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Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan

Published 1997

Status and Action Plan of the Mountain Tapir
(Tapirus pinchaque)

Craig C. Downer
Andean Tapir Fund; P.O. Box 456; Minden, Nevada 89423 USA


Estimated not to exceed 2,500 individuals, the mountain tapir (Tapirus pinchaque) has disappeared over much of its former range. Today this endangered, high Andean endemic is restricted to 12 areas with 9 additional areas needing verification of tapir presence. A critical assessment of current threats and an Action Plan to address such threats is presented. The chief threats to the mountain tapir are destruction of cloud forest and pramo habitat coupled with overhunting. A detailed study of the mountain tapir combined with status information has helped determine ways of rescuing the mountain tapir from extinction. Tapirs need continuous cloud forest bordered along the upper margins by pramo, with an area of 3000km2 to support a reproductively viable population of adults. Thus, highest priority is protection of existing reserves and establishment of corridors to link these refuges. Population monitoring programs and establishment of additional reserves are also imperative. A grass-roots educational campaign coupled with programs that develop alternative lifestyles for rural people and which are functional in the high Andes is recommended. This can be accomplished through properly balanced agroforestry, ecotourism, and production of native products such as tapir teddies and tapestries. The prospects of translocations and captive-breeding programs are also discussed.

Natural history


The mountain tapir, Tapirus pinchaque (Roulin 1829) or Sacha Huagra (Quechua) is among the least known of any species of large mammal (Thornback and Jenkins 1982). The animal was first discovered by the French naturalist Roulin on the high pramos of Suma Paz in the eastern Andes south of Bogota (Roulin 1829, Cuvier 1829). In the 19th century, both Roulin (1829) and Goudot (1843) observed mountain tapirs in the wild.

Hershkovitz (1954) examined the evolutionary relationships among tapir congeners. The most comprehensive review of the mountain tapir's natural history is by Schauenberg (1969). Some paleontologists believe that the mountain tapir is more closely related to the ancestral tapir that reached South America than are the other two extant American tapir species (Hershkovitz 1954).

The Latin pinchaque refers to a mythical creature which may stem from the impressive giant mastodon which had earlier inhabited the Andean regions (Hershkovitz 1954). Spanish names for the mountain tapir vary from danta lanuda (woolly tapir) and danta cordillerana (cordilleran tapir) in Colombia, to danta negra (black tapir) in Ecuador, to tapir de altura (tapir of the heights), gran bestia (large beast), and bestia negra (black beast) in Peru. Danta is an old Spanish name for an elk-like grazer and is the common name for all tapirs throughout most of Latin America (National Textbook Company 1986).

On average the mountain tapir is about 1.8m long, 0.8m high at the shoulder, and 150kg in weight. Females tend to be slightly larger than males but are generally indistinguishable in the field. They possess thick, woolly, dark brown to coal-black fur, and white furry fringes about the lips, hoofed toes, and usually the tips of its rounded ears. The eyes are a glazy bluish-brown (Allen 1942, C. Downer pers. obs.). Among the four extant tapirs, the mountain tapir is the smallest (Walker 1964, Frdrich and Thenius 1968). Its black woolly fur both insulates and absorbs heat from the sun. Its splayed hooves allow it considerable versatility for locomotion in the high Andes, even on the snow banks and glaciers.


Prior to 1500A.D., the mountain tapir probably inhabited much of the temperate northern Andes from northern Peru along the eastern and central Andes of northern South America. North of the dry highland puna zone where the moist pramo biome is found (Ramsay 1992), the mountain tapir finds its niche in both pramo and cloud forest. The species is currently distributed from the Andes of northern Peru in the states of Piura and Cajamarca, and also in the Cordillera del Condor region (Mittermeier et al. 1975) north through the eastern cordillera of Ecuador, and on into the Colombian Andes, where it is found in both the central and eastern cordilleras, and perhaps the western cordillera (Fig. 2.1, Table 2.1).

Mountain tapir distribution map

Figure 2.1. Distribution of mountain tapir (Tapirus pinchaque)

Table 2.1. Threats to mountain tapir populations and habitats in areas currently, formerly, or possibly inhabited, and regions that can support a minimum viable population of mountain tapir
Country Currently, Formerly, or Possibly Inhabited Region Threats and Status
Venezuela Easten Andes
Perija PN (with Colombia) Y, C, D, F, H, L, N, ?f
El Tama PN (with Colombia) O, D, L, N, ?a, ?c
Colombia Eastern Andes
Catatumbo Bari PNN (Perija) Y, C, D, F, H, L, N, ?f
Tama PNN (with El Tama, Venez.) O, D, L, N, ?a, ?c
El Cocuy PNN O, C, D, F, H, L, ?a, ?c
Pisba PNN O, ?a
Chingaza PNN G, H, M, Mt, N, ?a
Sumapaz PNN (Roulin's discov.) G, C, D, F, H, L, Mt, N
Cordillera Los Picachos PNN G, C, D, F, H, L, M, N, ?a
Central Andes
Los Nevados PNN G, C, D, F, H, L, R
Ucumari Regional Park (Risaralda) G, C, F, H, L
Las Hermosas PNN G, C, D, F, H, L, Mt, N, R, ?a
Nevado del Huila PNN G, C, D, F, H, L, M, N, R, X
Purace PNN G, C, D, F, H, L, M, N, R, X
Cueva de Los Guacharos PNN G, ?a
Western Andes
Macizo de Tatama PNN Re, F, H, L, N, ?a, ?v
Farallones PNN Re, C, D, F, H, L, Mt, N, R, ?f, ?v
Nudo de Pasto
Munchique PNN Re, ?a, ?c
Galeras Flora and Fauna Sanctuary Re, ?a, ?c
Ecuador El Angel RE G, D, F, H, L, ?v
Cotacachi Cayapas RE Re, D, F, H, L, ?c, ?f
Cayambe-Coca RE G, C, D, L, M, Mt, R, X
Sumaco-Gal. PN G, C, D, F, H, L, M, X, ?a, ?v
Antisana RE (poss. PN) G, C, D, F, H, L, Mt, X, ?a
Cotopaxi PN O, ?a, ?c
Llanganatis Bosque Protect. G, D, F, H, L, X, ?a
Sangay PN G, C, D, F, H, L, M, Mt, R, X
Chimborazo Res. Prod. Fauna Y, ?a, ?f
Cajas Area de Recreacin O, C, D, F, H, L, R, ?c
Podocarpus PN G, C, D, F, H, L, M, Mt, R, X
Cordillera del Condor G, C, D, F, H, M, R, W, X
Zamora province G, C, D, F, H, L, M, R, W, X
Peru Piura state, border Andes G, C, D, F, H, L, N, X
Cajamarca state, Andean border G, C, D, F, H, L, N, X
Tabaconas-Namballe RE G, D, F, H, ?a
Cordillera del Condor G, C, D, F, H, M, R, W, X
Legal Status: Threat Code:
PNN Parque Nacional Natural (Colombian designation) C Colonization and agriculture;
PN Parque Nacional (Venezuelan or Ecuadorian designation) D Deforestation through slash-and-burn and/or lumbering;
RE Reserva Ecologica (Ecuadorian or Peruvian designation) F Deforestation through fuel gathering;
H Hunting;
Code: L Livestock invasion;
Y Possible former occurrence, but firm evidence lacking; M Mining activity;
O Firm evidence for former occurrence but doubtful
that current populations survive;
Mt Marketing mountain tapir parts for medicine, food, pelts, etc;
Re Reported but needs verification, remains doubtful until verified, may be Baird's tapir; N Narcotics cultivation and trafficking;
G Observed inhabiting the region in recent years (past 10). R Road construction;
W Warfare-related habitat and wildlife destruction;
X Region (in combination with adjacent) may support minimum viable population (>3000km2)
?a More assessment of threats needed;
?c Doubtful if currently, but reasonably believed formerly present;
?f Some authorities debate whether ever occurred here;
?v Recent field identification needs verification.
Note: This table should prove a reasonable guide to further investigation and efforts to save the mountain tapir.

Based upon recent reports the mountain tapir does not currently live in Venezuela, though it may have occurred opposite the North Santander state of Colombia in the vicinity of El Tama National Park in earlier times, judging from native accounts and place names (Downer 1991, 1996). It is also possible that this was a high-altitude lowland tapir (Allen 1942, Hershkovitz 1954, Thornback and Jenkins 1982, O. Linares pers comm. 1995).

Mountain tapir (continued)

Brooks, Daniel M.; Bodmer, Richard E.; Matola, Sharon (compilers). 1997. Tapirs - Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. (English, Spanish, Portuguese.) IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. viii + 164 pp.
Online version: http://www.tapirback.com/tapirgal/iucn-ssc/tsg/action97/cover.htm

Copyright © 1997 International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

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