A 15-year study of tapirs in Costa Rica’s CorcovadoNational Park on the OsaPeninsula, once the world’s longest ongoing tapir study, has come to an end.
While the conclusion of the research spells something of a victory for park officials and other conservation groups, it’s not the finale for which the project’s North American researchers had hoped.
In 1994, Charles Foerster, a then-masters degree student with the Regional Wildlife Management Program at the National University (UNA), began a study that involved placing radio transmitting collars around the animals’ necks. Foerster was monitoring migration patterns and ranges of the mammal, but he left the project in 2007 for personal reasons.
Kendra Bauer, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, had been conducting research in the same area and took over the tapir study with the support of the Tapir Specialist Group. While under Bauer’s supervision, park officials and conservation groups began to take aim at her research.
In mid-February of 2009, CorcovadoNational Park officials reported the deaths of several tapirs that were wearing collars. An email sent from Corcovado National Park Director Elícier Arceto Javier Guevara, director of research for the National System of Conservation Areas, who issued the research permits, claimed that six tapirs had died in the park. The e-mail said three of the dead tapirs were wearing collars.
While most researchers agree that the deaths could have been caused by other factors, such as sickness or malnutrition, park officials cite poor management of the study as the main culprit.
“Miss Bauer was never there to monitor the animals,” said Etilma Morales, director of the Osa Conservation Area. “When you put a collar on an animal and aren’t there to watch it, the animal can have a lot of problems.”
Eduardo Carrillo, a biologist at UNA, has conducted collar research in Corcovado on jaguars for nearly 20 years. Carrillo said that collar studies are “extremely useful for revealing all kinds of information about animals.” Migration patterns and herd ranges are among the more important revelations resulting from collar research.
But Carrillo agreed that close monitoring of the animals is essential when using collars.
“It’s not natural for the animals to wear these collars. It annoys them,” he said. “If an animal gets stuck in a tree or outgrows the collar, someone has to be there to assist.” Although Bauer admitted that she wasn’t at the park as often as she would have liked, she said that supervision of the tapirs wasn’t an issue.
“I paid a Tico to watch these animals while I was gone,” she said. “We were in close contact and if something went wrong, I would have known about it right away.”
Bauer said she checked her e-mails daily to see how the study was going. She noted that her assistant in the park was constantly monitoring growing tapirs and exchanging small collars for larger ones. She said she consulted with veterinarians and worked closely with the Tapir Specialist Group to ensure the collars were changed properly.
Morales said that growing tapirs were among park officials’ greatest concerns, since some believed that tight collars could have choked the animals. However, she admitted that she was not aware that Bauer had hired someone to watch the mammals.
Although much of the local criticism has been aimed at Bauer’s end of the study, she did not add collars to any tapirs that hadn’t already been a part of Foerester’s original project.
What was learned?
Most of the migration patterns and range information that the collars were meant to track had already been recorded by Foerster before he left the study, which caused some people to question why the collars were still necessary.
But Bauer said the collars constantly revealed never-before-recorded tapir behavior.
She recalled an instance when she located a group of four tapirs – two juvenile males, a female, and an older male – thanks to the signal of one of the collars. The older male was attempting to mate with the female, but the female – in her mid-20’s – rejected the male’s advances. One of the juveniles chased off the elder male tapir.
“Nobody has ever seen these mating patterns before,” she said. “Tapirs are too skittish of people and, without these collars, I never would have seen it either.”
Bauer’s permits for the study expired on April 30, 2009. She received a letter from the local National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) office stating that she must reapply for permits or return to Costa Rica and remove the collars.
Because of the accusations that the collars might be killing the tapirs and communication problems with the central SINAC office regarding the new permits, Bauer decided it would be best to end the study and continue her Ph.D. work in Texas, where she is studying the endangered burying beetle.
Guevara said SINAC hopes to find someone to take Bauer’s place because “of the great importance of the study.”
But for Bauer, it was all just a little too much.
“It’s sad,” she sighed. “I would have loved to continue the research, but I just couldn’t take all the rumors and political pressure.”