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.