A squat, hoofed creature with the body of a pig and the elongated snout of an anteater appears in the photo projected on stage at the TED Fellows Retreat in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California. Roughly half the size of a horse, it lazily munches on a bunch of leaves just inches from a woman’s face.
“This is one of the most amazing animals on the face of the earth,” said conservationist Patricia Medici, the woman in the photo. “This is a tapir.”
The tapir, a large, powerful relative of the horse and rhinoceros, is one of the most helpful herbivores in the animal kingdom. As tapirs roam the forests and grasslands of Central and South America, they deposit fruit seeds through their faeces — promoting future plant growth and shaping the region’s biodiversity.
For this reason, they’re known as the “gardeners of the forest.”
But the tapirs are in serious trouble. Economic development, deforestation, poaching, and roadkill threaten to wipe this endangered species from the planet. Medici, who’s dedicated the last 20 years to animal conservation in her home country of Brazil, took the stage at the TED Fellows Retreat in August to share her revelation: It’s time we to get creative in our efforts to save the tapirs, before it’s too late.
Soon, Medici and the Tapir Specialist Group, which she chairs, will give tapirs GPS-enabled collars decorated with reflective stickers, so that the animals can cross highways at night more safely. It’s a small solution that could pay off in spades.
In 1996, when a fresh-out-of-college Medici first set out to study lowland tapirs — a South American-based species distinct for its stiff mane — very little was known about the elusive creatures. Tapirs are nocturnal, making them difficult to study.
She knew that in order to save the creatures from the ongoing annihilation of their habitats, conservationists needed more data. Where did the tapirs live? How did they move?
Over the years, Medici and her colleagues at the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative got up close and personal with tapirs across Brazil. The team installed motion-sensitive cameras in the woods, in an effort to document tapirs’ reproductive and social rituals. They also began capturing tapirs and outfitting them with GPS-enabled collars — a common technique used by conservationists around the world that
paints a picture of tapirs’ range of movement and preferred areas.
*Warning: Graphic image ahead.*
And yet, around every corner, Medici saw evidence that she wasn’t doing enough.
Dead tapirs lay on the side of the road, killed by oncoming vehicles. Sugarcane plantations, where tapirs never used to explore, were now covered in tracks because they intersected the animals’ migration paths. Children told Medici they knew how tapir meat tasted because their families poached them.
Medici asked herself, “Am I studying tapirs and contributing to their conservation? Or am I just documenting their extinction?”
“Despite two decades of work trying to save these animals, we still have so much to do if we are to prevent them from disappearing,” Medici told the crowd at the TED retreat. “We’ve come to a point in the conservation world where we have to think out of the box.”
One of the biggest threats facing tapirs is roadkill. At night, the animals cross highways to go from one patch of forest to the next, in search of food and water. But their eyes are small, which means it’s difficult for them to see in the dark. Their bodies are also dark, making them nearly invisible to oncoming traffic.
So, Medici and her team came up with a cheap, brilliant hack to prevent them from becoming roadkill: stickers.
The GPS collars that tapirs wear will soon be emblazoned with the same red-and-white reflective stickers used on semi-trailer trucks to increase visibility. Medici buys them at trucking stations.
The stickers will ideally help drivers see tapirs crossing the highway, preventing unnecessary deaths.
“For now, this is a crazy idea,” Medici said. “We’ll see if this is the kind of stuff that needs to be done.”
Medici plans to dedicate the rest of her life to animal conservation, particularly her beloved tapirs. When she questions her impact, she thinks about Patricia, her namesake, one of the first tapirs that her team captured in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest years ago.
“This animal deserves to be cared for,” Medici said. “And we human beings deserve to live in a world where we can get out there and see the benefit of tapirs.”