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Tapir Specialist Group History

By Patrícia Medici, Brazil, TSG Chair

In 1980, Dr. Keith Williams from Australia was appointed the founding chairperson of the Tapir Specialist Group following his work with Tapirus indicus in Malaysia in 1975-1976 and continued input to the Red Data Book over subsequent years. The group commenced work with five members from Australia, Indonesia, Costa Rica and the USA. There was nobody doing field research at that time and Williams’ work was the first intensive field study. He was the first researcher to immobilize radio-collar and track tapirs in the wild. A draft Action Plan for all the species of tapirs was developed in 1980-1981 and submitted to the IUCN/SSC. However, it was never developed further as there was little response from the SSC secretariat. Williams began his fieldwork on Tapirus bairdii in Costa Rica in January 1981 and finished in February 1983. By that time the TSG had eight members. Prior to that, Daniel Janzen had done some feeding preference work with a captive tapir in Costa Rica. All other work reported on tapirs had been from incidental observations.

Williams’s research work in Costa Rica, funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society (then Wildlife Conservation, NYZS), was the first extensive study of any tapir species. While he was in Costa Rica, José Fragoso began work on Tapirus bairdii in Belize, and Craig Downer was developing a proposal for studying Tapirus pinchaque in Colombia. Downer undertook at least one initial field survey near Cali, Colombia. A review of the status of tapirs in Indonesia (Sumatra) appeared in 'Tigerpaper' about 1985-1986 written by a team of Indonesians. Other than that some genetic work was being done about 1982 at the San Diego Zoo. Also, Alan Rabinowitz made observations of tapirs along with his work on jaguars in Central America (Belize) in the 1980s.

In September 1990, Sharon Matola took over the Chair from Keith Williams. With funding support from the Wildlife Preservation Trust International, now EcoHealth Alliance, she created the Tapir Conservation newsletter and it was another step toward professional status of the group. The first six issues of the newsletter were published working from a manual typewriter in Sharon’s office at the Belize Zoo. She tried to garner a network of communications, it was slow going, but grew steadily. In 1991, Sharon began submitting regular contributions to Species, the official magazine of the IUCN/SSC. The magazine is a valuable forum for making SSC group known to other members, and Sharon made sure the tapir group was represented regularly. Under her direction, the Tapir Action Plan was written, and was published in 1997. Also in 1997, a new officer was added, when Sharon appointed Sheryl Todd as Deputy Chair and co-editor of the newsletter. Sheryl’s experience with the Internet helped generate a new level of communication, and in 1998, the Tapir Specialist Group grew in size, with members in almost every tapir range country. Communication expanded among tapir researchers, students, and conservationists, and a web site for the group was developed.

By the end of 1999, the conservation struggle in Belize had escalated, claiming Sharon Matola’s time. In February 2000, Sharon stepped down from the position and Patrícia Medici from Brazil agreed to take over as chair.

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