Patrícia Medici: The tapir might be the cutest mammal you know nothing about The tapir, South America's largest land mammal, plays a key role in maintaining the biodiversity of forests and wetlands. Conservation biologist Patrícia Medici works to protect this elusive species.

The cutest mammal you haven't heard about and how to save it

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

For our last story, we're heading to Brazil and the world's largest tropical wetlands known as the Pantanal.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

PATRICIA MEDICI: Why do I keep coming back to the Pantanal? Wow, this is a wonderful question. First of all, because I love it here. It's a phenomenal place that everybody should get to see at least once in their lifetime.

ZOMORODI: This is Patricia Medici. She's a conservation biologist.

MEDICI: You have to see this place. It's wildlife everywhere. You can probably hear the birds around me, hear hyacinth macaws all over the place, jabiru storks and four species of deer, two species of peccaries. We have puma in this part of the Pantanal.

ZOMORODI: And there's another animal that keeps Patricia coming back to this region. It roams the floodplains at night, covering vast distances, munching on leaves and fruit.

MEDICI: It's a large animal, the largest terrestrial mammal in South America. It can weigh up to 250, 300 kilos. It's half the size of a horse, looks a little bit like a rhino with a proboscis - a bit of a flexible trunk. So they're big. They're big, big, big.

ZOMORODI: This big, brown fuzzy mammal with a short trunk and long forehead is a tapir - specifically, the South American lowland tapir. And if you don't know what a tapir is, you're not alone.

MEDICI: So some people think that they're related to elephants. Some people get confused when they see tapirs. They think they're giant anteaters. Some people think that they're pigs, that they're capybaras. So lots of people still don't know what a tapir is.

ZOMORODI: Even the noises the tapir makes can be mistaken for other animals.

MEDICI: Yes, they have a very large repertoire of vocalizations. But it's funny. I always laugh because if you listen to their vocalizations, they sound almost like a bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPIR VOCALIZING)

MEDICI: So it's little whistles and little clicks...

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPIR CLICKING)

MEDICI: ...That the babies do if they want to make sure that they can locate their mom. It's just weird that such a large animal sounds almost like a little bird. This is tapir paradise. This is tapirs as they should be. The Pantanal is an open lab for us.

ZOMORODI: Patricia has dedicated her life to studying and protecting tapirs. But tapirs can be tricky to track down, and weather can make getting to the Pantanal difficult. So when Patricia had an opportunity to head back into the field recently, she was not available for an interview. But she recorded some audio postcards for us instead because she really, really loves tapirs.

MEDICI: The moment that made me feel like tapirs were amazing was when I found out how important they are for the maintenance of biodiversity. They're herbivores, and 50% of their diet consists of fruit. And they eat the fruit. They swallow the seeds, and they're wide-ranging animals. They move a lot. And when they do that, they defecate, of course, and they disperse those seeds through the habitat. So tapirs are known as the gardeners of the forest, and I think that's just really, really special. That's just incredible that an animal can have that kind of a role in shaping and maintaining diversity.

Tapirs are mostly found in tropical forests such as the Amazon, and they absolutely need large patches of habitat in order to find all the resources they need to reproduce and survive. But their habitat is being destroyed, and they have been hunted out of several parts of their geographic distribution.

ZOMORODI: Here's Patricia Medici on the TED stage.

MEDICI: If you think about it, the extinction of tapirs would seriously affect biodiversity as a whole. I started my tapir work in 1996 - still very young, fresh out of college, and it was a pioneer research and conservation program. At that point, we had nearly zero information about tapirs, mostly because they're so difficult to study. They're nocturnal, solitary, very, very elusive animals. And we got started getting very basic data about these animals. But what is it that a conservationist does?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MEDICI: Well, first, we need data. We need field research. We need those long-term data sets to support conservation action. And I told you tapirs are very hard to study, so we have to rely on indirect methods to study them. We have to capture and anesthetize them so that we can install GPS collars around their necks and follow their movements, which is a technique used by many other conservationists around the world. And then we can gather information about how they use space, how they move through the landscape, what are their priority habitats and so much more. Ultimately, we conservationists - we must be able to apply our data, to apply our accumulated knowledge to support actual conservation action.

Right now, 2015, we expanded our tapir conservation efforts to the Brazilian Cerrado, the open grasslands and shrub forests in the central part of Brazil. Today, this region is the very epicenter of economic development in my country, where natural habitat and wildlife populations are rapidly being eradicated by several different threats, including cattle ranching, large sugar cane and soybean plantations, poaching, roadkill, just to name a few. And somehow, tapirs are still there, which gives me a lot of hope.

But I have to say that when you drive around and you find dead tapirs along the highways and signs of tapirs wandering around in the middle of sugar cane plantations where they shouldn't be, and you talk to kids, and they tell you that they know how tapir meat tastes because their families poach and eat them, it really breaks your heart. The situation in the Cerrado gave me this sense of urgency. I am swimming against the tide - made me realize that despite two decades of hard work trying to save these animals, we still have so much work to do if we are to prevent them from disappearing. We have to find ways to solve all these problems.

What changed between 2015 and now is that instead of putting a lot, a lot, a lot of energy into studying the ecology of tapir in all these different sites, we decided to shift the focus and start applying that information into really, really trying to solve those problems. I talked a lot about tapir roadkill on the highways in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul here in Brazil. And since then, we have been using all the data we collected during the monitoring of the highways to develop roadkill mitigation plans for the most critical highways in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. If we think hunting, which is another threat, we have been focusing on spreading the word about, you know, that hunting is illegal. It's a crime. You can go to jail - and so on and so on for the different threats.

ZOMORODI: But Patricia says she'll never stop studying tapirs. She's still gathering data, still has so many questions about them, which is why she keeps going back into the field.

MEDICI: This is it. This is where we're going to get the data we're still missing. I like to say this is the place where we come to think. You know, we check traps in the morning. We collect samples. We monitor the animals. But we also spend quite a bit of time sitting in our lab, you know, crunching data and thinking and discussing and organizing what we have and what we're still missing. And so this is where we actually - we do good science. This is it. It's here in the Pantanal.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MEDICI: I have a pact with tapirs. I know in my heart that tapir conservation is my cause. This is my passion. I'm not alone. I have this huge network of supporters behind me, and there's no way I'm ever going to stop. I will continue doing this, most probably for the rest of my life. And I'll keep doing this for Patricia, my namesake, one of the first tapirs we captured and monitored in the Atlantic Forest many, many years ago, for Rita and her baby Vincent in the Pantanal.

And I will keep doing this for the hundreds of tapirs I've had the pleasure to meet over the years and the many others I know I will encounter in the future. These animals deserve to be cared for. They need me. They need us. And, you know, we human beings deserve to live in a world where we can get out there and see and benefit from not only tapirs but all the other beautiful species now and in the future. Thank you so much.

(APPLAUSE)

ZOMORODI: That was Patricia Medici. She is a conservation biologist and founder of the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative. You can see her full talk at ted.com. Thank you so much for listening to our episode on Animal Enigmas. This episode was produced by James Delahousseye, Matthew Cloutier, Fiona Geiran, Harsha Nahata and Andrea Gutierrez. It was edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour and me. Our production staff at NPR also includes Rachel Faulkner White, Katie Monteleone and Laine Kaplan-Levinson. Beth Donovan is our executive producer. Our audio engineers were Neil Tevault, Kwesi Lee and Gilly Moon. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Michelle Quint, Alejandra Salazar and Daniella Balarezo. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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