Celebrate World Tapir Day

April 27th celebrates World Tapir Day, mobilizing awareness of tapirs worldwide and efforts to protect them. Represented by four species globally, tapirs are some of the most unusual and least known species in the rainforest. However, before we have begun to learn much about these incredible animals, many tapir species are being pushed to the edge of extinction.

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Resembling pigs with trunks, tapirs are actually related to horses and rhinoceroses. Belonging to an ancient order of animals known as Perissodactyla, (which means animals with strange toes), tapirs have changed little over millions of years. Fossils from the Eocene, over 20 million years ago, give evidence that ancient tapirs were once found in Europe, North America, and Asia.

During this period, tapir diversity was at an all-time high. Over time, most ancient tapir species died out – likely due to competition with other herbivores. However, three tapir species crossed the Central American land-bridge into the southern continent three million years ago. The fourth got stuck in Asia, separated by ice ages and continental drift.

Today tapirs are represented by four species – three found in Central and South America and one in Southeast Asia.

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With adults able to grow over 800 pounds, the Malayan Tapir is the largest and only remaining species in Asia. Distinguished by their size and striking black and white piebald coloration, Malayan Tapirs live in the lowland rainforests of Sumatra, Malaysia, Thailand, and Burma. They are classified as Endangered throughout their range.

In Latin America, the most numerous species is the lowland or South American tapir. Distributed widely across South America, this species also lives in lowland rainforests and is classified as Vulnerable. Further North, Baird’s tapir range across much of Central America from Southern Mexico to Panama. Classified as Endangered, these tapirs live in a variety of habitats ranging from dry forests to misty cloud forests.

The rarest and most endangered tapir species is the Mountain tapir. Also known as the Woolly tapir, they live in the frigid high altitudes of the Northern Andes and are named for their warm and protective coats. Mountain tapirs are the smallest and least known of tapir species. With an estimated population of less than 2,500 and declining, they are classified as Endangered.

Averaging several hundred pounds as adults, tapirs have little to fear from most predators. Designed like a tank, they can crash headlong into the undergrowth dashing would-be attackers against trees. Sporting powerful jaws and sharp canine teeth, they also pack a painful bite. Despite these intimidating traits, tapirs are actually shy and retiring vegetarians.

Using their prehensile, trunk-like noses, they clean leaves off branches and pluck choice fruits from overhanging limbs. Faithful to rivers and mud wallows, tapirs feed in the morning and evening following well-worn trails through the rainforest undergrowth.

In the heat of the day, they often retire to the water to cool off. Submerging themselves, they leave nutrient rich dung balls and are often cleaned by small fish that congregate around them cleaning parasites off their thick hides. Due to these behaviors, scientists have found that tapirs play an important role in the freshwater ecology of tropical forests.

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Similarly, tapirs play an important role on land. Just as elephants shape the plains of Africa, tapirs influence the structure and composition of the tropical forests in which they live. Every day, they gulp down saplings, selectively prune trees and vacuum up fruit and seeds from the forest floor. As they roam they deposit consumed seeds, promoting future plant growth and playing a vital role as seed dispersers across the forest.

Despite the disproportionately important role tapirs play in forest ecosystems, they remain amongst the most poorly studied mammals on Earth. Just as science begins to learn more about these fascinating animals, they face extinction. Today, all four of the world’s tapir species are endangered or vulnerable, due to hunting and habitat loss.

Tapirs are weird, wonderful, and in need of more protection.

All four species are found in a number of Rainforest Trust’s project sites, including current projects in Sumatra’s Bukit Tigapuluh Ecosystem, where the Malayan Tapir lives, and in several past project sites in Latin America such as Peru’s Sierra del Divisor National Park, home to Lowland Tapirs.

This World Tapir Day, learn how you can help protect the tapir’s rainforest habitat in Sumatra.

Camera Traps Showcase Sumatra’s Stunning Wildlife

Camera trap videos from Sumatra reveal an array of rare wildlife, highlighting the astonishing wealth of biodiversity found in the island’s rainforests. These images are providing conservationists with invaluable data on the perilous state of these species and the habitats they depend on for their survival.

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With less than a quarter of Sumatra’s rainforest remaining, the conservation of large, functioning ecosystems has become crucial for the survival of the island’s endangered species. The largest surviving block of rainforest in Sumatra is called the “Leuser Ecosystem” in Aceh province. As pressure mounts on Leuser’s forests, wildlife needs protection more than ever. Successful conservation strategies come from understanding the biology, behavior, and habitat requirements of these rare species.

Using battery-operated waterproof cameras with remote sensors and night vision, researchers have collected candid video of a variety of rarely seen species. Images of sun bears strolling nonchalantly through the forest and shy marbled cats pausing in forest clearings give a glimpse into the lives of these elusive animals, while allowing analysis of their behaviors and distribution patterns across Leuser.

Some of the most exciting video comes from a mother Sumatran Rhinoceros and calf. With less than 100 Sumatran Rhinos surviving in the wild, they are amongst the most critically endangered large mammals in the world.

Rainforest Trust has identified the Kluet watershed as one of the most vital areas for conservation of Sumatran Rhinos in the Leuser Ecosystem and is working to strategically purchase private properties in the watershed to establish the 184,795-acre Kluet Wildlife Reserve (approximately the size of New York City).

The new Kluet Wildlife Reserve lies adjacent to the proposed Gunung Leuser National Park and is crucial to blocking a key access point into the watershed and park. Furthermore, the new reserve lies within an important wildlife corridor for Sumatran Elephants and has been identified as some of the most important habitat for Sumatran Rhinos in Leuser – the last refuge for the species.

Learn how you can help Rainforest Trust to protect the Leuser Ecosystem.

Protecting Sumatra’s Last Great Wilderness

To celebrate Earth Day’s 46th anniversary on April 22nd, Rainforest Trust is working to conserve threatened rainforest in Sumatra by establishing the new Kluet Wildlife Reserve. Located within the great Leuser Ecosystem, this 6.4-million-acre tropical wilderness is the last place on Earth where the Critically Endangered Sumatran Rhinoceros, Sumatran Orangutan, Sumatran Elephant and Sumatran Tiger are all found within one ecosystem. As the largest surviving block of rainforest remaining in Sumatra, it is the only place in the world capable of supporting the survival of all four species.

The smallest of the world’s rhino species, the Sumatran Rhino, is listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered and is rapidly running out of space and time. Today, fewer than 100 exist in the wild – scattered in small, isolated populations. Threatened by poaching and habitat loss, the Leuser Ecosystem is the last refuge and global stronghold for the species.

The area’s myriad ecosystems also provide habitat for an astounding number of other species as well. Clouded leopards, White-handed gibbons, Sun bears, Marbled cats, Dholes (Asiatic wild dogs) and over 192 bird species have also been documented here, including the Critically Endangered Helmeted Hornbill.

Following decades of relentless deforestation for growing swaths of oil palm and rubber plantations, less than a quarter of Sumatra’s rainforest remains. The presence of large, functioning forest ecosystems like Leuser has become absolutely crucial for the survival of the island’s endangered species.

The proposed 2-million-acre Gunung Leuser National Park is a step in the right direction. However, lying outside the park’s boundaries are some of the richest biodiversity areas with the most important animal populations. Rainforest Trust has identified the Kluet watershed as one of the most vital areas for the survival of Sumatran Rhinos and Sumatran Elephants and is working to strategically purchase private properties in the watershed to establish the 184,795-acre Kluet Wildlife Reserve (approximately the size of New York City).

The new Kluet Wildlife Reserve lies adjacent to the proposed Gunung Leuser National Park and is crucial to blocking a key access point into the watershed and the proposed National Park. Furthermore, the new reserve lies within an important wildlife corridor for Sumatran Elephants and has been identified as one of the most important areas of habitat within the greater Leuser ecosystem for Sumatran Rhinos.

By controlling access to one of the most important watersheds and actively patrolling the boundaries of the new reserve, Rainforest Trust can help safeguard the future of Sumatra’s last great wilderness. In the process, the grave threats to this spectacular area can be diminished, halting access for wildlife poaching and the extraction of forest products while ensuring the protection of Leuser’s outstanding biodiversity.

Header photo: Today fewer than 100 Sumatran Rhinos exist in the wild. Photo by Willem V. Strein.

Near Extinct Plant Rediscovered in Geometric Tortoise Reserve

Scientists with Rainforest Trust’s partners in South Africa recently re-discovered a plant species on the Geometric Tortoise Reserve so rare it was thought to be extinct.

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Last year, Rainforest Trust partnered with the Turtle Conservancy and South African Turtle Conservation Trust (SATCT) to create the 212-acre Geometric Tortoise Preserve. Located in the Upper Breede Valley of western South Africa, the new preserve provides habitat for an estimated 100-200 geometric tortoises—a tiny and highly endangered tortoise no bigger than the palm of a human hand. Turtle Conservancy experts believe this community represents one of the last and largest viable populations of geometric tortoise in the world making the new preserve a crucial sanctuary for the species.

In addition to providing much needed protection for Geometric Tortoises, scientists recently discovered that the preserve holds one of the only known populations of a rare plant species. Aspalathus amoena is categorized as ‘near extinct’. However, on a recent survey Douglas Euston-Brown from the South Africa Program of the Turtle Conservancy re-discovered the plant growing in the preserve.

Euston-Brown first found a small population of the plants on a nearby farm named Groenvlei three years ago, and the survey yielded only 7 individuals. The new survey at the Geometric Tortoise Reserve yielded a population of over 50 of the plants – boosting the known population by over 500%.

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Aspalathus amoena is one of many rare plants found in the Lourensford Alluvium Fynbos, a critically endangered vegetation area endemic to the region around Cape Town and the preserve. This unique vegetation is part of the greater Cape Floristic Region. Encompassing the Western Cape of South Africa, the Cape Floristic Region is an area of extraordinarily high diversity and endemism, home to over 9,000 vascular plant species, many of which are endemic and found nowhere else in the world.

Discoveries like this highlight the importance of protecting the area both for endangered Geometric Tortoises and a host of other rare plant and animal species. To build on the preserve’s success, Rainforest Trust recently helped Turtle Conservancy and SATCT purchase two additional parcels of land that expand the reserve by 598 acres. This added protection gives both the Geometric Tortoise and the many rare plants of this spectacularly biodiverse area an even better chance for recovery.

Learn more about Rainforest Trusts efforts to establish the Geometric Tortoise Preserve.

A Botanical Wonderland

Recently Lou Jost, co-founder of EcoMinga, and visiting scientists from the Orchid Conservation Alliance journeyed to the Dracula Orchid Reserve in northwestern Ecuador. Braving cold and wet conditions, the scientists managed to identify and photograph a variety of spectacularly beautiful and highly endangered orchid species.

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The visit comes less than a year since Rainforest Trust helped establish the 652-acre Dracula Orchid Reserve. Protecting vital habitat for a number of highly endemic Dracula and Lepanthes orchid species, the new reserve is a botanical wonderland of rare and endangered orchids – many found nowhere else.

Since many orchids have no nectar, they effectively need to ‘seduce’ pollinators in strange and ingenious ways.

Some orchids have evolved to puff out pheromones that smell like female insects, thereby attracting males that later pollinate them. Lepanthes, found in the Dracula Reserve, is an example of this phenomena. Many orchids in the Dracula genus are pollinated by fungus gnats, attracted by a blob of tissue that looks and smells like the fungus on which they normally lay their eggs.

Amongst orchid genera, few are as specialized and unusual as Dracula orchids. Their center of diversity is the wet Chocó cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia.  These orchids are so localized that the majority of species are found at three or fewer sites. Because these orchids are so restricted in their habitat requirements, they are inherently susceptible to extinction by habitat loss. It is estimated that 14 Dracula species have already gone extinct due to deforestation events, which is equivalent to one species becoming extinct every three years due to forest conversion.

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Despite being one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, Ecuador’s Chocó region is also one of the most threatened, with less than 10% of the original forest remaining intact. In addition to being a biodiversity hotspot for orchids and endangered wildlife like Spectacled Bears, these lush cloud forests provide most of the water resources for towns and cities along the Pacific coast.

“Rainforest Trust has been a key partner for EcoMinga,” said Lou Jost. “They are quick to respond to strategic conservation opportunities in the region, and their matching funds program has been a wonderful incentive for other groups to join the effort to build the Dracula Reserve.”

Learn more about the Dracula Orchid Reserve, and Fundacion EcoMinga’s ongoing efforts to protect the Chocó rainforest.