The Biologists and Activists Fighting to Save Endangered Tapirs in Costa Rica
Costa Rican biologist Esteban Brenes-Mora was just 5 years old the first time he saw a tapir, and he immediately fell in love with the large, unusual animal. "The tapir was walking on the beach close to Corcovado National Park," he says of the moment that helped impact his future career. "It was a highlight for me; it led me to do what I do now."
Twenty-five years later, Brenes-Mora is a tapir expert and founder of Nai Conservation, a Costa Rican organization that is working to save the endangered species from its worst enemy: humans. Tapirs have been around for some 35 million years, but deforestation, highways through its habitats, and poaching have caused their numbers to drop significantly. It's estimated that the population of the Baird's tapir as decreased by more than 50 percent in just the last three generations. And in turn, what hurts the tapirs hurts the environment.
"Tapirs are considered gardeners of the forests; they plant seeds and have a big impact on enriching the soil," Brenes-Mora explains. "The tapirs are even saving us from climate change. There's evidence from the Amazon that when tapirs are gone from certain forests, carbon sequestration in those forests decreases."
Experts have warned that tapirs, and specifically the Baird’s tapir that Brenes-Mora saw on that beach as a child, may soon be classified as critically endangered if current trends are not addressed.
Thankfully, Brenes-Mora has a plan.
I’m in Costa Rica on assignment to create an awareness-building film about the endangered tapir species. My colleague Alisha and I have just wrapped one week documenting the work of Nai Conservation, the local tapir research and conservation organization Brenes-Mora founded in 2015, and we're putting the final touches on our film in one of the most heavily tapir-populated (and protected) habitats, Corcovado National Park.
Of course, seeing a tapir in the wild would add an important element to our film, but even after a full week with the passionate, driven team behind Nai Conservation, we haven't seen even one.
This isn't surprising, though; few locals ever encounter the elusive tapir. The Baird's tapir—Tapirus bairdii, or known locally as danta in Spanish—is one of four tapir species in the region. It's indigenous to Central America and is a mammalian relative of the rhinoceros and horse, though it looks much more hog-like than either of the two (it has no relation to either boars or pigs). It is largely nocturnal and spends most of its day resting, hidden in the rainforests before foraging for fruits and berries in the afternoon. This makes spotting one in the wild even more rare, but Brenes-Mora and the Nai team want us to see a tapir as badly as we do.
Before launching Nai, Brenes-Mora spent six months in Malaysia after getting his biology degree, working with RIMBA, an NGO studying tigers, flying foxes, and other native wildlife. But since seeing that tapir on the beach when he was young, it had been his childhood dream to work with tapirs, and a fellowship with the Zoological Society of London gave him that chance. According to Brenes-Mora, the fellowships are meant to provide early-career conservationists and biologists an opportunity, through funding and mentorship, to get a foothold in their desired field. For him, that meant tracking tapirs through the highlands of Costa Rica's Talamanca Mountains.
One day in 2015, Brenes-Mora and a friend reached Cerro de la Muerte—Costa Rica's "mountain of death," the highest point on the mountain range. They were discussing creating a logo for the fellowship project, but Brenes-Mora’s friend saw longer-term potential.
"He was like 'whoa, you have more than a logo, you have more than a project, you can actually start something here,'" Brenes-Mora remembers.
And start something he did. The idea quickly evolved into the full-scale conservation project, Nai. (In the indigenous Bribri language of Costa Rica, nai means danta, or tapir.) Under Brenes-Mora's leadership, the organization is bringing together people with a variety of skills to raise awareness and preserve the tapir species. Nai's biologists and veterinarians perform critical, in-the-field research that informs tapir conservation action. The organization's teachers educate children on the tapir species as part of its "Salva-Dantas" program, which prepares youth for a lifetime of helping the tapir. And graphic designers and artists like Mauricio Sanabria, an artist who joined the team as a twentysomething in 2017, create eye-catching signs and other content to help spread the word about Nai—and ultimately the tapir—online and across local communities.
Over the past four years, this seed of a project has grown into a grassroots movement. The team's bright yellow "tapir crossing" stickers—the symbol of support for Nai—are popping up in restaurants, homes, and businesses throughout the country. One delicious example is in Costa Rica's capital city of San José, where Lucía Cole and Mauricio Varela, the founders of Tapir Chocolates, donate a portion of all profits to Nai.
And all the way down in the southwestern-most Osa Peninsula some 200 miles away, two of Nai's biggest supporters, Steven Masis and Deyanira Hernández, plan to guide us through the jungle in search of a tapir.
Masis and Hernández lead wildlife tours across the tropical Osa Peninsula, including through the country's popular, secluded Corcovado National Park. Both in their early thirties and with backgrounds in biology, Masis and Hernández join Nai and its partners on virtually all research trips through the remote, 160-square-mile park. Of all the places to spot tapirs in Costa Rica, Corcovado's dense, foggy rainforests—accessible only by boat or tiny plane—are the best bet. But even with their exceptional tapir-sighting success rate, these two activists don't take those sightings for granted.
Any encounter with the endangered tapir is rare and special. Due to threats like poaching (its hide is highly valuable on the black market), habitat loss, road kills, and trafficking, populations are plummeting throughout its Central American habitat. At this point, Brenes-Mora estimates only 1500 tapirs remain in Costa Rica, and research suggests that the total population of Baird’s tapirs in the entire region is only around 3000.
The possibility of losing the tapir species is problematic for planet Earth. The tapir holds a unique ecological "superpower" that’s becoming more important by the second: the ability to help combat climate change. They can eat over 200 pounds of fruit, plants, and seeds a day, and in the process, they essentially clear the forest floor, till the ground with their rummaging, and spread the seeds that they eat through transference and droppings. And they've been doing this for millions of years.
Despite the challenges, the tapir movement is not all doom and gloom. Earlier that week, I joined Nai for an afternoon installing "tapir crossing" road signs in central Costa Rica's Cerro de la Muerte mountains, and saw several indicators of success throughout the day.
For one, even erecting these street signs is progress. The team used trap-photo data and subsequent tapir and road traffic models to project exactly where traffic accidents occur most frequently, and they have used that data to convince the transportation department and local communities to allow tapir-crossing signs at high-risk sections along the busy Inter-American Highway, which runs right through tapir habitat.
"All of our decisions are based on actual data," Brenes-Mora says. "Based on that data, we start making decisions and lobby to include our ideas into policy.”
Brenes-Mora, a pragmatic biologist who has formed strong working relationships with key government leaders and NGOs, is hesitant to claim the decrease in road kills as a success just yet. A couple of years is not enough time to impact the population of a large mammal, he says (especially one with a 400-day gestation period for a single calf—repopulating the species will take a very long time).
But four years is enough time to create a widespread, engaging movement among locals. From Brenes-Mora's perspective, this unity surrounding the tapir is the ultimate success.
"Without people, it doesn't matter if we have protected areas, it doesn't matter if we're protecting the populations," he says. "Without engaging people, we won't be able to secure the species in the long term."
While Nai is his brainchild and tapirs are his lifeblood, Brenes-Mora doesn't want the future of Nai—or, more importantly, the tapir species—to depend solely on him.
"I'm always asking myself 'what will happen when I die?'" he muses. "I don't want tapirs to be unattended if something happens to me. I don't want to be the tapir guy, I want Nai to be the tapir group. I want all the members of the team to be the tapir people. It's hard to do that, but we're on the right track."
With the future in mind, Brenes-Mora is priming people like Nai research lead and team veterinarian Jorge Rojas, artist Mauricio Sanabria, and dozens of other dedicated team members to help carry the tapir mission forward. They tour and give talks, like at a recent weeklong event they hosted at the University of Costa Rica with the Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation, where Brenes-Mora and Rojas spoke at a symposium for students, professors, and activists about threats to tapirs, their importance to the environment, and how to best help and protect them.
That's why our trip down to Corcovado National Park is a milestone for the movement—the plight of the tapir is generally less known than that of the whale or tiger or rhino. Raising awareness about the tapir is one of its best chances at survival.
Alisha and I had originally planned to take the two-day Corcovado trek on our own, but after some consideration (and likely Brenes-Mores's urging, given the rough terrain we'd be facing—i.e. jungle off-roading), Sanabria joined us for a chance to see the animal he's been working so hard to save. For all the work he has done as a researcher and activist and the time he's spent in the field, he has yet to see a tapir in the wild.
Suddenly, our naturalist guide bursts from the forest yelling, "Un tapir! Un tapir!," and Sanabria takes off running. Despite the fact that Masis and Hernández see tapirs more regularly than most, they're leading our 100-yard blitz down the beach with him—smiling their "Christmas morning grins" every step of the way.
Finally, after much huffing and puffing, we've made it. We've caught up with our guides and are now face to face with the remarkable tapir we drove hundreds of miles to see.
We're awestruck and on adrenaline highs, but the tapir couldn't be less interested in the five of us. He offers a polite nod between super-sized mouthfuls of vegetation, but he has business to attend to—like strolling along the shoreline, urinating in the ocean, and then passing out in the sun.
Sanabria locks eyes with the now-sleepy tapir, and in a moment of near-solitude with the elusive creature, Sanabria can feel the magnitude of the work he's been doing.
"It's touching to finally see what you're working for," he says. "It's a little sign of hope."