A Talk on the Wild Side.
Tapirs are a critical species for maintaining healthy forests. Photo by Nick Hawkins/Nai Conservation
By LEVI NOVEY
The small bee had stung me on my cheek. But I was not very concerned. I walked inside the ecolodge, checked myself in a mirror and then more excitedly looked at the photos on my camera. Even though we were only taking short breaks, I was getting great photos of the colorful hummingbirds congregating around a feeder outside. They and the incredible view from the lodge were an awesome bonus to the task at hand.
I was at this inspirational location in a national park in Costa Rica for the second session of the Baird’s Tapir Survival Alliance, an international effort to save the unique and charismatic Baird’s tapir.
Back inside, my companions and I prepared to meet again. Everyone got coffee or tea before we settled back into another set of presentations, activities and discussions. This training was focused on communications, and I was there to listen and help lead discussions focused on how to help the Alliance accomplish its outreach and communications goals.
A fiery-throated hummingbird. Photo by Levi Novey/USFWS
In many ways, this was the beginning of something that could turn out to be extraordinary. Previously, conservation efforts for Baird’s tapirs had occurred in Central American countries in isolation. The Alliance represented the first time that experts throughout the region would work together to save the species.
Like the rest of the Alliance, I had quickly fallen in love with Baird’s tapirs. With a short elephant-like trunk and large ears, they look distinctive and are also an animal that’s easy and fun to draw. As the largest mammal in Central America, these giant herbivores are the only animal capable of eating, digesting and dispersing seeds for certain species of large rain forest trees. Known as “Gardeners of the Forest,” tapirs are a critical species for maintaining healthy forests. As climate change and rapid deforestation continue to escalate and transform the region, tapirs will be a necessary ingredient for reforestation efforts. In addition to their ecological role, tapirs have been culturally important for centuries.
But as estimates indicate that only 4,000-5,000 tapirs remain, the stakes are high. It’s thought that their population has declined more than 50 percent in the past 30 years. Habitat loss, poaching and deaths on roads are the key reasons why these important animals are endangered—and they could be gone sooner than we think.
Members of the Baird’s Tapir Survival Alliance take a rest during our hike through tapir habitat in Tapanti National Park, Costa Rica (Left to Right: Luis Herrera, Raquel Leonardo, Levi Novey, Ninon Meyer, Chris Jordan, Nicole Leroy-Beaulieu, Esteban Brenes-Mora and Armando Dans). Photo by Baird’s Tapir Survival Alliance
This fear has become all too common for me and my colleagues in the Service. It seems like almost every week, I see another research or news article that estimates how many species of plants and animals will go extinct in the near future, and how unprecedented the intensity and speed of extinction has become. I’ll admit it: There are days when this “Extinction Crisis” we face seems insurmountable. I get sad and frustrated. I think of the many species we work on in our International Affairs Program, both well-known and obscure. I wonder if we are spreading ourselves too thinly. There are species such as the charismatic vaquita, which in my opinion has a high likelihood of being declared extinct in the near future. In addition to mammals, so many other kinds of animals and plants are also at risk. We might not ever know their names. Yes, there are some success stories, but I know fewer of them than I would like to. As I write this, the bushfires in Australia are wiping out wildlife on a scale I’ve never witnessed in my lifetime, and it’s impossible to contemplate what this could mean. With doubt I wonder, “Certainly we can reintroduce species like kangaroos and koalas to the wild after the fires, right? Their habitat will slowly regenerate, right?” While many of us will optimistically bring our can-do positivity to this challenge and others, the truth is that I can’t help but question whether it will be enough.
On one of the final days of the Alliance’s meeting, we took a hike through tapir habitat together to check some camera traps for images of tapirs. It rained off and on, and we hiked up and down many steep slopes. This was the first time I can remember being probably the oldest, slowest and most out-of-shape person on a hike—and I was only 39 at the time! It was a far cry from my younger park ranger days. It’s just something I guess you have to accept once you are behind a desk in Washington, DC, most days of the week, trying to do big things to make a difference. I could not help but miss the field.
Levi checks a camera trap with Esteban Brenes-Mora of Nai Conservation. Photo by USFWS
But despite feeling older and less fit, it was by this point that I was also at my happiest. The whole week had been terrific—not just because we were discussing and planning how to unite conservation and communications efforts, but because I felt so inspired by the young professionals I had gotten to know. They are entrepreneurial, professional, intelligent, obsessed with tapirs, curious about nature, passionate about making other people understand why tapirs are so cool, funny, fun, optimistic, caring, non-assuming, confident, the type of people you would want to call friends. I felt like if Baird’s tapirs are going to be saved from extinction, these are the people that will do it.
I feel proud and honored to have been a part of the genesis of this professional alliance and new group of friends. This is the fuel that keeps me going. From what I often hear, it’s the same for my colleagues. The people on the ground fighting for the conservation of species around the world inspire us and give us hope, despite the odds against wildlife and the habitats they depend on. Ultimately, it might not be enough to save every threatened species from extinction. But we can save some of them, and the best chance we have is each other. n
LEVI NOVEY, International Affairs Program, Headquarters