Monday, March 30, 2015

Can Tapirus kabomani become a keystone species for conserving biodiversity in the Bolivian Amazon?

From Tapirus kabomani to integral development

Article and photos by Vincent A. Vos, Centro de Investigación y Promoción del Campesina, Regional Norte Amazónico (CIPCA-N.A.), Riberalta, Beni, Bolivia

A New Species of Tapir 

In the research proposal “Tapirus kabomani in Bolivia,” based on preliminary results Huascar Bustillos and I suggested this recently discovered species of tapir could also be found in the Bolivian Amazon. Our research received attention from the Bolivian media that cited our belief that this small black tapir could turn into a keystone species for regional conservation projects.

However, considering the actual situation in Bolivia in relation to the conservation of biodiversity, this is still a rather theoretical possibility. In this article we offer an explanation for this statement, providing some general information on biodiversity in Bolivia and the Bolivian Amazon. Using the case of the municipality of Riberalta as an example, we analyze the reach of several conservation initiatives in the region, and argue that the actual levels of biodiversity can only be maintained adequately through a change in the paradigms of regional development towards more integral landscape approaches with greater compatibility with the Amazonian context.

Fig. 1. Comparison between the new small “Tapirus kabomani" and the earlier known “Tapirus terrestris” (Adopted from Antelo et al 2014, based on information by Cozzuol et al 2013).

The value of biodiversity

Bolivia is one of the 17 countries considered mega-biodivers (Jímenez 2014). Both in flora and in fauna it is found within the 10 countries with highest species diversity. This diversity should not only be conserved for esthetic reasons (for the beauty of nature) or ethic principals (because of our moral responsibility to protect the natural heritage for future generations), but it also deserves to be protected for the economic value it represents. Within this economic value, the value of biodiversity as one of the key factors for tourism in Bolivia is often highlighted, but even without this added value, biodiversity is the basis of large economic movements, through timber and non-timber forest products (such as brazil nuts from natural Amazonian forests that annually contribute US $162,500,000 through exports). Additionally, numerous fruits and other parts of plants and animals constitute the main basis of rural livelihoods, and even contribute to the security and wellbeing of the urban populations through food, medicines, construction materials, tools and utensils, etc. (eg. CIPCA 2008, Pokorny et al 2010, Vos 2011).

Fig. 2. Maps representing the global distribution of biodiversity in plants and animals, revealing the extreme biodiversity of Bolivia. Sources: Botany Online 2014 and Geographic 2012. 

Moreover, the organisms, which together make up the biodiversity, provide a large quantity of environmental services, including the production of oxygen (i.e. carbon storage), the contribution to water cycles, the control of erosion and pollination, amongst many others that help to improve the climate and human wellbeing from local to global levels (Andersen 2009). The protection of ecosystems and their services thus affect health quality and conditions, physical integrity, food security, and other aspects for human security and wellbeing (PNUD 2011).

Despite this huge value, knowledge on biodiversity in Bolivia is still surprisingly limited. More than half of Bolivia’s mammals were only registered scientifically after 1980 (Andersen 1997) and new discoveries such as that of Tapirus kabomani show that there is still a lot to investigate, even for groups of species supposedly well inventoried such as large mammals (Cozzuol et al 2013, Fernandes 2014). Moreover, the information on this biodiversity is hard to access; for many groups there aren’t even actualized checklists, and to date there is not one complete and actualized field guide for any of the taxonomic groups in Bolivia (but see Armonia in elaboration). Without doubt, Bolivia is one of the countries that knows the least about the biodiversity it possesses (ABI 2014).

Fig. 3. Hylopezus auricularis, endemic to the Riberalta area.

Conservation in Bolivia 

This lack of attention to biodiversity is typical of the importance given in Bolivia to conservation in general. Only in 2009 did the Bolivian Government publish a serious version of a “red book” describing the threatened species of wildlife (vertebrates) within the country, and for many species there is still insufficient information to really evaluate the threats to their survival (MMAyA 2009). More so, the initiatives for conservation are limited, both in number and in their reach: Bolivia harbors 22 national parks (Araujo et al 2010), but most do not even have management plans, and despite their legal status, at the moment there are multiple plans for the exploration of petrol and minerals, as well as projects for highways and other megaprojects that together with illegal settlements constitute a potentially devastating impact on regional biodiversity. Especially in many protected areas on lower levels (e.g. departmental, municipal, etc.) the protective status in itself is questionable, since in many cases conservation is limited principally to good intentions on paper, but with very little concrete actions in the field.

Fig. 4. The Bolivian Amazon has been inhabited for at least 10,000 years, but recently the global demand for forest products has led to the adoption of less sustainable ways of living by local populations.

The case of the Riberalta municipality

To visualize this weakness of conservation in Bolivia, I’d like to use the example of the Riberalta municipality, one of the largest municipalities in the Bolivian Amazon, with large extensions of tropical forests that harbor several endangered species. The largest part of the municipal area was originally covered by extensive Amazonian forests, and to date more than half of the municipality still maintains a good state of conservation. However, in the last decades, especially areas close to the city of Riberalta and along its main highways, have suffered a growing pressure from human intervention including timber extraction and the conversion of large surfaces of forests into grasslands for cattle. In the decade of 2000-2010 a total of 83.026 Ha has been cleared (GAMR and FAN 2014).

Fig. 5. Besides being a direct threat to several timber species, logging is one of the main causes of forest degradation, opening up the forest to poaching and the often indiscriminate harvesting of other forest resources, while favoring further degradation through forest fires and invasive species.

Additionally wildfires have provoked a strong degradation of soils and vegetation through a degradation of forests followed by the invasion of grasses such as “sujo” (Imperata sp.) that because of its high fire susceptibility, in turn favor the reoccurrence of wildfires. As a result of this vicious cycle, each year new areas burn down. The drought of 2010 resulted in extreme losses, with wildfires destroying 22,000 Ha of terra firme forests and an additional 68,000 Ha of grasslands (GAMR and FAN 2014). To put these numbers in perspective: the total surface burned down in this years’ dry season equaled more than 11 times the surface of the urbanized area of the city of Riberalta, home to about 100.000 inhabitants. The destruction of 22,000 Ha of Amazonian forests caused the destruction of about 1.3 million trees, including some 45,000 Brazil nut trees (Bertholletia excelsa) that together produced an amount of Brazil nuts with a value of more than 2 million dollars. To this value, we can add additional losses of timber and non-timber forest products, as well as the invaluable environmental services that used to be provided by these forests. At the same time forest conversion, degradation and forest fires are the main drivers of the local extinction of wildlife.

Fig. 6. The smaller vertebrates such as these Dendropsophus rhodopeplus frogs are especially threatened by habitat loss.

Conservation efforts in Riberalta

Despite the natural richness, the mentioned pressures and the consequent economic losses, so far there are no efforts that significantly contribute to biodiversity conservation.
The recent declaration as a RAMSAR site of the surroundings of the Yata River including an important surface of the municipal area, locally passes virtually unnoticed, and limits of the area and the reach of the area's conservation status remain unclear. In practice, activities such as legal and illegal timber extraction and hunting continue without change.

A similar situation can be found in virtually all “protected areas.” In many cases there isn’t even a sufficient legal base to avoid human settlements and/or the extraction of natural resources. We can stress the case of the Hamburgo/San Vicente area, habitat of the masked antpitta (Hylopezus auricularis), an endemic bird considered critically endangered (MMAyA 2009). After receiving international recognition as an Important Bird Area (BirdLife International 2006), in 2001 the area was declared protected through Ordenanza Municipal 038/2001. However, the local law was filed without further diffusion and at the moment the natural habitat of the masked antpitta continues to be affected by timber and fuel-wood extraction, by the collection of non-timber forest products and through hunting and fishing. Moreover there is growing pressure on natural vegetation while the brickmaking industry and farmers, and even new urbanizations and rural communities keep encroaching deeper into the area (López et al 2014).

A similar situation can be found in other conservation units such as the “Área de Inmovilización Yata,” “Tumichucua,” and “San José.” Although these figure as protected areas on some maps (see also GAMR and FAN 2014), in practice their legal situation is confusing and there are overlaps with other land claims including claims for recently doted peasant and indigenous lands. In practice, conservation never advanced much more than the good intentions put on paper.

Similarly, efforts to reduce illegal logging are rather ineffective, and illegal logging is typically estimated to be in the range of 50 to 70% of total volumes (e.g. Müller et al 2014). Even endangered or legally protected species such as mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) and Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) are intensively harvested. In respect to hunting and fishing, things are even worse, since there are no significant efforts to reduce impacts from these pressures on natural ecosystems. Even the obviously extremely alarming context related to forest fires has not received any actions besides some small-scale efforts to implement fire-breaks and a group of volunteer fire fighters without any significant government support. When compared to the numbers of trees and areas lost to fires and through forest conversion, projects for reforestation are seen to be completely insignificant.
Threats to biodiversity

Within this context threats to biodiversity are severe: subsistence hunting and fishing still form the principal source of protein for the largest part of the rural population, and at the moment an intensification of harvesting practices can be observed, such as the use of large nets in some lagoons resulting in a virtually complete extraction of some fish species. In relation to hunting, the rainy season coincides with the annual harvesting of Brazil nuts. During the harvest season, more than 5,000 families from Riberalta move into the Amazonian forests (mostly in the neighboring Pando department) to dedicate themselves to the collection of these natural nuts. During three months, these temporary inhabitants as well as the existing population depends almost entirely on regional wildlife for the provision of meat. Even outside of this time of the year, hunting continues, since many families maintain relations in which animals hunted in the rural area are shared with urban family members. Although there is no clear information on this subject, we estimate that along one single road opened up by a timber company to access the Chacobo indigenous reserve in the south of Riberalta, hunters yearly extract around 3,000 animals (Vos unpublished data). Hunting is indiscriminate since even endangered species such as tapirs (Tapirus spp.) are in high demand in the virtually uncontrolled markets of the city. Even meat of species such as jaguars (Panthera onca) is commercialized, being passed off as some other more accepted species.

Fig. 7. An indigenous Takana woman adopted two young taitetus (collared peccaries, Pecari tejacu) after their parents became victims of local hunters. Although some species of mammals are affected by hunting, especially after introduction of modern weapons, the overall effect of hunting is small compared to large-scale degradation and conversion of regional forests.

Moreover, many species valued as pets, such as monkeys and parrots, are extracted from their habitats through practices that suggest that for each individual effectively sold, at least five others die during collection or transport. Other species such as various types of cats are persecuted for being considered a threat to humans or domestic animals. For instance, snakes in general are killed at any opportunity although only a handful of species is effectively venomous and in only few cases actually present a threat to human health. Something similar occurs with bats; there are at least 119 bat species in Bolivia, of which only two are vampires, while many others perform important services such as pest control, pollination, and seed distribution. The fear exhibited towards these flying mammals is also generalized, and many cases exist where bat colonies have been destroyed in a cruel and unnecessary way.

Habitat loss

The direct threats we mentioned each year cause the death of millions of vertebrates and have put some species such as the spider monkeys (Ateles chamek) on the brink of extinction. But, paradoxically, these pressures are not the main threat to the majority of the species. The principal threat contributing to the risk of extinction of Bolivian vertebrates is related to habitat loss (MMAyA 2009, Araujo et al 2010, MMAyA 2013). 

In Bolivia, the practice of slashing and burning the vegetation to prepare agricultural fields and grasslands, is used by millions of small farmers as well as by large-scale cattle ranchers and soya producers. In the last 50 years, this traditional production scheme has been the principal, and almost only alternative of production, maintaining and expanding itself in the east and north of the country. Although this production model without a doubt contributes to food production, labor, income, exports, and even poverty reduction, its inefficiency in terms of productivity has also been demonstrated, while this production implies the conversion and degradation of large tracts of forests and has led to severe social conflicts (Pokorny et al 2010, Vos 2011). 

At the moment, Bolivia is experiencing a boom of demographic and economic growth, implying large pressures on natural resources and ecosystems (Müller et al 2014). Pressures of fragmentation, vegetation- and soil-degradation, as well as contamination, are becoming a generalized problem for growing parts of the country. In recent years Bolivia has witnessed an increase in the conversion of natural ecosystems for megaprojects and the advance of the agricultural frontier. In the area of the Bolivian lowlands alone (including Yungas), between 2000 and 2010, 182,750 Ha of tropical forests were converted to agricultural fields and pastures (FAN 2012).

Fig. 8. Climate change not only affects Amazon forests, but also local sustainable initiatives such as these agroforestry systems of Mario Huari (Takana Indian); floods ruined his 2014 cacao plantation and destroyed some plantations that had cost more that 10 years of management. 

The conversion of forests to other soil uses implies an instantaneous and complete destruction of the original ecosystem and a drastic reduction in local biodiversity (Araujo et al 2010). Climate change now adds an additional important threat (Andersen and Mamani 2009, Nordgren 2011). Based on a simulation of the combined impacts of deforestation and climate change using the PRECIS model, it is expected that by the year 2100 biodiversity in Bolivia will show a loss of 40% in comparison with the original level (Andersen and Mamani 2009).

Fig. 9. The extreme floods of 2014, related to global climate change, not only affected regional economy and local livelihoods, but have also had a huge effect on regional wildlife. This Mabuya sp. lizard was one of few individuals that managed to find a relatively dry spot on the recently paved highway from Riberalta to Guayaramerín. 

A new development model

Considering the ecosystem benefits and environmental services mentioned, the actual and expected losses of biodiversity will have a devastating affect on Bolivia (CDB 2007). These losses will not only have important consequences for the variety of life in Bolivia, but also for the subsistence of the human population. The rural poor are particularly vulnerable to the loss of essential ecosystem functions when an ecosystem is degraded. The loss of services such as the access to arable lands, the provision of clean water, and the disposition of medicinal plants, will have devastating effects on the poor that often don’t have any other options at their disposal (CDB 2007). 

The previously-mentioned conservation initiatives are clearly insufficient to counter these negative impacts. The real reach of many of the initiatives directed to protecting areas, individual species, or restoring biodiversity, is extremely limited, and despite good intentions and efforts, in practice these initiatives aren’t anywhere near to being able to protect the biodiversity in the national territory as long as there is no change to the traditional paradigm of development. More and more institutions argue that effective conservation requires the assignation of a higher value to biodiversity within development strategies to counteract the economic forces that favor deforestation and degradation of natural ecosystems. In one of its reports the Comunidad Andina refers to this aspect in the following manner: 

The situation of environmental degradation in the world and threats represented by Global Climate Change within the region, call for a deepening of a new vision of development. . . . This vision has to include a more harmonic vision with nature, to offer options for a better planning of our territory, the validation of our cultural diversity and more efforts towards the conservation of our biodiversity and our forests. (Comunidad Andina 2008)

It’s no easy task to generate a new vision of development with higher compatibility with the conservation of biodiversity. However, there are multiple promising productive initiatives; from the millenary experiences of indigenous peoples (Eg. Barba et al 2010), up to relatively new initiatives for the sustainable management of non-timber forest products destined to new markets (see also Peralta et al 2011). For instance, the management of Brazil nuts has received worldwide attention as a model for sustainable development for tropical forests, considering their collection not only typically provides half of rural families’ annual income, but is also one of the main factors explaining the relatively good level of preservation of the forests of the Bolivian Amazon (Vos and Aviana, in press).
Agroforestry systems – an example of sustainable production

Agroforestry is another production system that has received attention for its potential to combine economic and environmental benefits. Recently the Centro de Investigación y Promoción del Campesinado (CIPCA) carried out research to evaluate the economic and environmental potential of Agroforestry Systems (AFS) implemented in the Bolivian Amazon (Vos et al in elaboration). The study shows that local producers in the Bolivian Amazon highly estimate ecosystem functioning and environmental services of their AFS, such as the recovery of soil structure and fertility, the conservation of high quality water, the production of oxygen, the provision of shade, the improvement of the local microclimate and the recovery of biodiversity.

Fig. 10. Local agroforestry systems were shown to favor high levels of biodiversity.

The study shows that AFS’s store important amounts of carbon, while levels of biodiversity measured in the eleven evaluated cases are much higher than those registered in areas with alternative production systems such as cattle farming and mechanized agriculture. At the same time, the study reveals that the agroforestry plots generate highly competitive levels of income while contributing to local food security. Moreover, agroforestry is compatible with the livelihood strategies of rural families in the Amazon, and permits income generation from affordable investments in a way that favors rural families’ independence. In this sense, AFS's are an example of production systems that can contribute to the conservation of biodiversity while securing economic and social development.


The example of AFS helps us to understand that it’s possible to foment production systems with higher compatibility with the vocation and rural livelihoods of the Amazon. However, to date we observe a virtual lack of public policies towards this type of production in Bolivia, while, especially in the last decade there has been an increase in public funding for highly questionable production systems such as extensive cattle breeding and mechanized agriculture. Considering the information offered in this article, we argue that it is necessary to rethink these political policies within the development agenda of Bolivia and its Amazon region. A new model of development is needed - one that is based on a more integral vision of territory and a diversification of productive activities by strengthening local experience and knowledge with modern innovations. Only in this way will it be possible to secure an adequate management of biodiversity and environmental conservation, and thus guarantee its environmental and even economic benefits for the inhabitants of the region and the global population.

Bibliographical sources

ABI. 2014. Bolivia puede  ser 'líder global' sobre el cuidado del medio ambiente. Notica publicado por ABI, 19 de mayo de 2014.

Andersen, L.E. and R. Mamani P. 2009. Cambio Climático en Bolivia hasta 2100, Síntesis de Costos y Oportunidades. Estudio Regional de Economía de Cambio Climático en Sudamérica. CEPAL - BID. La Paz, Bolivia.

Andersen, L.E. 2009. Cambio climático en Bolivia, impactos sobre bosques y biodiversidad. CEPAL. La Paz, Bolivia.

Anderson, S. 1997. Mammals of Bolivia, Taxonomy and Distribution. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, N° 231. New York.

Antelo S., V.A. Vos and H. Bustillos C. 2014. La nueva especie de tapir recién descubierta en Brasil y Colombia también habita en Pando. Sol de Pando. Pando, Bolivia. 02/02/2014.

Araujo, N., R. Müller, C. Nowicki and P. Ibisch. 2010. Prioridades de conservación de la biodiversidad en Bolivia. MMAyA and SERNAP. La Paz, Bolivia.

Armonía. En elaboración. Guía de Aves de Bolivia. Asociación Civil Armonía. Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

Barba et al. 2010. Moxos una limnocultura. 

BirdLife International. 2006. Conservando las Aves Migratorias Neotropicales en los Andes Tropicales. Quito, Ecuador: BirdLife International y U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Proyecto financiado por el Acta para la Conservación de Aves Migratorias Neotropicales

Botany online. 2014 Mapa de biodiversidad de plantas. 
Consultado marzo 2014.

CDB (Convenio Sobre la Diversidad Biológica). 2007. Cambio Climático y Diversidad Biológica. PNUMA.

CIPCA. 2008. Estudio sobre los ingresos familiares anuales 2007-2008. Informe Final. Centro de Investigación y Promoción del Campesinado.

Vos et al en elaboración. Evaluación Económica-Ambiental Integral de Sistemas Agroforestales implementados bajo principios agroecológicos en la Amazonía de Bolivia. Caracterización, análisis de viabilidad económica y valorización de funciones ecosistémicas a partir de 12 estudios de caso. 

Centro de Promoción e Investigación del Campesinado. Riberalta, Bolivia.

Comunidad Andina. 2008. El Cambio Climático no tiene fronteras; impacto del cambio climático en la Comunidad Andina. Secretario General de la Comunidad Andina. Lima, Perú.

Cozzuol, M.A., C.L. Clozato, E.C. Holanda, F.H.G. Rodrigues, S. Nienow, B. de Thoisy, R.A.F. Redondo and F.R. Santos: 2013. A new species of tapir from the Amazon. Journal of Mammoloy, 94(6): 1331-1345. URL:

FAN. 2012. Mapa de deforestación de las tierras bajas y yungas de Bolivia, 2000-2005-2010. Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza. 

Fernandes-Ferreira, H. 2014. Uma anta pode ensinar cientistas? Artículo de opinión. Ciénciahoje Vol. 53. Pp. 53-55. 

GAMR and FAN. 2014. Plan de Desarrollo Municipal de Riberalta 2014-2018. Diagnóstico. Gobierno Autónomo Municipal de Riberalta y Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza. Riberalta, Bolivia. 

Geographic. 2012. Mapa de biodiversidad de vertebrados a nivel mundial. y Geographic: Consultado en marzo 2014.

Jiménez, J.I. 2014. La biodiversidad como reto a la innovación. Página Siete 29 de julio. URL:

López A., A., J. Medina V., L.E. Melgar A., V.A. Vos. 2013. Propuesta de proyecto: Conservación Integral de la Laguna San Vicente. Consultoría López – Subgobernación de la Provincia Vaca Diez. Riberalta, Bolivia.

Mendez, J. H. Bustillos and V.A. Vos. 2014. La nueva anta enana puede ser una ‘especie bandera’ boliviana. Articulo publicado en El Deber 14/07/2014.

MMAyA. 2009. Libro Rojo de la fauna silvestre de vertebrados de Bolivia. Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Agua, Viceministerio de Medio Ambiente, Biodiversidad y Cambios Climáticos. La Paz. Bolivia.

MMAyA. 2013. Plan de Acción para la Conservación de Mamíferos Amenazados de Bolivia. Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Agua. La Paz, Bolivia.

Müller R., P. Pacheco and J.C. Montero. 2014. El contexto de la deforestación y degradación de los bosques en Bolivia:Causas, actores e instituciones. Documentos Ocasionales 100. Bogor, Indonesia : CIFOR."

Nordgren, M. 2011. Cambios climáticos, percepciones, efectos y respuestas en cuatro regiones de Bolivia. CIPCA. La Paz.

Peralta, C., V. Vos, O. Llanque Espinoza and A. Zonta (Eds.). 2010. Productos del Bosque; Potencial Social, Natural y Financiero en Hogares de Pequeños Productores de la Amazonía. UAB/ForLive. Riberalta. Bolivia.

PNUD. 2008. Informe temático sobre Desarrollo Humano; La otra frontera: usos alternativos de recursos naturales en Bolivia. Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo. La Paz, Bolivia.

PNUD. 2011. La sostenibilidad del desarrollo a 20 años de la cumbre para la tierra, avances, brechas y lineamientos estratégicos para América Latina y el Caribe. Río +20; conferencia de las Naciones Unidas sobre el Desarrollo Sostenible. Santiago de Chile.

Pokorny, B., J. Godar, L. Hoch, J. Johnson, J. de Koning, G. Medina, R. Steinbrenner, V. Vos and J. Weigelt. 2010. A produção familiar como alternativa de um desenvolvimento sustentável para a Amazônia. Lições aprendidas de iniciativas de uso florestal por produtores familiares na Amazônia boliviana, brasileira, equatoriana e peruana. CIFOR. Brasil. 

Vos. V.A. 2011. Informe Final Modelos de Desarrollo, Economía Campesina-Indígena y Políticas Públicas en el Norte Amazónico. CIPCA-Norte, VSF, Riberalta.

Monday, March 16, 2015

How can photography make a difference in conservation?

Mayo, an Endangered Mountain Tapir ~ Photo by Sergio Sandoval

Conservation photography is the use of photography as a way to create awareness about conservation-related issues in our society. In the case of wildlife, it usually tries to show threatening situations faced by different species. However, showing the beauty of wildlife species is also a way to use photography as a conservation tool.

Mayo, a baby mountain tapir rescued from illegal trade in southern Colombia, has become a symbol for mountain tapir conservation, and his photographs can make a difference for the future of his species.

You can order a photographic print of Mayo and help TPF to update the distribution map of mountain tapirs in Colombia. This will permit us to identify the priority actions for the conservation of the species. Please visit The Tapir Gallery and buy a beautiful photo of Mayo as a way to help to save the mountain tapir.

This blog is sponsored by The Tapir Preservation Fund and
Tapir and Friends Animal Store.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Making Characters Come Alive

One of our customers at Tapir and Friends Animal Store bought these cool mom and baby Baird's tapirs and hatchling ducks and chickens to help her daughter enjoy her favorite book, A Day with the Animal Doctors, by Sharon Rentta. Guess who the doctor is? A TAPIR! And, although I haven't read it, it appears that the doctor's assistant is a cute, striped baby tapir.

This blog is sponsored by The Tapir Preservation Fund and
Tapir and Friends Animal Store.

Friday, February 20, 2015

TPF Met Mayo, a Mountain Tapir Calf Recovered from Illegal Trade and a Symbol of the High Andean Ecosystems

Photo: Sergio Sandoval
During the last week of January 2015, TPF's scientific director, Sergio Sandoval, visited Cali Zoo to meet and photograph Mayo, the mountain tapir calf recently confiscated by environmental authorities in Colombia, who delivered him to the zoo with the hope of saving his life. Now Mayo is becoming a symbol for the conservation of this magnificent species.

Mountain tapirs are one of the most endangered large mammals of the Neotropics. With a restricted distribution, the threats to the species increase in times when gold mining in the paramos is the center of conflict and controversy. Environmental advocates and developers are at odds with each other. On one side are those who pledge to preserve the paramos, and on the other side those who talk about a sustainable use of them. Sadly, mining is far from being sustainable, and the only hope is that the damage to the environment after the mining is finished will be as low as possible.

Although in Colombia, the environmental authorities are currently mapping the paramos to exclude mining, the surrounding areas are becoming more and more vulnerable to it. This is bad news for mountain tapirs, because for them, the forested areas surrounding these ecosystems are as important as the paramos. All of the attention is focused on preserving paramos themselves because they represent water reservoirs for major cities, but who advocates for the mountain tapirs and other wildlife, like the Andean bear, that also need the areas surrounding the paramos to survive?

We hope that Mayo can serve as a symbol for the conservation not only of the paramos, but also of the high Andean mountains as a whole. These mountains are the last refuge for a multitude of wildlife species that evolved in the cold reaches of this unique ecosystem.

 This blog is sponsored by The Tapir Preservation Fund and
Tapir and Friends Animal Store.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

New Tapir T-shirts Depict all Four Species

The four tapir species have been depicted in beautiful, colorful paintings by Sergio Sandoval of Colombia. You can also get the designs on mugs, mouse pads, and on a high-quality poster-style wall calendar

We are all about protecting tapirs and their vanishing habitats, and what better way to join the effort than by wearing tapirs to show you care? Most people you meet will ask, "What is that?" so you also get a perfect opportunity to help educate people about these important animals and let people know that tapirs help maintain the health of the rainforests and cloud forests in which they live.

Tapir lovers, these designs will make your day or bring a smile to the face of any tapir fan when you give them as a gift. Each design is purchased separately, but you will probably want to collect all four!

This blog is sponsored by Tapir and Friends Animal Store
and The Tapir Preservation Fund

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Cheshire Tapir at WPZ

Seattle, Washington ~ November 5, 2014
Malayan Tapir at Woodland Park Zoo

Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle has two viewing windows so you can see both of their Malayan tapirs at one time. The glass makes it possible to get very close to the tapirs, but it also creates some havoc with photos. Here you see the amazing Cheshire Tapir (fade in, fade out like the Cheshire Cat) with raindrops, November leaves, and part of my Natural History Museum sweatshirt. Photo by Sheryl Todd.

This blog is sponsored by Tapir and Friends Animal Store
and The Tapir Preservation Fund

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Christina Visits the Tapirs at Noah's Ark

Christina Lönnblad with Lowland Tapirs
at Noah's Ark Zoo Farm in Bristol, England

See the other nine photos of Christina and the tapirs on our Facebook page. Thanks, Christina. It's nice to meet you and these friendly tapirs in photos!

This blog is sponsored by Tapir and Friends Animal Store
and The Tapir Preservation Fund

Monday, September 22, 2014

Contributions are Still Coming in for the Search for Tapirus kabomani in Bolivia

Tapir Footprint (Not Kabomani's...Yet)

We're sending out another big thank-you today to each of our generous donors because we're continuing to receive donations for the Search for Tapirus kabomani in Bolivia. We're now up to $770, which will  be matched by TPF. Even though the funding goal was reached, new donations are always welcome because the only certainty when you're out in the field is uncertainty. It's always nice to have a bit of a financial buffer against unexpected expenses. 

We'll be posting more updates soon. Huascar and Vincent are busy out in the field right now, hopefully having many adventures. Stay tuned!
This blog is sponsored by Tapir and Friends Animal Store
and The Tapir Preservation Fund

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Sergio and Lee Begin an Adventure!

Lee (Left), Sergio (Right) at Miami Airport

Even though Sergio is Vice President of the Tapir Preservation Fund, he is more like a friend. We have worked and planned together for more than 10 years, but have never met in person. Lee, who met Sergio once in Bogota, picked him up at the airport in Miami about noon. For more photos and the rest of the story, please visit my personal blog.

This blog is sponsored by Tapir and Friends Animal Store
and The Tapir Preservation Fund

Friday, August 22, 2014

Not Quite Yet – But Happy: A Trip Report of the Search for the Pygmy Tapir in Bolivia

Text and photos by Vincent Vos, in the framework of the research: The Search for Tapirus kabomani in Bolivia, with support of the Tapir Preservation Fund

The main differences between the recently described pygmy tapir (Tapirus kabomani) and its well known cousin (Tapirus terrestris)

The search for the pygmy tapir in Bolivia requires a lot of time dedicated to literature reviews, skull measurements, statistical analysis and the like, but once in a while we also need to travel to small peasant and indigenous communities hidden within the Bolivian Amazon, enabling us to get close to nature in the style of the great naturalists. This blog entry aims to let all our donors and others visiting this site to be part of these adventures into the pristine Amazon jungle. 

This narrative describes a visit to Enarevena, a small community on the banks of the Negro River (Rio Negro). The community used to be part of a large rubber estate, but since the bust of the rubber market in the 1980’s only a few families have remained, living on small-scale agricultural plots, hunting and gathering in the surrounding forests, and fishing in the Rio Negro. Their contact with the outside world was mostly restricted to the yearly sales of Brazil nuts.

The village of Enarevena is formed by a handful of simple cottages distributed between the football field, the bank of the Rio Negro and the surrounding forests.

About five years ago, this started to change when an international timber company opened up a new road to a timber concession near the Brazilian frontier, including an improvised bridge over the Rio Negro near the community. Since then a growing number of families have settled in the region to get access to the timber and Brazil nuts. 

I decided to visit the Enarevena community after I heard rumors about locals having hunted two tapirs a few days ago and decided to risk a trip to this community within the northern Pando Department of Bolivia to see if I could get my hands on a tapir skull. Since the publication by Cozzuol et al last year about the existence of Tapirus kabomani, I have been asking around about this small black tapir. Many locals have confirmed knowing about this second type of tapir, but for now I haven’t managed to get any scientifically acceptable proof to demonstrate its existence in Bolivia. I hoped my trip to Enarevena would change this.

Daily more than 30 trucks full of timber cross the Beni River on improvised wooden ferries.

Taking into account the distance of some 100 Km from my home in Riberalta, at about 5:00 A.M., I left with some forms for the interviews I was planning to do, several pictures of tapirs, enough tools and spare parts to be able to fix my motorbike if necessary, and my camera. I soon left the still quiet city of Riberalta behind and made my way into the rural area. In spite of the rain suit I put over my camouflaged overalls, in these early hours of the day, the cold still made its way to my skin, especially after passing the community of Warnes, where the landscape changed from cattle pastures to humid várzea forests. After about an hour, I arrived at the Beni River near Loma Alta. Together with a group of fishermen and several truck drivers from Riberalta we waited about half an hour for the fog to clear up so the ferries could start crossing the river. 

Soon after the first truckloads of timber were crossed, it wasn’t long before I could continue my trip to Enarevena, using a road recently cut through the forest by the timber company. Although numerous side roads indicated heavy timber extraction, on both sides of the dust road, tropical trees still formed a large green curtain characteristic of the Amazonian terra firme forests. Road conditions were perfect thanks to the lack of rain and recent road improvements, enabling me to make good progress towards Enarevena. But soon I decided to enter one of the side roads to check the local wildlife before the heat of the sun reduced their activity.  Despite a cacophony of sounds I only managed to catch a glimpse of a number of birds, until my attention was drawn by something moving in the canopy over my head: a tayra (Eira barbara) was speeding down a tree. I quickly moved my camera in its direction and started filming, but once again the thick vegetation blocked my view. Nonetheless I felt pleased by this little treat of nature.

Along the trip I made several stops to hike short distances into the forest and take pictures of animals and plants, like these 50 meter (164 foot) high Brazil nut trees (notice my motorbike for comparison) providers of the main economic product of the region.

About an hour later I found myself chasing a group of titi monkeys (Saguinus fuscicollis). Despite the forest being relatively low here, the large number of trees made filming almost impossible and once again the animals moved further into the forest without me being able to get any nice pictures. I thus continued my trip, once in awhile stopping to check out the wildlife I saw along the way, including several beautiful tropical birds like parrots and toucans

At about 11 A.M., I arrived at the Enarevena community and directly made my way to the Rio Negro. Water levels were very low, and I saw the timber company had managed to reconstruct the bridge that had been destroyed by this year’s flooding. Although some of the large Brazil nut trunks used to cross the stretch of water were still awkwardly placed I could make my way to the other side where a family from Riberalta had settled to make a living from the sale of food, drinks, and other basic products. I greeted the local family and after some small talk, Doña Elsa offered to prepare me a lunch in about an hour, which would enable me to check around the Enarevena community to see if I could find information about the pygmy tapir.

I had lunch with a local family in their house at the other end of the bridge at Enarevena

A few minutes later, I was sitting in front of the house of Don Carmelo, together with some of the other oldest inhabitants of Enarevena. All the younger men had gone off to Santa Crucito at a distance of more than 50 km (31 miles) to play an important soccer match as part of the local “mundialito” (Small World Cup). Too bad because this also meant that the hunters I was looking for weren’t present in the community, but as Don Carmelo told me, this really didn’t matter too much since the animals hunted had been skinned and cut up in the forest. The heads and skulls had been left behind along a trail more than 6 hours on foot from Enarevena and my schedule wouldn’t permit me to visit this spot. Luckily Don Carmelo said he would pass along the word and he promised the locals would try to bring the skull next time someone traveled to Riberalta.

During lunch I enjoyed the scenery and the sight of hundreds of butterflies coming to the Rio Negro to quench their thirst.

Despite this bad news, the conversation started to become interesting as Don Carmelo and his “compañeros” began sharing their knowledge on tapirs. I felt sorry to have to interrupt them to ask for answers to some specific questions. I explained I wanted the answers to show the value of this knowledge to biologists around the world. They easily agreed to contribute to my research, so I got my forms and moved through the questions designed to check local knowledge on tapir species, their habitat preferences, behavior patterns, and other ecological characteristics. Carmelo easily and confidently answered all of my questions and soon we found ourselves talking freely about the wildlife in the region, with him and his friends exchanging ideas about the different species of agoutis, river dolphins, monkeys, and peccaries they knew about in the region. 

As usual, the knowledge of these locals was astounding, with clear descriptions of physiognomic and ecological characteristics of the species described. However, things started to get confusing when we entered into the realm of mystical creatures such as the Niru-niru (a diabolic nocturnal monkey which in groups of 200 is said to come down from the trees to attack those who are not careful enough at night) and the Pata-de-coco (a bigfoot-like bipedal giant ape that leaves gigantic circular-shaped footprints and is said to be able to split up Attalea palms with its bare hands to eat the edible palm-heart). Both species are well known by locals but obviously very questionable from a scientific point of view. However, as in other similar interviews I have done in the region, don Carmelo and his friends have no doubt about the existence of these mystical creatures. 

During the interview one of Don Carmelo’s granddaughters showed of her parakeet (Brotogeris cyanoptera).

Although I was intrigued by the information shared, I had to say goodbye to my new friends to find one of the local chickens which had been converted into the lunch for me. The local family invited me to their table as if we’d have known each other for years. During lunch the conversation soon returned to the enormous variety of animals in the region and the close encounters with mysterious creatures. During dinner several other locals joined in the conversation and some even confirmed the existence of an uncontacted tribe of Pacahuaras still hidden deeper in the forest. I felt sad to have to leave this beautiful place to start my return trip to Riberalta. 

The Pakahuaras once were a very numerous people of the northeastern Bolivian, but the rubber boom led to a virtual genocide of this indigenous tribe. Recently, the last known female Pakahuara “Doña Busi” died, implying the extinction of this culture. The possibility that an uncontacted group of Pakahuaras still roams the forests of the northern Bolivian Amazon constitutes a last hope for their survival. (Foto by Rimberto Terrazas)

It was on my way home that I saw a group of parakeets near a small stream through the forest. I took some pictures of this species I hadn’t seen before and, while I was busy trying to get a better angle, I noticed something coming up behind me: another Tayra was crossing the road, apparently unaware of my presence. This time I managed to get some pictures before it vanished in the dense vegetation, together with its mate who quickly followed behind.

These parakeets (Pyrrhura amazonum) seemed to be almost as curious as I to see “a new species.” The tayra (Eira Barbara) hardly seemed to notice me.

A few hours later as I was once again crossing the Beni river, I evaluated my trip. I didn’t get my hands on any skulls yet, but I managed to do an interview, and even more, I felt very confident that it would be just a matter of time before I could my hands on the “proof” I was looking for. Moreover, I had had a great time sharing with the people of Enarevena and enjoying the beautiful scenery and incredible wildlife along the way. So, not quite yet, but happy anyway!

Black caiman (Melanosuchus niger) are still common along the Negro and Beni river.

N.B. All pictures used for this document (except those comparing T. kabomani and T. terrestris and of the Pakahuara woman) were taken by Vincent Vos during the trip described.

This blog is sponsored by Tapir and Friends Animal Store
and The Tapir Preservation Fund

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The New Pygmy-Tapir - Contributing to a Revaluation of Biodiversity for Sustainable Development of the Bolivian Amazon

A New Tapir Species Moves the Scientific World
by Vincent A. Vos and Huascar Bustillos Cayoja

In December 2013 a team of Brazilian researchers lead by Mario A. Cozzuol (Cozzuol et al 2013) described a new species of Tapir: Tapirus kabomani. Tapirus kabomani is the world’s fifth species of tapir, the second for the Amazon, and the first species of tapir discovered since 1865. Moreover, it is one of the largest mammals discovered in the last decade.

Fig. 1 Comparison between the new Pygmy-tapir “Tapirus kabomani” and the larger “Tapirus terrestris” (from Antelo et al 2014)

Although many other species of mammal and other vertebrates have been discovered in the last several years, the new tapir, more than any other species, has moved the scientific world by revealing that areas supposedly well-inventoried can still reveal new species of considerable size. The discovery reminds us that the time of the great explorers hasn’t finished yet, and that there are still a lot of things out there waiting to be discovered. Moreover, the new Tapir teaches us a very valuable lesson: the team of Cozzuol themselves stress that Tapirus kabomani is not new to the locals, who know the animal as “pretinha” (blackie) versus “anta-açu” (big tapir) used to describe Tapirus terrestris, thus showing the importance of local knowledge for taxonomic and cryptozoological research (see also Fernandes 2014, UNESCO 2013).

As it is, one of the specimens used by Cozzuol et al to describe T. kabomani as a new species comes from a collection made by Theodore Roosevelt as far back as 1912. Although T. Roosevelt identified the specimen as an adult specimen of a new species of tapir referring to the distinction made by local hunters, the skull he collected was later erroneously classified as a variation of T. terrestris. Many years later, Marc van Roosmalen, a Dutch Biologist known for several discoveries of new species of mammals in the Brazilian Amazon, also described a pygmy-tapir (Tapirus pygmaeus) referring to its ample local recognition (van Roosmalen 2013). Although his descriptions weren’t as complete as those of the team of Cozzuol, his T. pygmaeus may even be proof of a senior synonym and thus a more valid scientific name than T. kabomani (van Roosmalen 2014).

Our research paper, “The Search for the Pygmy-tapir in the Bolivian Amazon” (Vos & Bustillos 2014), while including physiognomic research, principally aims at recovering the local knowledge about tapirs, not only to demonstrate the existence of T. kabomani in the Bolivian Amazon, but more importantly to contribute to the scientific knowledge of this species’ ecology, behavior, distribution, and habitat preferences as the fundamental basis for conservation efforts.

The Bolivian Amazon: An Undervalued Center of Biodiversity

Bolivia is one of the 10 most biodiverse countries in the world (Ibisch & Mérida 2003). More than 18.000 superior plant species, 2.828 species of vertebrates, and approximately 1.000 species of fungus have been registered so far (Araujo et al 2010), equaling around 35 – 45% of global biodiversity, although representing only 0.2% of the Earth’s surface (Jiménez 2014).

Biodiversity of plants and animals. From Botany online 2014

From Geographic 2014

Although these statistics already reflect an incredible biodiversity, we are sure the numbers will continue to rise in the coming years with new discoveries being made regularly, e.g. four species of Ctenomys spp (Méndez 2014b), and a Myotis mydastactus (Hinojosa 2014) are examples of mammals discovered this year). Based on personal observations and interviews with locals we strongly suspect the existence of numerous species of mammals and other vertebrates not registered in Bolivia and possibly even unknown to science.

Official checklists of Bolivian mammals only include one species of agouti, Dasyprocta punctata. However, locals also recognize the existence of other species strongly resembling D. punctata, including D. azarae, D. fuliginosa, and Myoprocta pratti (see photos below). Distribution areas estimated by locals coincide strongly with known distribution areas for Brazil (Bonvicino et al. 2008).

Dasyprocta punctata (Wikipedia Images)

D. azarae (Wikimedia)

D. fuliginosa (Wikipedia Images) 

Myoprocta pratti (Wikimedia)

In this sense, the discovery of T. kabomani constitutes an opportunity to stress the incredible biodiversity of Bolivia, the need for additional research, as well as the value of biodiversity in general. The ethical and aesthetic values of a new potential flagstone species like the new pygmy tapir thus constitute important tools for raising awareness for conservation efforts. 

The value of biodiversity

Conservation efforts have goals that greatly surpass the preservation of species out of ethical (our moral obligation to conserve our natural inheritance for future generations) or aesthetic (for the beauty of nature) factors. To try to value biodiversity we should take into account the financial value of products from biodiversity. We should not only consider the value of the medicinal properties of newly discovered plant species, but also think of products like brazil-nuts (Bertholletia excelsa) that are collected from natural forests and represent export values of $US 145,62 million (exports 2012, INE). To this we can add value of timber and many other forest products both for export and for national markets, from fish and fruits used in alimentation, to palm leaves used for thatching, and plants used in traditional medicine. Most of these products are commercialized at regional levels and through informal markets with a consequent sub-estimation of their importance in national and international statistics (van Andel 2006).

Additionally many biodiversity products are consumed locally. In many parts of Bolivia hunting and fishing are fundamental elements of daily life, and local populations use the natural vegetation in many different ways: construction materials, tools and utensils, medicine, etc. (Vos et al 2008, Pokorny et al 2010). In the peasant and indigenous communities of the rural Bolivian Amazon, the sum of these forest products frequently surpasses 50% of family budget (Vos et al 2008, Czaplicki 2013).

Biodiversity also plays a fundamental role in agricultural activities, mostly through providing natural areas for grazing and through revitalizing soils in slash and burn agriculture. Furthermore, biodiversity offers services like pollination, natural control of pests, and genetic variation (Andersen 2009). At larger scales, we can highlight environmental services like the control of erosion and the provision of water up to climate regulation and the production of oxygen or storage of carbon (Andersen & Mamani 2009). The protection of ecosystems and their services thus reflects in the quality of health conditions, food availability, and other basic aspects of human security and wellbeing (PNUD 2011).

Towards sustainable development models, more compatible with biodiversity

Considering the values mentioned above, it is very troublesome to observe actual biodiversity losses. In Bolivia, the principal threats to biodiversity are related to deforestation through the advance of the agricultural frontier and cattle ranches (Araujo et al 2010, Müller et al 2014). The conversion of forests to other land uses implies an instantaneous and complete destruction of the original ecosystem and a drastic reduction of local biodiversity (Araujo et al 2010). Climate change now constitutes an important additional pressure (Andersen & Mamani 2009, Nordgren 2011). Based on simulations combining expected effects of deforestation and climate change using the PRECIS model, it is expected that by 2100 national biodiversity will show a reduction of 40% compared with actual levels (Andersen & Mamani 2009).

The actual and expected losses of biodiversity and its aforementioned environmental services will have devastating effects for Bolivia (CDB 2007). To reduce this impact, it is necessary to secure a better realization of the true value of biodiversity with development strategies. For the last 50 years, development in the Bolivian lowlands has been based principally on the clearing of forests for the creation of agricultural lands and cattle pastures. Although this model effectively contributes to the production of food, the generation of employment, income and exports, and the alleviation of poverty, lately it has become widely criticized in relation to its inefficiency in terms of productivity and its huge social and environmental costs (Vos 2011).


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This blog is sponsored by Tapir and Friends Animal Store
and The Tapir Preservation Fund

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