Baird’s Tapir in Costa Rica: In Danger of Extinction

By Jessica Di Bartolomeo, Michelle Rijski and James Theodore

IMG_20160112_091210Figure 1: Mural of Baird’s Tapir at Rio Celeste, Bijagua.

Baird’s Tapir are the largest mammals in Central America. They were declared in danger of extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in 2002. As one of the countries home to Baird’s Tapir populations, Costa Rica must use effective conservation strategies to ensure extinction does not occur.


Many threats such as deforestation have a great impact on Baird’s Tapir’s populations. Smaller factors such as poaching, cattle farming and agriculture also play a role in the decline. Due to their low and slow reproductive rate, they cannot rapidly regenerate the lives of their population. To prevent further loss, strategies must be put in place in order to protect the Baird’s Tapir’s population. Limiting deforestation, enforcing rules against hunting, reducing cattle farming and agricultural farms where Baird Tapirs are found are all possibilities to help their population regenerate.

General Information

Physical description and classification

Tapirus Bairdii, commonly referred to as Baird’s Tapir, belongs to the family Tapiridae and is one of four remaining Tapir species, all of which are threatened or endangered (Brooks, Bodmer and Matola; Terwilliger 1978). It is the least subjected member of its family to research (Terwilliger 1978). Baird’s Tapir is the largest native mammal in Central America (Tobler 2002; Foerster and Vaughan 2002), with an average weight of 150-320 Kg, a length of 180 – 250 cm, and a height of 73-120 cm. Juveniles possess a red-brown coloration with light coloured stripes and spots for camouflage. As they mature, their thick bristly fur becomes a fully dark brown or grey. Tapirs have a long snout, stocky bodies and strong legs adapted for moving quickly in dense vegetation (EDGE 2010). A distinguishing characteristic is their long snout, called a proboscis which extends past their chin and resembles a shortened elephant trunk. It is used to forage through vegetation, picking up eatable plants and bringing them to their mouths (EDGE 2010).


Figure 2: Tapirus bairdii.

Habitat, distribution and population

Baird’s Tapir is found from southeastern Mexico through to northwestern Columbia and the Andes of Ecuador (Tobler 2002), ranging from sea level to 3600 meters in altitude, and has been wiped out completely in El Salvador (Cuaron, Matola and Rubio-Tolgler 1997).

It is very difficult to directly observe Tapirs due to their small numbers, preference for dense vegetation and their brown hide that enables them to blend in with their surroundings (Fragoso 1987). When studying Tapirs, researchers often use indirect methods such as tracing tracks and feces. This has shown the Tapir’s habitat preference to be dense forests with bodies of water, such as tropical sub-deciduous forests and cloud forests, as opposed to pine forests and grasslands, which are drier and more exposed. Foerster and Vaughan’s study (2002) indicated a preference for secondary forest, likely because these habitats consist of a dense understory, therefore provides the Tapir with a multitude plants at accessible heights for consumption. Secondary forests would also have fewer forest fires and minimal human disturbance (Naranjo 2009). Studies conducted in Mexico and Costa Rica found that undisturbed areas had twice as many Tapirs. They tend to keep away from hiking trails as well as villages, such as Villa Mills in Costa Rica, where they have been hunted in the past. (Naranjo 2006). These studies also showed that no Tapirs are found near agricultural lands, whose formation by deforestation destroys the Tapirs’ habitat.


Figure 3: Map of Tapir Habitat. Ultimate Ungulate


Tapirs eat the stems, leaves, and fruits from over 100 species of plants, from various families including Poacae, Fagaceae, Solanaceae, and Rubiaceae. Studies have reported that they “forage in a zig zag pattern” (Terwilliger 1978; Cuaron, Matola and Rubio-Tolgler 1997). Although Tapirs have been found to prefer certain plant species, their broad diet allows them to live in a variety of habitats and at a wide range of elevations (Naranjo 2006). Tapirs are considered to be seed predators, because many seeds they consume are either destroyed through chewing and digestion or dispersed through expulsion. Tapirs also play an important role in seed dispersion by either spitting out the seeds from fruit they eat, or by defecating them. Baird’s Tapir is important for the maintenance of swamp ecosystems in Costa Rica and Nicaragua because of their effective ability to disperse seeds. In fact, Tapirs can disperse hundreds to thousands of seeds at a time, which have been found sprouting from their feces, often many kilometres away from the parent plants. Furthermore, Tapirs tend to defecate in streams, often further promoting plant growth (Brooks, Bodmer and Matola).


Tapirs have a 13-month gestation period and produce a single offspring, called a calf, which remains with its mother for the first two years of its life, until it reaches sexual maturity. For the first 10 days or so the calf remains hidden while its mother retrieves food; it then starts following its mother around. Females can have babies until they are approximately 10 years of age, and at most one baby every 14 months. Their low rate of reproduction is a contributing factor in population decline (Brooks, Bodmer and Matola).

Photo_2016-04-06_5_38_47_PMFigure 4: Tapir calf. Prague zoo


Tapirs are very shy and generally solitary but have been found to come together to feed and drink, where they communicate through vocalizations, whistles, and nose touching (Brooks, Bodmer and Matola; Terwilliger 2002). To locate one another, they usually use their sense of smell, or call out with a high-pitched whistle (Brooks, Bodmer and Matola). Although Tapirs are neither distinctly nocturnal nor diurnal, they tend to be most active at night (EDGE 2010). One study found that Tapirs were active 20.2% of the time during the day and 80.4% at night (IUCN 2002). It has been suggested that the Tapir’s behaviour is an adaptation to avoid the heat, as the large mammal would not be efficient at eliminating heat to return to its homeostatic temperature. Furthermore the Baird’s Tapir’s nocturnal activity would allow them to steer clear from humans (Foerster and Vaughan 2002). Tapirs are also highly sensitive to and fearful of noise, resulting in an avoidance of areas with greater human activity (Terwilliger 1978).


The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) categorizes Baird’s Tapir as endangered because of its significant decrease in numbers (IUCN 2002). Its declining population is primarily due to habitat destruction but hunting contributes to the loss (Cuaron, Matola and Rubio-Tolgler 1997; Foerster and Vaughan 2002). Estimates have shown there to be less than 5,500 Baird’s Tapirs left in the wild, with the majority in Mexico (over 1500), Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama (each with less than 1000) (IUCN 2002). Because of deforestation and habitat fragmentation, Tapirs now mostly live in protected areas and regions not easily accessible to humans. It is not certain whether these areas are adequately large enough to sustain Tapir populations long term (Naranjo 2009). Tapirs’ low reproductive rates make them especially vulnerable to extinction (Cuaron, Matola and Rubio-Tolgler 1997). Decreases in population size slowly recover; therefore, changes in their environment can cause great damage to the species’ survival.

Main threat: Effect of Deforestation

Central America today is home to 70% less forested regions than 40 years ago. Since Baird’s Tapir lives in these forests, much of its habitat has been lost. As forests become more fragmented, the general trend for Tapir populations is to decline. Tapir habitat, including rivers and areas with dense vegetation, are increasingly being transformed into land suitable for logging, farming and agriculture. The remaining forest fragments thus contain a smaller, isolated Tapir population. Many of these forest fragments in Mexico have shown a sharp rise in other species like collared peccaries and white-tailed deer, which Tapirs must compete with for food (Naranjo 2009).

Other threats: Effects of Cattle Farms and Agriculture

Cattle farms are potential source of disease which can harm Perissodactyla populations such as Tapirus Bairdii. The fences put in place for these farms also inhibit Tapirs’ movement (Cuaron, Matola and Rubio-Tolgler 1997). Furthermore, pesticide and fertilizer runoff pollute drinking water, and soil erosion on hills and steep slopes can be deadly (Naranjo 2009). Tapirs must also compete for food with free ranging farm animals like cattle and horses.

Photo_2016-04-06_4_24_07_PMFigure 5: Baird’s Tapir in Water. Los Angeles Zoo.


Baird’s Tapir in Costa Rica are likely found in the following areas: Arenal, Cordillera Volcanica Central, La Amistad, Corcovado, Osa, Guanacaste-Santa Rosa, and Llanuras de Tortuguero (Cuaron, Matola and Rubio-Tolgler 1997; Tobler 2002). More research is needed to map out Tapir presence throughout Costa Rica in order to determine with more precision the locations where they have survived and where they have been eliminated (Cuaron, Matola and Rubio-Tolgler 1997). Current studies are also needed for more accurate quantifications of Tapir population in Costa Rica. The most recent study to quantify the number of Baird’s Tapir in Costa Rica, which estimated the population reached no more than 1000, took place in 1990 (Vaughan 1990).


A main goal for protection of Baird’s Tapir is habitat preservation, which includes reducing forest fragmentation. Since Tapirs’ habitat usually approaches water sources, the quality of these bodies is vital to conserve as well. Monitoring and reduction of harmful chemicals in agriculture should be an important part of conservation efforts (Foerster and Vaughan 2002).


In 1992, the Costa Rican government passed a conservation law which protects Baird’s Tapir and other species from hunting. Current data is needed to verify the upholding of hunting-prohibition laws.

Because of their naturally low density and low birth rate, it is not believed possible for Tapirs to be hunted sustainably. Communities that hunt Tapirs for meat must switch to species with higher densities and birth rates, such as white-tailed deer, peccaries, and armadillos (Naranjo 2009).

In Mexico, Tapir populations are continuing to become isolated from each other, despite an increase in protected regions. This is likely because laws concerning unsustainable practices such as overhunting and crop burning are not properly imposed. Policy-makers are inconsistent in the laws they implement to protect endangered areas and frequently grant subsidies for conventional farming and cattle grazing. Conventional farming should also be discouraged and replaced by sustainable cattle ranches, organic agriculture and agroforestry (Naranjo 2009).

Environmental Education

If rural communities were to get involved in conservation efforts, the Tapir’s status could significantly improve. Jobs like ecotourism, Tapir observation, and feces and track counting should be introduced into these communities. Additionally, communities could host captive breeding areas for Tapirs, which would attract tourists and promote conservation awareness. Environmental education should be encouraged by governments to be taught in schools from elementary through to the end of high school and beyond. Schools and other institution should offer wildlife management courses to rural residents as well as students in larger cities (Naranjo 2009).


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Figure 1: J. Di Bartolomeo, 2016.

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