How the invisible Baird’s tapir can inform conservation management policies
A range of monitoring techniques, including non-invasive genetics, have been employed in a study on Baird’s tapir in Honduras, which has shown that the species will be locally extinct within a few years without prompt intervention. It is hoped that this study could provide a model for other projects by demonstrating how accurate scientific data, rigorously gathered using a range of techniques, is able to impact upon the conservation of an endangered species by informing management policies.
Studying an animal that you will never see presents special challenges, and requires inventive approaches to gathering information on aspects of natural history and demography that can normally be directly observed.
New approaches based on statistical modelling and non-invasive genetics allow for much more detailed questions to be answered than would be possible through traditional non-invasive approaches such as camera trapping and telemetry.
Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii) is the largest mammal in the Neotropics; it is also one of the most endangered, with a global population estimated at around 5,000, which is known to be declining at an alarming rate across its range from southern Mexico to northern Ecuador. A study funded in part by Operation Wallacea is looking at the conservation of Baird’s tapir in Honduras, and in particular in Cusuco National Park (PNC).
Using patch occupancy analysis statistical techniques, it has been possible to map the changes in patterns of Baird’s tapir dispersal over time, and to monitor and quantify a drastic population decline during this period
Research to date has highlighted the severity of the conservation situation for Baird’s tapir in PNC. Since 2006, surveys have recorded all encounters with tapir spoor (sightings, dung, footprints or signs of foraging) along a network of transects over 47 km in length.
Using patch occupancy analysis statistical techniques, it has been possible to map the changes in patterns of Baird’s tapir dispersal over time, and to monitor and quantify a drastic population decline during this period, which has coincided with an increase in human activity, deforestation and hunting in the park.
Genetic techniques are also being incorporated into this study, as genetic material can easily be derived through the amplification of DNA from faeces.
This technique was developed in the 1990s for work on grizzly bears, and is now the modus operandi for genetic work on animals too difficult – or too rare – to catch for tissue sampling.
Faeces are being sought from all over PNC in an effort to sample as large a proportion of the population as possible. Using a genetic equivalent of ‘capture, mark, recapture’, it is possible to census the population and investigate genetic diversity, inbreeding rates and dispersal mechanisms.
The genetic health of the PNC population can be compared to that of a non-impacted population sampled in the east of Honduras; and population genetic considerations incorporated into future management strategies for the PNC population.
Informing management policies
The suite of monitoring techniques available to scientists today enables detailed studies to be carried out on even the most elusive species. Information derived from this study is already being used to inform local policy makers that without the implementation of appropriate conservation practices the population of Baird’s tapir in PNC will go extinct in the next few years.
New approaches are giving us a concrete picture of the plight of Baird’s tapir in PNC, and are enabling us to make scientifically-informed recommendations for their conservation. Hopefully these approaches will gain currency in conservation biology as a whole as we struggle to devise the most effective possible method of implementing management policies for endangered species.