Friday 20 March 2020

Birth of wild tapir offers hope for Brazil's endangered ecosystem

Researchers believe the calf was born in January and a second may be on its way

Jonathan Watts Global environment editor

Wed 18 Mar 2020 06.00 GMTLast modified on Wed 18 Mar 2020 06.03 GMT

Hopes for a recovery of Brazil’s most endangered ecosystem have been given a boost by the first birth of a wild tapir in Rio de Janeiro’s Atlantic Forest for more than a century.

Scientists said video clips of the baby tapir proved the initial success of a re-introduction strategy for the threatened mammal, which is often described as “a forest gardener” because it plays a vital role in the dispersal of seeds.

The images of the pig-like calf with a characteristic prehensile snout were captured by a camera trap in the Guapiaçu Ecological Reserve and released in Brazilian media outlets.

Researchers believed the calf was born in January and a second may be on its way because another adult female appears to be pregnant.

Maron Galliez, a professor of biology at the Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology of Rio de Janeiro, said this was a milestone for the reintroduction project, which has been eight years in planning and implementation.

Since 2017, four captive-bred males and three females have been put into the forest by the Refauna programme, which Galliez leads.

“The whole team is very happy,” he said “We now know the project is moving in the right direction.”

As with wolves in Yellowstone and beavers in the UK, the tapir reintroduction programme aims to accelerate restoration of a degraded natural habitat.

The Atlantic Forest, which once covered more than a million square kilometres along the eastern coast of Brazil and Argentina, has been steadily sliced and diced by loggers, plantation owners and economic development.

Trees now cover just 7% to 15% of the forest’s former area, mostly in shrinking fragments between expanding cities. But it remains a globally important ecosystem due to its role in carbon sequestration, water management and habitat provision to a wide range of species including capybara, armadillos, toucans and capuchins.

Tapirs were eradicated in Rio de Janeiro state in 2014, and biologists say their return is more than symbolic.

Growing to 2.5 metres in length and weighing more than 300kg, they are the largest terrestrial mammals in Brazil and play an important role in the dispersal of large seeds that can provide the pillars of the canopy. They also prune branches and leaves.

A study last year indicated tapirs could make reforestation quicker and cheaper because they tend to graze in degraded areas and their dung is packed with tree seeds.

“The birth of a tapir in nature indicates the formation of a population in the state,” Galliez said. “This is essential to restoring the proper functioning of this ecosystem.

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