International Partner Spotlight: Baird’s Tapir Survival Alliance

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A Baird's tapir faces the camera against a backdrop of grasses and herbs, its flexible trunk-nose extended with nostrils flared and teeth visible in a grin.
Baird’s tapirs use their prehensile trunks to strip bark and leaves, snorkel while swimming, and whistle when vocalizing.

Here’s a riddle: what has a trunk like an elephant’s and a body like a hippo’s? A tapir! These funny looking animals are actually more closely related to horses and rhinos. In the wild they play an essential role as tropic seed dispersers, giving rise to their nickname “farmers of the forest.” There are four species of tapir in the world, and the Baird’s Tapir (also known as the Central American Tapir) has been a key species at Zoo New England for almost 30 years.  

Within the zoo, our institution participates in the Baird’s Tapir Species Survival Plan (SSP) which links individuals together to make sure that captive populations remain healthy and genetically diverse. Our tapirs have offspring represented in zoos across the country, with another addition just last year with the birth of our tapir twins – the first ever recorded twin birth for Baird’s tapirs! These babies are also contributing to science in their own way, because baby pictures are in huge demand from tapir scientists! Scientists working with wild tapirs have no way of aging the calves that they see in the wild or catch on their camera traps and would like a database to compare. Pictures of our baby tapirs are used by multiple researchers for multiple different research projects.

A keeper wearing a mask bottle-feeds one of two baby tapirs in their off-exhibit area while the other baby tapir rests on a blue blanket.
Baird’s tapirs are first born with mottled stripes mimicking dappled sunlight reaching the forest floor, resulting in a distinctive “watermelon” pattern

Our conservation efforts don’t stop at the zoo, though! Our tapirs, as with all animals under our care, act as ambassadors for their wild counterparts. Our journey with tapir conservation started with a connection to the Proyecto Tapir Nicaragua project, which radio collared wild tapirs for reintroduction and research purposes.  

Building upon that connection, we have been able to partner with and support the Baird’s Tapir Survival Alliance (BTSA), which includes Baird’s tapir conservation organizations across Mesoamerica. They realized that in order to make a long-lasting impact, there would need to be a strong network of support where knowledge and experience could be shared easily and readily. With this alliance, Baird’s tapir conservationists have succeeded in creating a unified effort to save Baird’s tapirs across almost all of the core tapir areas spanning across country lines – a feat only accomplished for a few species around the globe.

Through many discussions with the BTSA team, it was agreed that Zoo New England’s support would have the most impact in Costa Rica where a countrywide education program was being built and implemented for the first time. Over the last three years, we’ve been proud to share stories and experiences of the BTSA team as funding and logistical support from ZNE have helped launch their education program, creating the connections needed to make behavioral and cultural changes possible. 

A pair Costa Rican school students in white shirts lean over a table with educational materials about tapirs. They are writing in notebooks while examining photos of tapirs, boxes of model tapir droppings, and plaster tapir tracks.
Costa Rican students making observations and taking notes from the education materials, including plaster tapir tracks, model tapir droppings, and photos of wild tapirs.

As a multi-pronged approach, BTSA targeted schools in communities where conservation work was already being conducted. Students were able to engage in new ways of learning, and envision themselves as scientists learning about the natural history of a Baird’s tapir and working towards protecting this endangered species. Here’s an excerpt from the field notes of an education specialist with the project, who traveled to small village schools in Costa Rica to teach the students about tapirs: 

A series of white tiles arranged in a hopscotch pattern set out on a wooden floor. The images on the tiles include a sprouting plant, a family of humans, a silhouette of a rhinoceros, a photograph of a tapir, and more.
The tapir hopscotch activity, including different squares for kids to write and talk about.

“The activity outside the classroom was about learning while playing. We made a hopscotch with pictures related to the tapir and tapir conservation. They jumped and landed on a picture and had to express what they think that picture means to tapir conservation or to the tapir. After they reflected on that and shared their answer with the rest, they proceeded to make a drawing about their answer or about what they learned. 

In the hopscotch outside, we let one of them lead the game, that person counted and decided how much the one whose turn was to jump was going to jump. They liked that and they all participated. When they spoke about what the images meant, they had some nice conclusions: 

Family: families are friends between them, so we could be friends with tapirs also. 

Rhino: They observed, one has a horn, the other hasn’t, but their body looks alike. 

They recognized the camera trap (they had been visited before, April 2018, and remembered me and some facts about the tapir) 

The image with a planet: “There’s a planet and we must take care of it” 

Jaguar: Most roared when they saw the picture.” 

Even during the pandemic, the BTSA team was able to adapt and continue reaching students with a remote learning curriculum that included an animated series and outdoor exploration.  BTSA’s presence in these communities remains strong as they continuously work towards becoming a long-term partner of the communities they serve while encouraging community members to become stakeholders in tapir conservation.

Many lessons have been learned through out these last three years, and we hope to share more news with you as the team shifts their focus on expanding this education program to other BTSA countries so that other BTSA members can build on and adapt this program for their own communities.