High Andean Weaver of Harmony Shows Us The Way


Upper Rio Upano Valley. South Sangay N.P. with thick virgin Andean forest. Ca. 4,000 m. elev. All photos © Craig C. Downer


By Craig C, Downer, Wildlife Ecologist Andean Tapir Fund, P.O. Box 456 Minden, NV 89423 Tel. (775) 901-2094 Email: ccdowner@aol.com

Modified from an article submitted to and published by The Nature Conservancy ca. August 10, 1996 (Revised on January 23-29, 2020)

In the most rugged and inaccessible regions of the northern Andes at 6,000 to 16,000 feet elevation, a secretive and little known mammal runs a high risk of extinction. Its sparse populations are being intensely hunted; and its habitat is being destroyed at a rapid rate. Yet, the ecological benefits this animal confers are far-reaching and of crucial importance. Its positive influence is enjoyed by many diverse species, including our own, and extends to regions far from the beautiful cloud forests and paramos it inhabits.

I am referring to the extraordinary mountain tapir, Tapirus pinchaque. The world’s attention was first drawn to this endangered mammal in 1828 when it was discovered near the Suma Paz divide high in Colombia’s Cordillera Oriental by the French naturalist Xavier Roulin. He named it for a mythical creature: “el pinchaque” whose legend had been handed down for generations among local Indians and which may bear relation to the mastodon which inhabited South America thousands of years ago. Though weighing 350 pounds as a mature adult, standing 0.9 meter high at the hip and measuring 1.8 meters long, in ways other than size thenmountain tapir is at least equally as impressive as the mastodon.

Pitch-black-furred adult mountain tapir runs down grassy slope on west side Sangay Volcano. Gynoxis trees surrounding. All photos © Craig C. DownerAll photos © Craig D. Downer

Just what then makes this mammal so special? Called the “A1 Jolson of the animal kingdom” for its dramatic, chiaroscuro appearance, to many at first glance, it seems grotesque. But this animal must be appreciated in its proper element: the often steep cloud forest and soggy paramo habitats where all its features and behaviors coordinate in an adaptive fashion.

Its versatile, foot-long, prehensile snout is used for breathing, drinking, feeding, sensing, balancing, courting, fighting and bathing and is considered key to the impressive evolutionary success of the tapir line over the past 55+ million years. Its thick, black, woolly fur is of vital insulating importance in the cold, wet Andean heights, where lashing rain, chilling snow and even driving hail come frequently in storms, often of Amazonian origin. Its coal-black fur also allows it to absorb the intense rays of the Andean sun when it does happen to shine, thus both to warm and to protect itself by blending into the shadows and thus evading its predators such as the puma.

Its furry white lip and ear fringes contrast with its black body fur to give it a striking gestalt image useful in recognizing its own kind in the dark forests it inhabits or at night when it is often active. For this largely solitary animal whose individual territory averages 880 hectares of oft-precipitous terrain, such an innate recognition pattern has great survival value, serving during courtship and the rearing of young.

With a 13-month gestation period, a mature female produces one offspring about every two years. This makes her a slow reproducer but a mother who devotes much care to her young during the first year of its life, when it is camouflaged with spots and stripes and is wont to issue shrill squeals similar to the warning signal of adults I have heard.

The mincing way the mountain tapir has of walking on its spade-like hoofed toes (3 on each rear foot and 4 on each forefoot) and of bobbing its head and trunk up and down as it sniffs the air, though funny to a flatlander, are of critical importance in securing a firm foothold and maintaining equilibrium on the steep and slippery Andean slopes — often in excess of 45 degrees. These steep slopes afford the mountain tapir one of its best means of escape from pursuers as do the swift Andean streams into which it instinctively plunges to evade pursuers.

Like other, more lowland-dwelling tapir species, mountain tapirs are incredible swimmers and divers.

— Appreciated in its free wilderness home, “el pinchaque” is a paragon of grace, versatility and fortitude, a species whose evolution traces that of the high Andes’ own spectacular rise! Since its ancestors first entered South America when the Isthmus of Panama reconnected the continents about 3 million years ago, this “living fossil” has had a long time to harmonize its lifestyle to terrain, weather, fellow species, etc.

— The last time I saw mountain tapirs I was at the southern base of Sangay Volcano around 11,550-feet elevation. An older female was grazing in loose association with a younger, subadult male, likely her offspring. Each tapir instinctively cropped a few leaves or fruits from a bush, then moved on like a silent wave, sensing each new tree, bush or herb with its elephantine proboscis, judiciously taking a portion, but so as not to kill the plant. I have learned that the mountain tapir feeds on a diverse array of plants, including ferns and bromeliads, and digests its often coarse leafy food through a symbiosis with intestinal microorganisms located in a post-gastric caecum where fermentation takes place. Through defecation it disperses the viable seeds of a large fraction of the flowering plants it consumes (ca. 42% in my study area in Ecuador’s Sangay National Park, a spectacular, ecosystem-diverse natural treasure). Thus, many of the tapir’s food species come to fill vacant niches far afield from their mother plants. In Sangay, the tapir’s role as seed disperser is crucial. And also, due to its post-gastric caecal digestive system, it contributes much more organically intact humus to the soils, making them much more nutrient rich and provident on a longer lasting basis than is the case with most pre-gastric, multi-stomach digesting ruminant herbivores with cloven hooves. This great gardening ability the tapirs share with other members of the mammalian order Perissodactyla including members of the august horse family Equidae and redoubtable rhinoceros family Rhinocerotidae.

At the heart of the park, the 17,300-foot Sangay Volcano thunders spectacularly. Its eruptions open up hundreds of square miles of vacant ecological niches for reoccupation by a diverse array of animals and plants, many seeded by the tapirs. Wisely, in the profuse ash and cinders and even molten lava it ejects, the volcano provides for a renewal of mineral nutrients required for the long-term functioning of the ecosystem — and rich seedbeds for the tapir to sow.

— Sangay National Park has been recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO largely for its extraordinary diversity of ecosystems, as well as its spectacular volcanoes and natural  scenery. But unless immediate and intelligent action is soon taken, the threats that caused the World Heritage Site office to add this park to its “In Danger” list in 1992 will soon succeed in destroying its ecological integrity. Much of this was due to that extreme violation of some of the parks most important virgin habitats and highest Andean forests by constructing the infamous Guamote-Macas road.

Continued indiscriminate burning of cloud forests and paramos for short-term agricultural advantage signal disastrous long-term consequences. We need only consider the desertified Andean lands near to Sangay to learn this lesson. On the mighty 20,561-foot Mount Chimborazo, which faces Sangay on the west, paramos are desiccated and not a grove of native forest remains, at least that most people have ever noticed. Due to over-cultivation and overgrazing and the abuse of steep slopes and watersheds, Chimborazo has suffered extreme desertification, but efforts are being made to remedy this by the Ecuadorean government and conservation organizations, who have introduced endangered Vicuna successfully here. Vast regions both to the north and south of Sangay National Park teach the same lesson. Even a drive up from Riobamba via Alao to the park reveals the “writing on the wall”: a pitifully gully-eroded and dusty, wind-scoured, western Andean escarpment. Here humanity’s history of disregard and abuse of soils, waters, plants and animals would only continue to climb closer to the top with each succeeding year were it not for the assiduous and caring diligence of park officials and ecologically aware citizens. Sangay National Park is all that separates this still well-watered region from the in-many-ways tragic fate of Chimborazo, where no mountain tapirs remain.

The mountain tapir’s absence is being noted by ecologists and felt by all through a general simplification and unravelling of the highland ecosystem which profoundly influences lower ecosystems.

Elevation-wise, the world’s highest growing palm and Colombia’s national tree, the majestic Quindean Wax Palm is failing to reproduce in many northern Andean areas and is in danger of extinction. Since the mountain tapir eats the nuts of this palm, its decline is likely linked to that of the palm; and the palm is declining in areas where mountain tapirs are no more. Highly preferred by the mountain tapir and of vital edaphic importance as a fixer of nitrogen, the highland lupine is also being impacted by the tapir’s disappearance and for the same reason. –The decline of hundreds of species in any given mountain tapir habitat and of thousands throughout the high northern Andes is linked to the serious disappearance of the mountain tapir. As the mountain tapir is lost, a vital element, or “keystone,” for keeping the highland sponge alive is lost and creatures as far away as the heart of Amazonia suffer as a consequence.

Over most formerly occupied areas of Colombia as well as Ecuador, northern Peru and western Venezuela, mountain tapirs have already become locally extinct. Hopefully the estimated 2,500 mountain tapirs that still manage to survive in about 20 isolated regions in Colombia, Ecuador and northwestern Peru can somehow override the current “war against nature” that is, in effect, being waged by humanity. But current assaults upon the mountain tapir’s last populations and habitats must be quickly reversed if this is to change! This can be accomplished by fomenting an enlightened appreciation of the mountain tapir in the wild through public education and by inspiring educational examples of alternative lifestyles involving all economic levels of society.

–Fortunately, many people both in the Andes and worldwide are concerned for the future of the Andes’ majestic wilderness regions. Therefore, it is hoped that areas of a minimum of 300,000 ha of contiguous habitat will save viable populations of the mountain tapir and these will be joined by corridors wherever possible to keep up genetic diversity. Teamed with government and conservation organizations, the Andean Tapir Fund along with other organizations such as The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and  Nature and Culture are promoting projects designed to rescue some of this beleaguered species’ last redoubts. The Andean Tapir Fund has ongoing projects in northern Peru, Ecuador and elsewhere. For details and hopefully to support, read about the Cerro Negro sanctuary proposal, paramo proposal, and Sangay National Park proposal on this organization’s website https://andeantapirfund.com. These professional projects will stave off the destructive designs of multi-national mining companies and thwart the cruel and disrespectful providers of rare animals such as this tapir to private collectors, trophy hunters and zoos.  The Nature Conservancy has a “Parks in Peril” program that includes from north to south: Colombia’s vital aquifer, Chingaza National Park; Ecuador’s treasured Cayambe-Coca and Antisana nature reserves, and the crucial Podocarpus National Park well as Peru’s precious Tabaconas-Namballe Ecological Sanctuary. Perhaps, TNC will consider adding the beleaguered but very worthy Sangay National Park to this dynamic program.

Since my intensive telemetric study of this endangered survivor of the ages in Sangay National Park, I have also done ecological inventories of six rivers from their paramo headwaters in the part to where they join the Amazon rainforests to the east and my reports have sparked improvements in park and tapir protection. I have also learned to what upper limits the Lowland Tapir of the Amazon basin ascends and to what lower limits the Andean tapir descends, as well as noting an unusually high occurrence of the amazing Woolly Monkey atop some tall trees around 10,000 feet elevation. The new superintendent of the park, Christian Clavijo has invited me to return as a special guest of the park, to take a tour to revisit the mountain tapirs and the beautiful forests and paramos where I observed them, and to deliver a special conference on this species to professionals and public alike. And I very much look forward to doing so, provided some basic support is forthcoming from contributors.

… Observing mountain tapirs over nearly two decades has given me a special insight into the life of the high northern Andes. There is a special harmony woven between this herbivore and the diverse plants and animals that share and help make its beautiful home, including even its natural predators, the puma and spectacled bear. I have discerned wisdom and care in every movement and plant selection, in every mannerism and feature of the animal. To observe the mountain tapir thus in its wilderness home, freely interrelating with all species, is to feel oneself integrally related to a magnificent creative freedom and shared aliveness.

But the most necessary work to be done to save the mountain tapir and its wilderness home is with people … with ourselves. Somehow we must find within the ability to spiritually acknowledge and intellectually care for the Great Rest of Life. We must imagine untried possibilities for harmony — and follow “el pinchaque’s” own fine example for achieving this.