge obstacle and threat to disbursing tapirs. “For example, the heavy traffic on highway BR-101 (which cuts the Brazilian Atlantic Forest from North to South) is a death trap to wildlife. Tapirs often die when attempting to cross it,” explained Dr. Medici. 

Highway traffic is a significant cause of death for tapirs in six out of eight reservations where highways cross tapir populations. However, the situation seems to call for a small amount of optimism. “Despite these continuing challenges for tapir conservation, most populations appear to be stable or increasing and the conservation outlook for the species is better than several decades ago, when the first efforts to protect the species began,” said Dr. Flesher.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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