Taronga carnivore keeper Justine normally cares for some of the Zoo’s most dangerous animals, but she has used her Zoo friends Fellowship to trek the jungles of Brazil to help conserve the elusive Lowland Tapir.
For three hours each morning, Justine, along with researchers from the Brazil-wide Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative (LTCI) check the nine box traps in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest that are in place to try and catch wild tapir. Animals caught for the first time are given a general anaesthetic, allowing a full body health check which provides vital data on the individuals but also on this little known species. In some cases, radio trackers are also fitted to assess the range and distribution of the species.
Justine and the team came across two tapirs that had been previously caught. As their data was already recorded they could be quickly released to continue checking the other traps. Then a male tapir was found missing a radio tracker giving researchers the opportunity to fit a new one under anaesthetic.
Between checking traps in the morning, the group use radio transmitters to search out individual animals and record their positions. This information is used to map their home range that can average of five square kilometres. They are also constantly on the lookout for free-roaming tapir which may cross their paths, which if sighted, can be darted and assessed, adding to the information the researchers are compiling.
Afternoons provide an opportunity to collect additional information outside of the normal research zone. Between 4pm and 8pm the group trek through the forest to find new tapirs. A specialised dart allows researchers to extract a tissue sample, providing invaluable information on genetics and family lines in wild animals.
There are nine permanent camera traps outside the boxes to take photographs of animals which may pass by. Apart from Tapir, the LTCI have compiled quite a photo album, featuring Puma, Giant Anteaters and Ocelot among many others.
Justine was also given the opportunity to assist with another Taronga-supported research project while in the field. The Giant Armadillo project, led by Dr Arnaud Desbiez in conjunction with Brazilian scientists and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, aims to establish the first long-term ecological study of Giant Armadillos in the Brazilian Pantanal wetland.
Giant Armadillo have a much larger range compared to the tapir and a male was tracked over 17 km for seven days - their average home range is 15 sq km. The main goal is to investigate the ecology and biology of the species and understand its function in the ecosystem using radio transmitters, camera traps, burrow surveys, resource monitoring, resource mapping and interviews. This information will be the starting point for conservation action.
Justine and the team were lucky enough to locate a small species called the Southern Naked-tailed Armadillo. Only for a brief moment the animal emerged from the depths of its burrow to the delight of researchers, especially Justine.