The Enigmatic Tapir of Costa Rica

Tapir lounging and eating vegetation in a river stream
In the heart of Costa Rica's lush landscape resides Baird's tapir. Locally known as "danta," this is a significant and iconic species of the country. Scientifically recognized as Tapirus bairdii, these elusive creatures symbolize the essence of Costa Rica's unique wildlife.
They are Costa Rica's largest terrestrial mammal, measuring between 29 to 42 inches at the shoulder, and weighing from 500 to 800 pounds. They have off-white markings with dark spots on their cheeks and around their eyes, making them easily distinguishable. Plus, their tough skin and long, bendy nose sets them apart in the animal kingdom.

Behavior and Diet of the Tapir in Costa Rica

Tapirs are primarily nocturnal and solitary, although they occasionally form feeding groups. With an herbivorous diet, they consume fallen fruits, leaves, branches, buds, and aquatic plants. They expertly conceal themselves in the wild by being incredibly cautious and quiet.
They can live alone or in small family groups and share territories. They are excellent climbers and swimmers, navigating through various environments easily. When they sense danger, they hide underwater. They have specific paths they use daily, marked with their scent, and communicate through scent and whistling sounds with each other.

Baird’s Tapir: Reproduction and Survival in the Wild

Female tapirs have a gestation period of about 390 days, giving birth to a single baby. These newborns have an iconic coat of their own: reddish-brown skin with white spots and stripes, offering excellent camouflage from predators. Over five to six months, these markings gradually fade away. The baby remains with its mother for 12 to 18 months, forming a strong bond. Remarkably, healthy female tapirs can reproduce every two years, ensuring the continuity of their species.
Mother tapir and calf rest under the shade of a tree

Conservation Endeavors: Protecting the Tapir

Baird's tapirs, once hunted by jaguars and American crocodiles, now face a new threat—humans. Despite protective laws, they remain vulnerable, as noted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Conservation groups, such as the Tapir Specialist Group, work tirelessly to save this endangered species.

Responsible Encounters: Tapir Spotting in Costa Rica

To catch a glimpse of Baird's tapirs, head to Costa Rica's national parks. The largest population of tapirs is clustered in Corcovado National Park. They can also be found in La Selva, Cerro de la Muerte, Tortuguero National Park, Rincon de la Vieja, and Monteverde Cloud Forest.
A naturalist guide is recommended for truly appreciating Costa Rica's tapirs and contributing to their conservation. These experts provide a safe, educational encounter, emphasizing responsible behavior like maintaining distance and avoiding disturbances. Once widespread, tapirs are now limited to protected areas due to habitat loss and hunting. Tourists, particularly through guided tours, play a crucial role in conservation efforts. By ensuring the well-being and popularity of tapirs and their habitats, visitors contribute significantly to preserving the unique biodiversity of Costa Rica.
Tapir looks for food near the ocean during a low tide in the Osa Peninsula

Fun Facts about Tapirs

  • Named after a naturalist: Baird's tapir was named after American naturalist Spencer Fullerton Baird.
  • Various aliases: Known as danta, macho de monte, Central American tapir, and mountain cow, Baird's tapirs have diverse regional names.
  • Belize's pride: Baird's tapir holds the title of the national animal of Belize.
  • Nature's gardeners: They munch on fruits like mangoes and figs, then roam around. As they move, they scatter seeds, helping new trees sprout and forests thrive.
  • Lengthy journey: Baird's tapirs typically live up to 25 to 30 years in the wild.
  • Nature's palette: Baby tapirs sport reddish-brown coats with white spots for perfect camouflage, which fades away after five to six months.
  • Religious importance: Tapirs are relevant to Costa Rica’s indigenous populations. In the Bribrí and Cabécar cosmologies, one of the main goddesses is called Naimàitami, and she both represents and is the queen of the tapir.

FAQs about the Tapir in Costa Rica

Where can I spot tapirs in Costa Rica?

Tapirs can be spotted in Costa Rica's rainforests, especially in protected areas like Corcovado National Park in the Osa Peninsula or Tortuguero National Park. We recommend going with a knowledgeable tour guide for early morning or late evening hikes to enhance your chances of sighting them.

Are tapirs aggressive towards humans?

Tapirs are generally not aggressive towards humans and are known to be shy and elusive. However, like any wild animal, they can become defensive if they feel threatened or cornered, especially when they are with their babies. It's essential to maintain a safe distance.

Can I feed a tapir in Costa Rica?

No, it's not advisable to feed tapirs. Feeding them can harm their natural behaviors and diet, posing risks to their health and safety.

Can I touch or approach a tapir?

No, it's not safe to touch or approach tapirs. They are wild animals and may react defensively if approached closely.
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