A Mountain Tapir Expedition in the Andes

Well then all of a sudden it was May. What the heck?! But seriously, time is flying. I can’t keep up. Between my awesome trip to Ecuador, a promotion at work, my Happiness Project, and a whole lot of other stuff going on it’s been hard to keep up with the blog. But as ever, I thank you for taking your time to visit here today. I hope I find you happy and sipping on a cup of tea….or bubbly, depending on your time zone. 😉 Random picture of Chalupa looking cute this morning just to say thanks for dropping by today.

I’d like to recap some of the great field work we did down in Ecuador with mountain tapirs last month. If you need to catch up, I work with mountain tapirs, the most endangered species of tapir, at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and was fortunate enough to be sent down to Ecuador to help with a field expedition. Previous posts about this trip are here and here. Our goals were to replace existing radio collars with GPS collars and to collect biological samples.

Mountain tapirs are the only tapir species to live at high elevations and have an extra wooly coat to keep them warm.

That’s Carlotta…my boo. She’s one of only seven mountain tapirs in North America. I love that girl. Anyway, we set out in the field to find wild mountain tapirs. Through the Andean Bear Foundation, Dr. Armando Castellanos connected us with the work he was already doing in and near the Cayambe Coco National Park and organized our expedition. Our Zoo has participated in one previous expedition that Joanna went on and we were continuing the work she had started the year before. We hired well known local trackers that use tracking dogs and their own abilities honed from years of hunting experience to locate wild tapirs. Melchor is the main tracker and he is probably in his 60’s. He and his sons helped us track the tapirs.

Let me just tell ya, this man is the most fit individual I’ve met….ever. He RUNS up and down these challenging, muddy slopes at extremely high altitude all day long in pursuit of wild tapirs. Initially we use radio telemetry to track the radio collars on the animals to find a signal, then his dogs find the scent and he and his sons run with them until they find a tapir.

Then, they called us on a radio and we RAN to meet them as fast as we could. To say this trip was one of the most physically demanding experiences of my life is an understatement.

We sometimes dropped the trackers off at above 15,000 feet and would drive lower to meet them. The terrain was really squishy and muddy and unlike anything I’ve ever seen or felt before. I’m from Colorado where everything is dry as bone. It was unique and beautiful.

On Day 2, the trackers caught our first tapir. She had been captured before and was named Jackie. We wanted to anesthetize her in the field, replace her radio collar with a GPS collar, and take samples. We were lucky enough to be able to complete all our goals and she recovered quickly. The moment when she ran back into the wild after we had worked with her was one of the most memorable of my life. I just remember watching her run back into the forest and sobbing my eyes out on Joanna’s shoulder. (The pictures below show a tapir with a dart in her side. We use a dart gun to administer a needle filled with anesthetization drugs to anesthetize the animal so we can do our work then use reversal drugs to wake them up safely.)

The dogs work so hard to find the tapirs. Without them, none of the work would have been possible. I LOVED these dogs. Like to the point where people probably thought I was weird. It was hard to keep them quiet when we were working on the tapirs though. Little Hector in my lap was my favorite though.

The data from Jackie’s GPS collar uploads every time she comes out into the open from the forest so we were able to see data points almost immediately showing us where she had been. It was incredible to have such exact data so quickly.

We still had more tapirs to catch but I am going to leave it there for now. Enjoy this awkward video of my first wild tapir sighting. Have a good night!

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