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  A High-level Tapir Run-in

An Interview with Carlos Manuel Rodriguez Echandi about his run-in with a tapir in Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez Echandi, former Minister of the Environment, Costa Rica

Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Echandi, the former Costa Rican Minister of Environment and Energy and highly acclaimed conservationist, recently left his post to work for an international NGO.

This past April 2006, just prior to his departure from his government appointment, the Minister was separated from a ranger patrol in Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park and attacked by a tapir. After a harrowing two days wandering injured through the dense forest, he was able to find his way out and was taken by helicopter to a hospital where he was treated for his injuries. IUCN Tapir Specialist Group member Jeff Flocken had the opportunity to interview him about tapirs and biodiversity conservation in Central America.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to ask you these questions Mr. Rodríguez. I’ll start right off with the one that is most important – have you recovered from your ordeal in the Corcovado?
Absolutely, I had a lot of minor cuts, an injured hip and rib, and a couple of dozen ticks on my body. But now I am doing great.

Tapirs, though large wild animals, are generally considered shy and non-threatening to humans. Had you ever heard of any tapir attacks prior to your incident?
I remember as a child my grandfather telling his experiences as a hunter, and telling us his grandchildren how many dogs he lost because tapirs were extremely aggressive when chased by hunting dogs. I also remember some tales of park rangers about tapirs and about them being aggressive when chased or when they are with their young.

What was your previous experience with tapirs?
I’ve seen quite a lot of wild tapirs in different national parks in Costa Rica, because, even though I am a lawyer, I did work a lot in the field as a volunteer and later as the Director of the National Parks System. And yes they are extremely shy. Every time I saw them, it was basically their hind parts as they ran away into the forest. In the last 8 years I have seen a lot of tapirs of the Sirena Biological Station in Corcovado National Park, where Charly Foerster has been working with tapirs for many years. His radio-collared tapirs are very tame and I’ve taken people to visit the area and see the animals -- including a couple of Costa Rican Presidents and my four year old son. And everybody gets very excited by watching this incredible animal.
Map of Corcovado National Park, courtesy of Charles Foerster's tapir project website.

Are there any details or comments you could make on the incident in Corcovado?
Let me tell you my story. I was visiting this Park with a ranger patrol as my last visit to the area as Minister. In this park we had a serious poaching problem and for the last three years I personally got very involved in solving it. With a grant from the Moore Foundation and support by The Nature Conservancy, we hired 68 new rangers and have been able to rid the park of poachers. We decided to patrol a remote area we call the “bajura” (the lowlands) and planned to be in the forest for 4 or 5 days. On our first day we were walking a 14 km-long trail to base camp.

While walking, I decided to move ahead of the rest of the group (around 12 park rangers) because I wanted to see some rare Caracara birds, when all of a sudden I saw a tapir right next to the trail. This tapir had a small calf, probably two months old, which was limping. The calf immediately attracted my attention and I got off the trail to follow both of them into the dense rain forest. The mother tapir noticed me following them and never gave me a clear angle of her baby. I was very interested to see why it was limping, but again and again, the mother tapir never allowed me a clear view. So I decided to run ahead of them and hide behind a tree, waiting to see the calf as it passed by, which was a big mistake!!!!
A Corcovado Baird's tapir mother and her baby, courtesy of Charles Foerster, TSG.

Indeed, they passed by me and I was able to see the calf very well. The baby tapir had deep wounds in its back, probably due to a jaguar attack. At that moment, the mother tapir saw me and immediately charged me. I turned around and ran, but in less than 5 meters she caught up with me. She pushed me to the ground and began biting me. The first bite was on my rubber boot and the next four bites were to my backpack (which saved my life!). All along I was playing dead, like an opossum, until I felt the tapir was trying to bite me in the back of my neck. At that moment, I ran on all four limbs and jumped into a dry rocky creek. I hit many rocks and fallen branches and landed hard on one side of my body. I lost consciousness and when I came to, probably an hour later, I was walking in the forest very confused and in a lot of pain. I remembered everything that happened to me and realized that I was very lucky to have survived, because this animal was furious and her strength was incredible. I never saw her again. No doubt my backpack saved my life.

I tried to return back to the trail but never found it. The rangers never saw anything because they were walking in the trail behind me when I left them, and they continued their journey always thinking that I was ahead of them. After failing to find the trail , I realized that my only option was walking my way through the forest out of the park. So in a nutshell, I walked in extremely dense lowlands tropical forest for three days (around 16 km) until I made it to the coast, where helicopters and many people were looking for me. During those days I didn’t have food, except for some crackers, but otherwise I was very well equipped because my plans were to spend 5 days in the jungle.

Has the attack changed your personal view of tapirs?
Yes. First, I am very lucky to be alive, because I know that had that animal bitten me, I probably wouldn’t have been able to walk out of the park. Second, surviving an experience like this makes me respect nature more and recognize the need to redouble our efforts to conserve and protect it. And finally, I developed a personal and particular interest in tapirs that I never had before.

What an incredible story. With your considerable field and government experience, what do you think are the greatest challenges to the tapir’s survival in Latin America?
The biggest challenge for tapir survival in the Neotropics is the level of poverty in communities in tropical areas, and the lack of political stability in the tapir range countries. This translates into difficult challenges for long term conservation.

On behalf of the IUCN Tapir Specialist Group, thank you for your time and for your willingness to discuss tapirs and conservation in Latin America. I wish you great luck in your new position as a Regional Vice President with Conservation International -- both tapirs and people are lucky to have you fighting for biodiversity conservation.
One final request: now with this personal experience, I want to be included in the Tapir Specialist Group of IUCN!

That should not be a problem. Thank you again.