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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



Guamote-Macas road construction violates a cliff which for centuries protected the virgin Purshi Sector of Sangay National Park and the upper headwaters of the Rio Upano, about 4,000 meters elevation. Chimborazo state, Ecuador.


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-growing Risaralda state where the natural resource agency CARDER has a program to protect wildlife and their wilderness habitats. Narcoguerillas are one of the chief threats together with opium growers in many areas of remaining mountain tapir habitat in the Central Cordillera. It is at base the expanding human population with its idea of "progress" which parasitizes the natural ecosystem today. Oblivious to the natural values, centuries-old and unquestioned attitudes and the lifestyles they engender constitute the chief culprit menacing the natural peace and harmony in places such as these. The beauty of the wilderness reflects God's perfect ordering and proves a great comfort to those who harmoniously attune. With population pressures soaring and without the adequate promotion of alternative lifestyles (such as the cultivation of the ancient, protein-rich grain Quinoa), even these legally protected areas are today seriously jeopardized. It is all a question of values, which means a question of awareness and not "taking the natural values for granted."


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-La-like setting unless government authorities will defend this ancient life home of the mountain tapir.


Here a male adult mountain tapir extends his prehensile snout, testing the air for scent, perhaps of favored foods such as the anise-scented Arracacia, member of the carrot family, or perhaps for a female in estrus. Thick, black, woolly fur protects the mountain tapir from the cold, misty climate of the spongy-soiled cloud forests and treeless paramos lying between about 1,500 and 4,500 meters elevation.


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-speaking, in the Atillo Lakes region just inside Sangay National Park and to the east of the Purshi Sector. These people practice falconry using local hawks and falcons. The brave and hardy "paso fino" horses have been man's faithful companions for centuries, since first brought to the New World by Spanish Conquistadores. Here these Andeans celebrate their traditional "carnival" in February, 1991. Imposed by the Spanish upon aboriginals, the livestock culture has decimated vast regions of the high Andes, drying up vital water sources. Obliviously, its adherents continue to destroy remaining cloud forests and paramos at an alarming rate. To wit: nearly one half of all of Ecuador's remaining forests were destroyed in the decade of the 1980's alone. Especially hard hit were the bioregion's surviving montane forests. Although efforts exist to transform these societies to more harmonious life styles by making people more cognizant of the unique natural values here in place, or at least restorable, the overall trend or scenario remains alarmingly tragic. Wherever humanity dwells, our species must learn to appreciate "what's there" and has been there, evolving an intercomplementary relationship for thousands of generations, for millions of years. In this our Earth home we people must learn to play a harmonious role, filling our justified niche but not overwhelming the natural world. Approximately 4,000 meters elevation.


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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-protected, extensive cloud forest and pristine paramo refuges, similar in size and quality to the 1.4-million acre Sangay National Park, for their long-term survival. Mountain tapirs love and require moist, humid habitats commonly receiving 2-4 meters of precipitation per year.


At a very vulnerable age, this four-month-old female mountain tapir displays spots and stripes useful as camouflage in the steep Andean forests, bushland, and tundra-like paramos. Here pictured, she is eating Miconea crocea, a bush in the tropical Melastomataceae family and a favored food in many areas. Tapirs are browsers who consume many tough leaves, fern fronds, and even coarse, silicaceous horsetails. Their post-gastric, or caecal, system of fermentative digestion permits them to assimilate the nutrients from a wide variety of Andean herbs, shrubs, and trees - themselves composing a great living treasure in their free and naturally balanced state. Taken near human settlement, about 3,400 meters elevation, northern Ecuador.


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-flowering Calceolaria bush is a favored food item of the mountain tapir. These delicate habitats have soils which are quickly eroded when domestic livestock herds invade. If increased protection is not soon achieved, this frequently hunted area of Sangay National Park will soon be overrun by cattle.


A well-muscled, adult male mountain tapir here pictured in the mid-stretches of Rio Palora, El Placer Sector, on the eastern side of Sangay National Park, about 2,700 meters elevation. Like lowland tapirs, mountain tapirs are amphibious, equally as capable of diving and swimming in torrential rivers as of climbing steep and slippery Andean slopes. They can only live in moist, humid ecosystems. But these precious watersheds are jeopardized by human populations which seek to fell or burn the forests and occupy the high, life-giving ecosystems, in what is at best a short-term proposition which leaves a desolate desert in its wake usually within a decade. The harmony of the mountain tapir seen here in the river, attuned to all the elements, free and following its ancient rounds is readily sensed. Seeding many of plants and participating in an elaborate food chain evolved during the entire rise of the Andes above 2,000 meters elevation during the past few million years, the mountain tapir, through give and take, comprises a vital link in the high northern Andean bioregion. This stretches from northern Peru to northern Colombia, perhaps western Venezuela, where the mountain tapir is not presently found, but may have been in former times. A "keystone" species for this region of the globe, its disappearance causes a tragic unravelling of relational threads that are vital to ecosystem health and well-functioning. It is imperative that we act now to save this ancient surviver and contributer to the well-being of life on Earth. Failure to act could result in the species' extinction within a decade.


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-meter-high Sangay Volcano. This Leviathan sprays mud, ash, cinders and oozes molten lava, influencing hundreds of square miles around its cone during its frequent eruptions. Although the periodic ecosystem devastations such eruptions cause seem inimical to life, in fact when viewed over the course of centuries, such violent outpouring of planet Earth's inner elements actually sustains life, serving to renew mineral nutrient cycles which are especially depleted in rainy tropical ecosystems such as those around Sangay. About 9 a.m., December 6th, 1991.


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-meter-high Sangay Volcano, in one of her many moods. Puruhaes believe this volcano to be the abode of a goddess who judges them in the afterlife. Its ascent is considered taboo.

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