Trying to Save the World’s Quirkiest Endangered Mammal

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Why you should care

Because we bet you don’t know what a tapir is.

Patrícia Medici has a very serious PR problem. No, she’s not a crisis manager dealing with an unruly and outspoken CEO. Instead, she’s a Brazilian wildlife conservationist who for two decades has been trying to save an endangered mammal called the tapir. To her the tapir is a little funny-looking but still adorable and definitely in need of help. To her fellow Brazilians, “tapir” means the equivalent of the American insult “jackass.”


Check out Patrícia Medici’s TED Talk above.

Even though Medici laughs when she tells me, from her house in central Brazil, about the irony of the herbivore’s name, she knows it’s an obstacle to her quest: to convince the world that tapirs are just as important and meaningful as Brazil’s revered jaguars. The 43-year-old is the foremost living tapir researcher in the world — “definitely the greatest force in the field,” says Michele Stancer, a fellow expert. At Brazil’s third-largest NGO, which Medici cofounded and runs, she developed and perfected methods to trap and anesthetize tapirs in order to fit them with electronic tracking collars. Since 2000, she’s presided over the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s global tapir specialist group, comprising 150 researchers all over the world.

But what the heck is a tapir? Well, based on looks, it’s a confused cross between a boar and an anteater. In reality, it’s most closely related to horses and elephants and can weigh up to 650 pounds — it’s the largest terrestrial animal in South America. These elusive creatures can also be found in the tropical forests of Latin America and Southeast Asia, where they’re facing annihilation due to — you guessed it — humans. Farming and hunting have put all four species of tapirs on the animal watch list; they’re listed as endangered or vulnerable by the IUCN, the body charged with tracking animal populations worldwide.

Sure, conserving animals, especially ungainly ones, is a noble cause. But it’s not selfless, Medici says: The tapir’s nickname is “gardener of the forest,” and the forest needs its gardeners. The nocturnal creatures eat a hefty diet of fruits and spread the seeds through their feces, “maintaining the structure and diversity of the forest,” Medici says in her TED talk, featured above. Tapirs are kind of like the South American mammal version of honeybees, playing a secret role in keeping plants alive. Medici prefers to compare them to elephants.

Medici grew up “literally in the middle” of the Atlantic forest in São Paulo state, so it’s no wonder she played outside instead of with dolls. She remembers coming home from school one afternoon and hearing her mom scream from the kitchen. A giant capuchin monkey was swinging outside the window, presumably an escapee from the monkey sanctuary nearby. Such moments, Medici says, shaped her relationship with nature in a fundamental way. She always knew she wanted to study large mammals and when she launched her NGO, IPE, she was just 20 years old. Since, she’s grown the organization to 80 people across five field sites.

Medici’s life revolves around animals. Even in that 10 percent of her life that isn’t taken up by researching or advocating for tapirs, you can find Medici taking her religiously slated morning walks with her yellow and black Labradors or spending time with her family. Perhaps not so surprisingly, her husband is a fellow conservationist who studies anteaters (remember, of no relation to tapirs!) and armadillos.

Technologically speaking, much has changed since she started her research. In the beginning, she relied on tapir e-collars that sent information to handheld receptors, which meant she spent days at a time wandering around the forest and trying to catch a tapir signal. Today, fancy new radio collars beam data to satellites and then straight into Medici’s inbox; it’s basically like getting personal emails from tapirs. The data allows her to plot tapir movements in near real time, using Google Earth, to make important discoveries.

Recently, she discovered something that pushed back against all tapir literature. Two tapirs, Vivek and Morena, had a baby tapir, named Muraniño. Conventional tapir wisdom holds that baby tapirs, which have white spots that vanish as they age, branch out on their own when they reach about 18 months of age. But Muraniño stayed. And with Dad, not Mom. Medici is fascinated by just how little she, and the rest of the tapir community, actually knows about these creatures.

Up next? Taking on tapir conservation in the Amazon. In some areas, tapir habitats are being cleared to make way for sugarcane fields or cattle ranches, two strong lobbies in Brazil. Medici says the Ministry of Environment is relaxing restrictions and that Brazil is in a major conservation crisis. “Sugar cane and farming are winning,” she says. As her organization celebrates its 20th anniversary, she still has moments of doubt. Is her work saving tapirs or is she simply documenting their extinction?

When she feels down, it’s the love for the animals that keeps her going. Every time she finds one in a trap they’ve set for data collection, she places her hands on the animal right away. “That maintains my connection to the animals” and to the work, she says. So she’ll keep fighting.

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