the

The coolest animal you know nothing about ... and how we can save it | Patrícia Medici

This is one of the most amazing animals on the face of the Earth.

This is a tapir.

Now this, this is a baby tapir,

the cutest animal offspring in the animal kingdom.

(Laughter)

By far.

There is no competition here.

I have dedicated the past 20 years of my life

to the research and conservation of tapirs in Brazil,

and it has been absolutely amazing.

But at the moment, I've been thinking really, really hard

about the impact of my work.

I've been questioning myself about the real contributions I have made

for the conservation of these animals I love so much.

Am I being effective

in safeguarding their survival?

Am I doing enough?

I guess the big question here is,

am I studying tapirs and contributing to their conservation,

or am I just documenting their extinction?

The world is facing so many different conservation crises.

We all know that. It's all over the news every day.

Tropical forests and other ecosystems are being destroyed,

climate change, so many species on the brink of extinction:

tigers, lions, elephants, rhinos, tapirs.

This is the lowland tapir, the tapir species I work with,

the largest terrestrial mammal of South America.

They're massive. They're powerful.

Adults can weigh up to 300 kilos.

That's half the size of a horse.

They're gorgeous.

Tapirs are mostly found in tropical forests such as the Amazon,

and they absolutely need large patches of habitat

in order to find all the resources they need to reproduce and survive.

But their habitat is being destroyed,

and they have been hunted out of several parts of their geographic distribution.

And you see, this is very, very unfortunate

because tapirs are extremely important for the habitats where they are found.

They're herbivores.

Fifty percent of their diet consists of fruit,

and when they eat the fruit, they swallow the seeds,

which they disperse throughout the habitat through their feces.

They play this major role in shaping and maintaining

the structure and diversity of the forest,

and for that reason, tapirs are known as gardeners of the forest.

Isn't that amazing?

If you think about it,

the extinction of tapirs would seriously affect

biodiversity as a whole.

I started my tapir work in 1996, still very young, fresh out of college,

and it was a pioneer research and conservation program.

At that point, we had nearly zero information about tapirs,

mostly because they're so difficult to study.

They're nocturnal, solitary, very elusive animals,

and we got started getting very basic data about these animals.

But what is it that a conservationist does?

Well, first, we need data.

We need field research.

We need those long-term datasets to support conservation action,

and I told you tapirs are very hard to study,

so we have to rely on indirect methods to study them.

We have to capture and anesthetize them

so that we can install GPS collars around their necks

and follow their movements,

which is a technique used by many other conservationists around the world.

And then we can gather information about how they use space,

how they move through the landscape,

what are their priority habitats,

and so much more.

Next, we must disseminate what we learn.

We have to educate people about tapirs

and how important these animals are.

And it's amazing how many people around the world

do not know what a tapir is.

In fact, many people think this is a tapir.

Let me tell you, this is not a tapir.

(Laughter)

This is a giant anteater.

Tapirs do not eat ants. Never. Ever.

And then next we have to provide training, capacity building.

It is our responsibility to prepare the conservationists of the future.

We are losing several conservation battles,

and we need more people doing what we do,

and they need the skills, and they need the passion to do that.

Ultimately, we conservationists,

we must be able to apply our data,

to apply our accumulated knowledge

to support actual conservation action.

Our first tapir program

took place in the Atlantic Forest

in the eastern part of Brazil,

one of the most threatened biomes in the world.

The destruction of the Atlantic Forest

began in the early 1500s,

when the Portuguese first arrived in Brazil,

beginning European colonization in the eastern part of South America.

This forest was almost completely cleared

for timber, agriculture, cattle ranching and the construction of cities,

and today only seven percent of the Atlantic forest

is still left standing.

And tapirs are found in very, very small, isolated, disconnected populations.

In the Atlantic Forest, we found out that tapirs move through open areas

of pastureland and agriculture

going from one patch of forest to patch of forest.

So our main approach in this region

was to use our tapir data to identify the potential places

for the establishment of wildlife corridors

in between those patches of forest,

reconnecting the habitat

so that tapirs and many other animals could cross the landscape safely.

After 12 years in the Atlantic Forest,

in 2008, we expanded our tapir conservation efforts to the Pantanal

in the western part of Brazil

near the border with Bolivia and Paraguay.

This is the largest continuous freshwater floodplain in the world,

an incredible place

and one of the most important strongholds for lowland tapirs in South America.

And working in the Pantanal has been extremely refreshing

because we found large, healthy tapir populations in the area,

and we have been able to study tapirs

in the most natural conditions we'll ever find,

very much free of threats.

In the Pantanal, besides the GPS collars, we are using another technique:

camera traps.

This camera is equipped with a movement sensor

and it photographs animals when they walk in front of it.

So thanks to these amazing devices,

we have been able to gather precious information

about tapir reproduction and social organization

which are very important pieces of the puzzle

when you're trying to develop those conservation strategies.

And right now, 2015, we are expanding our work once again

to the Brazilian Cerrado,

the open grasslands and shrub forests in the central part of Brazil.

Today this region is the very epicenter of economic development in my country,

where natural habitat and wildlife populations

are rapidly being eradicated by several different threats,

including once again cattle ranching,

large sugarcane and soybean plantations,

poaching, roadkill, just to name a few.

And somehow, tapirs are still there,

which gives me a lot of hope.

But I have to say that starting this new program in the Cerrado

was a bit of a slap in the face.

When you drive around

and you find dead tapirs along the highways

and signs of tapirs wandering around in the middle of sugarcane plantations

where they shouldn't be,

and you talk to kids and they tell you that they know how tapir meat tastes

because their families poach and eat them,

it really breaks your heart.

The situation in the Cerrado made me realize --

it gave me the sense of urgency.

I am swimming against the tide.

It made me realize that despite two decades of hard work

trying to save these animals, we still have so much work to do

if we are to prevent them from disappearing.

We have to find ways to solve all these problems.

We really do, and you know what?

We really came to a point in the conservation world

where we have to think out of the box.

We'll have to be a lot more creative than we are right now.

And I told you, roadkill is a big problem for tapirs in the Cerrado,

so we just came up with the idea of putting reflective stickers

on the GPS collars we put on the tapirs.

These are the same stickers used on big trucks

to avoid collision.

Tapirs cross the highways after dark,

so the stickers will hopefully help drivers see this shining thing

crossing the highway,

and maybe they will slow down a little bit.

For now, this is just a crazy idea.

We don't know. We'll see if it will reduce the amount of tapir roadkill.

But the point is, maybe this is the kind of stuff that needs to be done.

And although I'm struggling with all these questions

in my mind right now,

I have a pact with tapirs.

I know in my heart

that tapir conservation is my cause.

This is my passion.

I am not alone.

I have this huge network of supporters behind me,

and there is no way I'm ever going to stop.

I will continue doing this, most probably for the rest of my life.

And I'll keep doing this for Patrícia, my namesake,

one of the first tapirs we captured and monitored in the Atlantic Forest

many, many years ago;

for Rita and her baby Vincent in the Pantanal.

And I'll keep doing this for Ted, a baby tapir we captured

in December last year also in the Pantanal.

And I will keep doing this

for the hundreds of tapirs that I've had the pleasure to meet

over the years

and the many others I know I will encounter in the future.

These animals deserve to be cared for.

They need me. They need us.

And you know? We human beings deserve to live in a world

where we can get out there and see and benefit from

not only tapirs

but all the other beautiful species,

now and in the future.

Thank you so much.

(Applause)