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Patricia Medici

Guardian of the Lowland Tapir

Brazil’s range of biodiverse biomes, including the Amazon (the world’s largest rainforest) and the Pantanal (the world’s largest wetland), are home to a surfeit of spectacular creatures for biologists to study. But for Dr Patricia Medici, it is not the colourful birdlife or the fearsome jaguar that interests her most. Instead, she has dedicated her life to the conservation of South America’s largest land mammal, one that receives little fanfare and yet is crucial to the health of vast ecosystems: the lowland tapir. Patricia refers to these herbivores as “the gardeners of the forest”, as the large amount of fruit and seeds they eat and subsequently disperse helps to maintain biological diversity in a number of different biomes.

“Am I helping to save tapirs, or am I just documenting their extinction?” This is the question that Patricia asks herself every day. This is what drives the Brazilian to ensure her research is implemented in a way that produces tangible results, not just for lowland tapirs but the people with whom they share the land. Patricia and her team have already had success in Brazil’s Pantanal, Cerrado and Atlantic Forest biomes, and will soon be expanding into the Amazon. Conservation measures include tracking and collaring tapirs to understand their movements, reducing roadkill deaths, and promoting community involvement through environmental education and habitat restoration. In Brazil, tapirs have a big PR problem – their name is the equivalent of ‘jackass’ in the US – so changing public perception of this keystone species is another crucial part of Patricia’s work. Her aim is to make all Brazilians proud of this fascinating mammal.

Patricia established the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative in 1996 and serves as the chairperson of the IUCN SSC Tapir Specialist Group, a network of over 130 tapir conservationists from 27 different countries worldwide. She has also worked for the Brazilian non-profit Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas (Institute for Ecological Research) since its inception in 1992. In 2019, in recognition of more than 25 years of dedicated conservation work, she received National Geographic’s prestigious Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation. Among her other distinctions are a TED Fellowship, the Harry Messel Conservation Leadership Award, the Future for Nature Award and the Whitley award.

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Interview with Patricia Medici

Could you tell us briefly about your history as a conservationist, and what led you to dedicate your career to the lowland tapir?

I always joke around about this, because I don't really have a romantic story to tell. I wasn't in love with tapirs since I was little. When we founded our institution (IPÊ) in 1992, it was a group of 10 people who really wanted this organisation to be about species conservation. One day we were just sitting at a bar drinking beers, dreaming about what we were about to do, and we made a list of species that we wanted to work with. They were all species that were difficult to study: they were nocturnal, solitary, lived in remote places, or were species that people had little knowledge about. The tapir was on that list because, in the early 90s, there was nothing known about this animal in the wild. So we made that list – we used to call it the ‘dream list’ – and whenever we had a little funding, we would pick one species from that list and start something. At some point, I picked tapirs and started raising funds for the project, and the rest is history. It kind of took over my life!

You’ve called tapirs “the gardeners of the forest” and “one of the most amazing animals on the face of the earth”. What is it about tapirs that you find so amazing, and how do they play such an integral role in their ecosystems?

There are many reasons. They’re a species that has been very successful in the evolution process. They've been around for zillions of years because they can adapt to all different kinds of ecoregions and different types of habitat. They've been very successful and survived a bunch of different events, including the ice age, so I find that fascinating. They’re also large – the lowland tapir is the largest land mammal in South America. They have really big home ranges, and as they eat a lot of seed-filled fruits, they’re constantly moving and defecating, bringing those seeds to different parts of their habitat. We like to say that they play around with the structure of their habitat. They create biodiversity. So a forest where tapirs go extinct will be very, very different from a forest where you can still find tapirs.

Another message we try to convey is that although tapirs are super adaptable species, they’re facing many different threats throughout their distribution in South America: roadkill, wildfires, pesticide contamination, poaching, all kinds of stuff. They also have a very long reproductive cycle, where mothers undergo 14 months of gestation, with only one baby being born. The young also have a high mortality rate, so we’re actually talking about close to a two-year reproductive cycle. Let’s say in a given population we have 100 tapirs, and they're suffering some kind of threat or combination of threats. If that population declines by 50%, it's very unlikely that the population will recover. So there are several justifications, good and bad, for why these animals are fascinating and why we should conserve them.

What threats do lowland tapirs in Brazil face today, and what effective conservation measures can ensure their survival?

At this stage, we have identified all the different threats in three of the four biomes – Atlantic Forest, Cerrrado, and Pantanal – and we're starting in the Amazon. So we know what we're dealing with and we have plenty of numbers; for example, in the Cerrado we have monitored tapir roadkill statistics for six years now. We know how many tapirs die and have collected all kinds of mortality data from the carcasses. When we have a certain dataset about a certain threat in a certain place, we work with different professionals that are experts on these different topics to develop what we call mitigation plans. Here in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in the Cerrado, we have already developed three mitigation plans for three different highways. We then have to go to all the different stakeholders and try to sell the idea that we absolutely have to implement these mitigation plans. We have to ask ourselves, who do we need to talk to to make this happen? Who needs to pay for this?

The legal system is crucial. We’re currently suing the state of Mato Grosso do Sul because of one of these highways. We have lawyers with us who are working on all the different threats, but we also have to employ different strategies at times. When it comes to pesticide contamination, we really don't think we'll be able to reach the powerful industry that's behind this threat, so we’re working with the media and publishing our findings for the public to see. Poaching is a crime here in Brazil, but we also need to talk to people and make sure they’re not being encouraged to poach tapirs. There’s a bunch of social marketing strategies that we can use to do this. In the Amazon we're going to deal with mining and palm oil, as well as poaching and roadkill once again. These threats will have different contexts, so we'll approach each one on a case by case basis, the same with all the different biomes.

In a country like Brazil that has such a wealth of incredible wildlife, how difficult is it to convince the public to care about tapirs?

Here in Brazil we have a real problem, because if you want to say someone lacks intelligence, you call that person a tapir. It's like the equivalent of ‘jackass’ in the West. It’s a really bad thing to say. Tapirs have a huge PR problem in Brazil because a lot of people don't even know what a tapir is, and the people who do know what a tapir is think it's an animal that lacks intelligence. Some say that I shouldn’t worry too much, because people are called pigs, snakes, and all kinds of horrible names... but I think it really affects our ability to make people proud to have a certain animal in their country.

When you talk about jaguars here in Brazil, everybody says wow, they’re so majestic, so powerful –that's the perception. So communication is one of the most important components of the project. I have a full-time communications expert as part of the staff. We use whatever tools we have available – the web, social media, the press, art, photography, events, fundraisers. We also have a huge network of environmental journalists here in Brazil who have embraced the tapir’s cause, and they help us all the time. Besides science and research, it's the most important thing here in Brazil when it comes to tapir conservation.

You must have spent a lot of time with tapirs over the years. Do these curious-looking mammals have any funny or interesting quirks that we might not know about?

They are actually super intelligent. Studies have found that they have huge amounts of neurons, kind of equivalent to elephants. When you talk to zookeepers they will tell you that tapirs are easily trained for medical procedures or interactions with the public. They are insanely good swimmers and can stay underwater for 7 minutes at a time. They have horrible hearing and are basically blind, but they can smell you when you get up to 500 metres from them, which is pretty incredible. The females are excellent mothers and actually the males are excellent fathers, which is something new that we found out. It wasn't in the literature that we had before, but we have several records on camera traps that show the males participating a lot in the process of raising the young.

As nocturnal and solitary creatures, tapirs are notoriously difficult to study. What role can the Brazilian public play in lowland tapir conservation?

There are so many answers to this question, but when it comes to Brazil and the very serious PR problem that we have here, the most important thing to do is spread the word. This is really, really, really what we need here. Brazil is a very large country with loads of people in very large cities, but we still have lots of different types of habitat. There are 13 different ecoregions in the country and we have tapirs in four major biomes, but lots of people still don’t know what this animal is.

In all the communication work we do, we try to disseminate all the different messages that I’ve spoken about previously – the threats tapirs face, the gardeners of the forest, the slow productive cycle, etc. – but we need to reach people so that they begin to care about tapirs and then talk to their friends and family. They need to spread the word about things like being careful when driving – a collision with a small lizard is one thing, but a collision with a 250kg animal can kill you. Lots of people die. We actually talk about this quite a bit – with the roadkill problem, it’s not only about conserving tapirs, it’s about ensuring the safety of the people who drive around the highways of the country. I think the main message is we need people to learn about tapirs and help us spread the word.

What impact has the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative had since you founded it in 1996?

All the data that we gather and compile is important for the scientific understanding of tapirs, but it's also very important that we apply this data to conservation. For example, all the information that we have about tapirs in the Atlantic Forest has been used for the creation of two protected areas in Sao Paulo state. All the information that we have gathered about roadkill in Sao Paulo state and Mato Grosso do Sul has been used to mitigate this threat on different highways.

We had a highway that crossed for 20km through a national park in Sao Paulo state, and an average of six tapirs died a year here. We modelled that population and we knew that if tapirs kept dying at that rate, we would lose tapirs in that particular park in 40 years. That’s when we went to the media and the managers of the park. They had radars and signage installed, and we reduced tapir deaths from six a year to one every three years. This is just one example of where we have been able to apply our information to promote action.

In terms of education, we have reached thousands of people throughout the country by talking about tapirs through our communications channels. We have also trained thousands of people around the world, some of whom are now establishing their own programs in Brazil and other tapir range countries. We always make sure we're applying the information we gather in the wild for the benefit of tapirs, to try to solve problems in the biomes in which we work.

In a world where deforestation and development are making natural habitats increasingly fragmented, we’ve seen some of our Natural World Heroes espouse the benefits of wildlife corridors. How can these corridors be established and protected in conjunction with governments, communities and landowners?

Corridors were a big thing for us in the Atlantic Forest, where we established our first project in 1996. We worked in a state park called Devil’s Hill and a bunch of fragments around the park, so it was more like a landscape where we operated, and the identification of tapir pathways through the landscape was a big part of what we did. That’s why we radio-collared the first animals, as we wanted to know if they would go from the park to the fragments and back through the rivers, the gallery forests, the croplands. We wanted to know how they used the landscape.

The park is not very big, so the whole concept was to use tapirs as landscape detectives, and once we identified the pathways we could build the corridors for them. We managed to do that in conjunction with a jaguar project. We had a team of people who used data from the tapirs and jaguars to select the best places to establish the corridors. There were big cattle ranches, big farms, sugarcane plantations, small settlements of landless people – big properties as well as small properties – it was a bit of a puzzle to visualise and implement the borders. But we did it.

This is actually the most well-known example of wildlife corridors here in brazil. Tapirs are using the corridors, but we found out that they don’t necessarily need the corridors to go through the landscape. On the one hand this is great, because the matrix of the landscape is permeable – they go through it and can get to wherever they want to go. But on the other hand, they are very vulnerable when going through the landscape, as they can be hit by cars and they can be poached.

Right now, we don’t really see corridors as a super important strategy for tapir conservation. We're monitoring the corridors in the Atlantic Forest, with camera traps and sound surveys. We know they’re using them, but we also have to make sure we solve problems – roadkill, poaching, pesticide, etc. – in direct ways.

In addition to the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative, you also founded the Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas (Institute for Ecological Research) in Brazil. Could you tell us how the IPÊ’s integrated action model has been developed to benefit wildlife, landscapes and communities?

The very first project we had at the IPÊ was a black lion tamarin program in the Atlantic Forest. We had a team of researchers, myself included, in the field. We were there all the time, just watching tamarins and collecting information. We had mountains of data, but once you get involved with research conservation, you realise that it's not all about being in the forest with the animals you're studying. It's also about going and talking to people, making sure that the habitat is conserved. So that's how IPÊ started expanding a little bit, because research is not enough by itself – we also need to do education and landscape conservation, we need to make sure the park is well protected, etc.

We created a model where we have the species in the very centre, the focus of the goal you have in your mind, and then like the layers of an onion, we have all the other components that you also have to explore if you are to conserve that species. We actually call it the onion conservation model! This is what IPÊ is all about. It's about having a major focus on several different species and identifying what needs to be done, besides research, to conserve all of those different species. We have about 90 people in our team now: we have biologists, veterinarians, forestry engineers (including myself), but we also have environmental educators, environmental lawyers, sociologists, and all kinds of people as part of the team. We need all different types of expertise if we are to do everything that needs to be done.

How does the IPÊ promote socio environmental responsibility and socioeconomic benefits for local communities in order to protect biodiversity?

In 1995/96, while working on the black lion tamarin program, we realised that we were in a state park that was surrounded by large farming and cattle ranching properties, putting us at the very epicentre of agrarian reform in the country. We had people from all over Brazil coming to that part of Sao Paulo state to claim plots of land for a living. It was a social movement, and a group of people from that region were leading that process in the country. Wherever you went in the car you would see huge landless people camps, just waiting for the government to distribute land from unproductive farms and cattle ranches.

That was the kind of atmosphere in which we were trying to talk about conservation. These were really, really, super poor people who were claiming plots of maybe 5 hectares, so they could raise 12 cows for milk production and survive doing that. We couldn’t talk to these people about how cute the black lion tamarin is, or oh tapirs are gardeners of the forest and we need to conserve them; it would never fly. Conservationists always work in different contexts, but there is always a community involved and there is always a habitat under threat. When promoting conservation, you have to make sure that the people get something back, that they get some kind of a benefit from conservation.

This is when we started to work with agroforestry. The corridor work was very much part of this. Instead of telling people that we need to go through their property and take space from their crops because we need animals to be able to move, we started proposing alternatives. We asked them to plant native trees, maybe coffee, and in some cases high-density valuable tree species, so that in several years they could become profitable. We sold the idea as a bit of a savings account – “you’re going to have this really valuable timber for the future, you can send your kids to college with that kind of money”.

This is what we did when we started doing this socio environmental responsibility thing. Whatever activities we propose, we always make sure that the conservation measures we propose come combined with some kind of benefit to the communities around the areas that we operate.

Who is your own personal Natural World Hero and why?

I’ll give you three. First, my vice director here in Brazil, Claudio Padua. He has pioneered the study of black lion tamarins in the country and has been a big mentor to me, a big hero. There is also a conservationist from Sri Lanka by the name of Rudy Rudran, who used to work for the Smithsonian Institution in the US. This guy, he did something really amazing. He developed a network of wildlife conservation training programs and travelled the world training young conservationists. I was one of them – I trained with Rudy in China. There is a network of thousands of people from all over the world who have been trained through Rudy’s programs. He’s a big one for me. When it comes to tapirs I have to mention Sharon Matola, the Founding Director of the Belize Zoo. She was the person who started talking about tapirs and why we should conserve them.

What has been your best natural world experience to date?

The first time I saw the Pantanal floodplains. The area in which I now work is in the very heart of the Pantanal, in Mato Grosso do Sul state. On my first visit, we got there at the end of the flooding season. It was relatively dry, so we had access to the area, but there was a lot of water around the place still. I remember getting to the floodplain and it was white with egrets. There were all kinds of animals – capybaras, feral pigs, marsh deer, jabiru storks, a single tapir crossing the water – it was a wildlife overdose! I remember losing my breath. It was incredible.

What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?

Enjoy! You have to make sure you get out there every once in a while. You know, I’ve been doing this for 24 years now. At some point, most conservationists decide they want to teach, or sit down and write – and that’s fantastic, because we all benefit from that – but I cannot do that. I have to be in the field; it’s what I do. I don’t need a classroom, because I would much rather teach people out here. It’s where I brainwash people to make sure they will be ready to pick up the torch when I drop dead. I believe you have to be in nature, regularly… the energy, the atmosphere, the peace… that’s my message, always.