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Andean Tapir Fund Photo Narrative
by Craig C. Downer
Purshi's Laguna Negra. Photo by Craig C. Downer.
THE MOUNTAIN TAPIR, ENDANGERED "KEYSTONE" SPECIES OF THE HIGH ANDES
Virgin cloud forest, upper Rio Upano, Purshi Sector, Sangay National Park. This is one of the highest and most extensive cloud forests left in the northern Andes, and is critical to the survival of the mountain tapir and many other species. The road project through this sector has been and remains the object of controversy and protest. The Ecuadorean government has made some concessions in its design, which will help slow the tide of colonization which inevitably follows when a road cuts into the wilderness.
Typical riverine meadow with myrtle trees and pampas grass, vital food and social habitat of the endangered mountain tapir. The mountain tapir is estimated to number less than 2,500 individuals throughout its range between northern Peru, Ecuador, and northern Colombia, where it occurs in isolated, fragmented pockets, most of which contain only marginal populations, according to preliminary estimates. These highland domains constitute a living sponge, a vital source of pure water for all life, including the many people living below them. It is hoped that the mountain tapir can be both protected and restored throughout its former domain. Culebrillas Sector, Sangay National Park, around 3,400 meters elevation.
El Sepulchro, Ucumari Regional Park, Central Cordillera, Colombia. One of the last
sanctuaries for the endangered mountain tapir, Tapirus pinchaque. Known for its ancient
ruins, this area is in the coffee-
Natural cascade, Ucumari Regional Park. This park was preserved by virtue of its
vertical cliffs rising around 300 or more meters from the valley floor on both its
north and south sides. But cattle and colonist intervention threatens the Shangri-
Here a male adult mountain tapir extends his prehensile snout, testing the air for
scent, perhaps of favored foods such as the anise-
This large adult mountain tapir, perhaps a female, follows astutely along one of its favored trails through dense bushes where choice food such as sedge and ferns are found. Note the white lips in this "Al Jolson of the Animal Kingdom." Mountain tapirs typically reach a body weight of around 350 pounds, a height of around 0.9 meters, and a length of 1.8 meters. They are hervibores which play a vital keystone role in the high northern Andes by dispersing viable seeds of many herbs, shrubs and trees, as my germination experiments and field observations have revealed. Laguna del Compadre. Podocarpus National Park, Ecuador, about 3,600 meters elevation.
Native Andeans, primarily Quechua-
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This photo depicts a typical misty cloud forest and riverine meadow scene in the
Culebrillas Sector of Sangay National Park. Most of the trees here are myrtle (Escallonia
myrtilloides). Some illegal cattle damage to the meadow is evident. Very sensitive
to disturbance, mountain tapirs disappear within a short time after cattle invade
their habitats and pollute their waters. Their disappearance is also due to the vaqueros'
rounding up the tapirs with their dogs and killing them, usually with machetes. Snouts
and hooves are sold in native markets for epilepsy cure and heart strengthener, thus
putting an inimical monetary value on the species for their dead bodies, oblivious
to the critical natural role they play. Their flesh is consumed and their woolly
hide is made into rugs and blankets. A solitary mountain tapir needs a large area
of around 3,000 acres to survive and is absolutely dependent on well-
At a very vulnerable age, this four-
Mother mountain tapir, about 3,500 meters elevation, at the southern foot of Sangay
volcano. The ashy labyrinth with its steep, easily eroded ridges is created by the
prodigious, ashy eruptions of the volcano, among the world's five most active. The
mother, whose gestation period is 13 months, and her normally single young stay in
close association during the first six months of the baby's life and in loose association
during the young's first year. A high, shrill whinny will be used by an adult to
warn of danger and also by the young to ask for succor. The bright, yellow-
Male adult mountain tapir swimming midstream in Rio Palora, El Placer Sector, Sangay National Park. The elongate skull, rounded reversible ears, white lip fringe, and prehensile trunk are readily appreciated. Like lowland tapirs, mountain tapirs may remain submerged for minutes at a time. They can poke their prehensile trunk above the water's surface to breathe while otherwise remaining concealed from hunters and their dogs, or from pumas, their natural enemies. They frequently take to water as a way of escaping pursuers. Being to a large extent nocturnal, this signifies leaving no scent trail for predators to follow.
The inner crater of the 5,230-
Native Puruhaes Indian guide, Sr. Roberto Casquillay accompanying wildlife ecologist Craig C. Downer at the brim of fiery Sangay Volcano's southern crater. December 6, 1991. Leaving at 1:30 a.m. on a clear night, the team of five reached the summit in seven hours. His thirteenth time to ascend the volcano and thus defy his tribal taboo, Roberto congratulated us saying that "our mothers had made good sons" when we arrived, exhausted at this awesome site and home to the tempermental goddess "Abuela," in whom the Puruhaes have believed for centuries. On this "rooftop of the world" overlooking the Amazon Basin to the east, one well appreciates life's overall majesty and wonder, and is restored in faith in such dramatically elemental places as the top of the Sangay Volcano. On the way down we had to dodge tumbling rocks and boulders loosened from the snow by the sun's rays. Later I noted the transition of life forms: lichens first; lower, accompanied by mosses; lower still, by grasses and sedges; lower still by shrubs, then trees. This was remarkably like a review of life's evolution on land.
The magnificent, 5,230-