MOUNTAIN TAPIR POPULATION MANAGEMENT
In the southern Andes of Colombia there is a conservation area that could hold a population of around 500 mountain tapirs, that is 20% of the world population of the species. This area of around 250.000 hectares, is made up mainly of the Puracé National Park, Cueva de los Guácharos National Park and Guácharos-Puracé Corridor Regional Natural Park. But beyond the limits of these protected areas, the habitat of mountain tapir extends in different directions, constituting a great natural refuge for the species, that if managed with scientific and technical criteria, could become the great opportunity for the conservation of the species, not only in Colombia, but globally.
The main objective of this project is to consolidate a mountain tapir management and conservation area that serves as a genetic reservoir for the species by maintaining a viable population with little risk of extinction in the long term. The work of MTF is to design such an area based on a careful analysis of the effective distribution and dispersion patterns of the species in the region, so as to achieve the integration of a range of habitats that can house a population of hundreds of individuals and for an indefinite period of time.
Another goal of the project is to develop ecological research that allows us to expand our knowledge about key aspects of mountain tapir management and conservation throughout its entire range. To this end, we hope to establish a couple of field stations in key sites in the management area, in order to have research teams that are permanently collecting and analyzing field data, as well as contributing to the monitoring of the species with community members who are a fundamental part of the project. Agreements will be established with national and foreign universities to attract young researchers to the study area, in order to encourage scientific production and strengthen the informed management of the mountain tapir conservation area.
The mountain tapir management area, known as Puraguá, because it connects mountain tapir populations from Puracé to Cueva de los Guácharos NPs, is divided in different sectors, depending on administrative boundaries, but part of the work of MTF is to reach agreements between the different environmental agencies in the area so, a coordinated effort can increase the effectiveness of the management of the area.
We expect that the management model we are developing in this pilot project, can be adopted in other regions of Colombia and eventually of Ecuador and Peru, where there are still mountain tapir populations.
A STRATEGIC AREA
The Puraguá Mountain Tapir Management and Conservation Area is a strategic area for the conservation of the mountain tapirs for various reasons:
- Holds a population of mountain tapirs probably big enough to conserve the species in the region.
- It’s a natural area that connects the biota of the eastern and central Andes of Colombia.
- Harbors a key population that can allow the genetic flow between mountain tapirs in the central and eastern Andes of Colombia.
- Local communities are organized and involved in the monitoring of biodiversity in different sectors of the area since more than a decade.
- There is a important previous work in the Guácharos-Purace Regional Park, that can be replicated in other sectors of the sanctuary.
In 2007, the Corporación Autónoma Regional del Alto Magdalena (CAM), declared regional nature reserve the strip of natural ecosystems that structurally showed a connection between Puracé and Cueva de los Guácharos National Parks in the south of Huila department, and which in turn is part of the Colombian Massif .
As one of CAM’s strategies to protect this natural reserve area, a community-based biodiversity monitoring program was implemented. To this end, it began to promote the formation of local environmental organizations, which were provided with camera traps and other equipment, and were given instruction in their use.
The CAM strategy had a twofold objective. On one hand, local communities in different parts of the regional park were involved in biodiversity conservation actions and on the other hand, important databases were generated from the photographic records obtained with infrared cameras.
As of 2018, the Mountain Tapir Forever (MTF) Project began collaborative work with CAM and community based group Asociación Huellas del Macizo, in which, at the request of these organizations, part of the existing information began to be organized and analyzed, while at the same time a strategy was designed to carry out research using scientific methodologies that would make it possible to respond to various questions about the biology and ecology of the mountain tapir, as well as the role of the biological corridor as a route for the dispersion of biodiversity between the central and eastern Andean mountain ranges of Colombia.
As of August 2019, preliminary field sampling was initiated to test methodologies with local technicians. The first approaches to local communities were made and two permanent photo-trapping stations were established.
By April 2020, it was decided to extend the initiative beyond the limits of the Guácharos-Puracé Regional Park, taking into account that the distribution of the mountain tapir exceeds the limits of this protected area. This is how the idea of a management and conservation area for the species appeared and the Puraguá Mountain Tapir Management Area was conceived.
The word Puraguá denotes a natural area that besides being associated with the tapir and other species such as the Andean bear, is associated with the pure and fresh water that is generated in the Colombian Massif and on which a large part of the human population of Colombia depends on, as well as the ecosystems and wild species of fauna and flora. Puraguá also maintains the idea of an area associated to Puracé and Cueva de los Guacharos national parks.
Thousands of pictures from camera traps have been obtained and the sampling continues in the field. An agreement with the oficial environmental agency CAM will permit to analyze additional data collected over a decade by local monitoring groups.
Two monitoring stations are permanently active in two salt licks and we expect to activate eight more before the end of 2020. A community based organization is in charge of the operation of the active monitoring stations and more groups will join the project in the next few months.
A process of education about the species has been initiated with the participation of the environmental authority (CAM) and community environmental organizations. Local schools will take part of the project through a hands-on education strategy.
Given the importance to confer continuity to the Puraguá project in the long term, an educational component was incorporated based primarily on the creation of environmental projects within rural schools located in the vicinity of mountain tapir territories.
The students involved on these projects are responsible for disseminating information about the species within communities, while engaging in field data collection and analysis activities, as a hands-on type of education.
In some cases, the students are in charge of analyzing project’s databases, including the analysis of tapir pictures from the infrared cameras, trying to recognize tapirs living near to them. Students also develop activities focused on arts or are trained in topics like bird watching, ecotourism guidance, nature photography and video, etc.
One of the objectives of the Puraguá Mountain Tapir Conservation Management Area project is to promote productive initiatives within the rural communities that live close to mountain tapirs. To do so, through a joint work with local environmental leaders, we build projects related to the responsible use of biodiversity, so as to reduce the pressures on the natural habitats of the species.
The goal of this program is to improve living standards of local human populations, so that farmers are motivated to conserve the mountain tapir after finding a relationship between the presence of the species and benefits to their communities.
Some of the projects that are starting to be promoted by the Puraguá Project are related to the improvement of food security for vulnerable families living near the tapir’s habitat, who in many occasions must rely on the transformation of natural ecosystems as the only alternative to cover their basic needs.
Our main objective is to preserve and, as far as possible, restore the areas of forest and moorland on which the mountain tapir depends along the Puraguá area. If we achieve the protection of the habitats, we will be able to gain time to better understand the ecology of the species and implement the actions that best fit the purpose of achieving the maintenance of the ecological processes and natural population dynamics of the species.
The Colombian Massif, where the Puraguá project is located, if one of the most important areas for fresh water conservation in Colombia. Some of the most important rivers that cross the country are born here.