Our goal is to bring back the tapir, the largest Neotropical herbivore, into the Iberá Natural Reserve. The long-term goal of this project is to establish at least two self-sustaining populations of tapirs in the Iberá protected area, restoring a key species for the ecosystem and contributing to the recovery of regional diversity.

Current status of the project (updated to February 2019): The first population nucleus in Iberá has been established in Rincón de Socorro Reserve, including two cubs born in the wild. The reintroduced animals were donated by Salta’s Native Wildlife Station, the Horco Molle Reserve of Tucumán and the Mendoza Zoo. In June 2017, a tapir was born in Socorro, becoming the first tapir born in the province after almost 60 years of absence. One year later, in June 2018, a second female gave birth to another cub. In October we were able to confirm the pregnancy of the first of the females to give birth, so we expect a new birth in 2019. A new pair of tapirs has been reintroduced into the reserve, to reinforce this first established population.

The tapir: South America’s largest terrestrial mammal

The tapir or mboreví (Tapirus terrestris) is a perissodactyle (order that also includes horses, zebras, and rhinos) widely distributed in rainforests, dry forests, and wetlands of South America. The tapir is the largest terrestrial herbivore in Argentina. It is a highly adaptable mammal, with wide distribution in South America and native to northern Argentina. This species is listed as endangered in Argentina and became extinct in the province of Corrientes during the twentieth century. According to the IUCN’s Tapir Specialist Group, all four tapir species are ideal candidates for reintroduction or translocation programs. This is based on the tapirs’ high adaptability to changes in diet, habitat, and environmental conditions which give them potential to overcome major challenges that animals face with relocation. They are excellent swimmers and divers, and are also fast on land. Their longevity is around 25 to 30 years. During the day they tend to move within forests, using more open areas, such as scrub or grasslands, then return to rivers and lakes during the night. When days are very hot, they spend long periods of time immersed in water. The tapir prefers regenerating forests over mature ones, probably because of a greater abundance of pioneer vegetation species, which are more palatable and with less defense structures. They also favor palm grove areas.

The Tapir returns to Iberá wetlands

The tapir is internationally considered as a species Vulnerable to extinction with declining population trends (IUCN, 2015). Argentina is the South American country where the species status is more comprommised, listed as Endangered. Over the last 100 years, tapir distribution within the country has been reduced to less than half of its range, with remaining populations that are declining. The main threats identified for the species in Argentina are habitat reduction, fragmentation, and impoverishment as well as hunting. Probably the latter would have been the main cause of its disappearance from Corrientes. Until about 200 years ago, tapirs inhabited ten Argentine provinces: Salta, Jujuy, Tucuman, Formosa, Chaco, Santiago del Estero, Misiones, Corrientes, and Entre Rios. It is currently extinct in Entre Rios, Corrientes, and Tucuman and probably also in Santiago del Estero and Santa Fe.

The tapir inhabited the northern and center portion of Corrientes and possibly also extended to the south of the province. D'Orbigny confirms the presence of the species in Corrientes in 1827 when he points out "the tapir is rare, although it can be found in some marshlands.” It inhabited the area of Puerto Valle, in the northeast Iberá basin and subsisted in the area of Apipé, Yacyretá and Talavera islands until the 1960s, where the last one was recorded to be hunted in 1975.

Tapir reintroduction in Iberá: opportunities and challenges

The tapir is considered a keystone species because of its role in the design or architecture of the natural landscapes and for its important role in the functioning and structure of the ecosystems it inhabits, especially due to its role as a disperser of seeds for herbs, shrubs, and trees.

Due to the species’ use of aquatic and forested habitats, the selected reserves to reestablish the species presence are Rincón del Socorro/Iberá and Cambyretá; both are within the Iberá Park and under the ownership and management of CLT. The threats that caused the species to disappear from large areas in the past, such as poaching and habitat destruction due to farming, are not a concern within these reserves. Only some tourism activities are allowed in some sectors of these reserves. The habitat within these protected areas, especially the forest, has experienced remarkable recovery since the cattle were removed and the frequent burning for agricultural purposes discontinued.

As previously mentioned, the first release site chosen is the CLT´s private reserve Rincon del Socorro. This reserve safeguards the largest proportion of forest under strict conservation category within Iberá Provincial Reserve. It contains an area of roughly 10,000 hectares including patches of hygrophilous forests, Prosopis forests, Butia paraguayensis savannas, marshes, and flooded grasslands, constituting the most propitious habitat for tapirs´ release. The remaining 30,000 hectares are a more homogeneous sample of swamps and flooded grasslands. This private reserve borders the large Iberá Provincial Park, also under strict conservation protection. Tapirs are expected to use forest for shelter and food, and marshes and flooded grasslands as feeding sites (especially on the periphery of forests). We estimate that this mosaic of habitats could hold a minimum of 50 animals, with potential to spread to other adjacent areas of the Iberá Provincial Reserve.

The reintroduction of tapirs into Iberá brings the opportunity to continue providing long-term benefits to the local economy, strengthening ecotourism activities related to wildlife observation, which are already been carried out in the region.